Five years after being selected by the Cincinnati Bengals No. 13 overall during the 1998 NFL draft, Takeo Spikes was eager to enter free agency. More accurately stated, he was eager to get the hell out of Cincinnati. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, hired soon after the embarrassingly epic 2002 season concluded, wanted Spikes back. Several times Lewis reached out to Spikes, hoping to convince the linebacker to accept a contract extension. It was a challenge for Lewis, who wanted to retain the team's leaders. Unfortunately Spikes rebuked, adding that he's exhausted of losing after the Bengals went 19-61 during his tenure.
Unable to reach an agreement, the Bengals placed the Transition Tag on Spikes. Unlike the franchise tag, which at the time guaranteed players the average top-five salaries at that players position, the transition tag averaged the top-ten salaries. For Spikes, the transition tag came with a $4.846 million paycheck -- and not all of it was guaranteed. If a new team signed Spikes to an offer sheet, the Bengals wouldn't receive compensation if they choose not to match it.
Lewis, who wanted Spikes to remain in Cincinnati, was realistic about the prospects of keeping Spikes.
"He's going to have an opportunity to be a Bengal," Lewis said Monday when asked if Spikes would be designated. "At some point, we're going to have to, as they say, fish or cut bait - both of us, one way or another. I think everything will work out there fine."
"I don't have to persuade him. I can just say it," Lewis said at the time. "It's a very difficult job to be a professional football player. It's a privilege. I'm going to ask a lot of things of him. I don't need to talk him into it."
Spikes, desperately wanting out of Cincinnati, was angry.
"I don't want a tag on me," Spikes said at the time. "I feel like my time is done. I did all I can do. I did all that I owed not only to them, but to myself. I just want to win. I just want to compete. That's my whole objective. I don't look at the time I spent in Cincinnati as wasted time. I just want to go somewhere to compete and win."
"It's like being in jail," added Spikes. "Now I've got to go and find somebody to bail me out. I don't like it and they know I don't like it."
The Buffalo Bills, looking to rebound a poor defensive unit, signed Spikes to an offer sheet worth $32 million over six years with a $9 million signing bonus.
The Bengals elected not to match the offer within the seven-day deadline.
''I wish him well with his career in Buffalo,'' Lewis said. ''Today is the beginning of a new day in the Bengal organization, and in the shaping of the football team under my direction."
Now comes the irony.
During Spikes' four seasons in Buffalo, the Bills went 27-37 without making the postseason. He's moved on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles ('07), San Francisco 49ers ('08-'10) and the San Diego Chargers ('11-'12), never qualifying for the playoffs once. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Spikes' 219 regular-season games played are the most in NFL history without ever making the postseason.
San Diego released Spikes in March to save $3 million.
Since Spikes left Cincinnati, the Bengals went five seasons before their next losing season, and have since qualified for the postseason four times.
Time has softened a relationship between Spikes and Lewis that didn't "get off on the right foot."
"We kind of run into each other at different functions and stuff and we always talk," Spikes told reporters during a conference call before the Bengals and Chargers game in 2012. "We always have the talks ‘what-if?’ The 'if' talks are always good, now. They’re always good. I’ve never had an 'if' talk that was bad."
Though it's unlikely (at best), one has to wonder if this story will come full circle. Doubt it. Still a fun what-if.