I've written for this site for almost six years now, and with the tenure comes the tendency to echo certain sentiments on issues. Around these parts, some of the readers believe I'm the wild west gunslinger of an armchair General Manager, and when you think of me, you may imagine me throwing piles of money at any big name player, should I have the reins of the team.
After all, once the 2013 and 2014 seasons ended prematurely for the Bengals, I expressed my opinion on the Bengals needing to make organizational changes and for the team to show some of the same aggressiveness some recent Super Bowl squads have displayed. While some of the focus in those pieces were on free agency, other facets were also considered.
Recently, my man Connor Howe here at Cincy Jungle echoed my free agency sentiments. Regardless of your stance on free agency, Bengals fans can't deny that 2016 is a pivotal point in the franchise's direction. Marvin Lewis is in the last year of a continuous rental agreement with the Bengals, 13 of their own unrestricted agents have yet to be retained and the group of stars under contract who were once touted as young and emerging, have now entered the respective primes of their careers, so more playoff failures just can't happen for a roster this talented.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what the team needs to be better in the postseason. I mean, 12 regular season wins, even a couple with an inexperienced backup quarterback, and they still can't get a postseason win? The seven January losses in the Marvin Lewis era have showcased the entire gamut of situations. Injuries to star signal-callers, poor preparation and game plans, as well as all-around bad luck have led to the 0-7 record in the playoffs since 2003.
While a coaching change may or may not occur after 2016 with Lewis entering the final year of his contract, the biggest facet for fans to point to for the lack of postseason success isn't going to look different this autumn. But, they're already drafting soundly, so what else is there for Cincinnati to do in an effort to improve enough to get over the postseason hurdle?
One of my main fears about the Bengals is in free agency. I find it laughable that the team is telling the masses they've only slotted $15 million to free agency when they have a total cap space figure of $39 million, but that is a topic all of it's own. Yes, part of the fear is their plan of retaining their own to keep the momentum. While keeping the crew together that has largely been the force behind the 52 regular-season wins over the past five years is a good idea, you're theoretically not any better. It's the same team, with some of the free agents in their primes, while others are on the back nine.
Another part of the fear with free agency and the Bengals this year is the potential of their roster getting fleeced by the departures of many of the 13 guys set to hit the market. Of the main four they likely want to keep (Adan and Marvin Jones, George Iloka and Reggie Nelson), there is a strong possibility that many or all of these guys could leave. Why? Inadequate teams with large salary cap space might be willing to pay more than the Bengals for their services, and the Bengals now have their thumbprint across the league.
Mike Zimmer, the head coach in Minnesota, Jay Gruden, the head coach in Washington, Hue Jackson across the state in Cleveland, and Miami's new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, are all keeping their eyes on Cincinnati's impending free agents. This is the unfortunate price a team pays for being successful.
The biggest root of the fear stems from possible subsequent inaction by the Bengals in free agency should they lose any of these players. The possibility of Andy Dalton losing both Jones and Mohamed Sanu after having such a stellar season with all of his weapons at his disposal seems criminal. Especially if the team would remain inactive and not spend the money they would be using on either/both to help refill the cabinet. Travis Benjamin, Rishard Matthews and Brian Quick could be decent bandaids to cover the wound.
Remember when prized defensive end Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay in 2014 free agency? I'm sure you do, and while it worked out that he returned just a year later, they did a horrible job of replacing him before his return. Dontay Moch, Sam Montgomery and a third round selection in Will Clarke were the defensive end acquisitions that offseason. To wit, they also didn't even come close to spending the money they were reportedly offering Johnson to help other areas of the team. Danieal Manning, R.J. Stanford and Jason Campbell were their big outside free agents in 2014, with Manning and Stanford not even making the final roster. The icing on the cake is the team finishing dead-last in quarterback sacks that year because of their inaction.
Obviously, I'm glossing over one facet to the inactive free agency strategy, which is to rely on the mostly-savvy draft moves they have made recently. The team felt Margus Hunt was up to the task of replacing Johnson, but it didn't work out. If Jones, Nelson and or Iloka leave in the secondary, the Bengals will likely rely more heavily on Darqueze Dennard, Josh Shaw, Derron Smith and Shawn Williams as fallback options. Obviously, the team wants to see if these players prove to be wise selections, but why not breed competition and make sure all the bases are covered by supplementing the team with some decent free agent acquisitions if their stars leave?
Former Bengals defensive lineman and current sports agent, John Thornton, recently proclaimed that other teams "envy" Cincinnati and the way they operate. That might be the case, but the postseason issues keep looming, so something has to change. Look at the Denver Broncos--in the past four years, they've made many splashy free agent moves, coaching changes and drafted well. It has culminated in two Super Bowl appearances in the span, including the win this year. John Elway and Gary Kubiak have publicly stated that owner Pat Bowlen told them he would provide them with all of the money needed to create a championship team. Can the same be said with the Bengals?
Trades, moving up in the draft and other swings-for-the-fences are other areas Cincinnati could explore to bolster their roster. They have made some interesting trades in recent years, and ones that have helped them to a certain extent, but it isn't a current necessity because of what they have built. Now, with a number of starters looking at hitting free agency, it might be something to look at.
While the Bengals have been operating well--particularly in the draft, the offseason is about two things when creating a winner: being actively wise in free agency and supplementing the team in the draft. The former just hasn't been happening and it doesn't seem coincidental the team hasn't been successful in January.