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How could AJ McCarron’s ruling impact free agency for the Bengals?

Quarterback AJ McCarron won his grievance against the Bengals, allowing him to become a free agent this March. Could the Bengals be presented with another image problem?

Cincinnati Bengals Minicamp Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I have a rule: Never pose a question in the headline. Why ask a question to a reader who, like me, has no answers to a hypothetical scenario that’s months away from even being answered? Yet, I did it. It’s there. Clear as day. Why break that rule now?

According to multiple reports, quarterback AJ McCarron will become an unrestricted free agent when the new league year begins on March 14. How does this impact the Bengals? How does this impact the NFL? Will other players in similar circumstances say, “hey, wait a minute!”

The difference between restricted free agent and unrestricted agent is astronomical, possibly amounting to tens of millions of dollars. In order to become an unrestricted free agent, players are required to earn four accrued seasons.

McCarron, who has been in the NFL for four seasons but has only accrued three, was scheduled to become a restricted free agent. For Cincinnati, a first-round tender and a few million bucks would ensure their backup solution was settled for another year.

For McCarron, that’s money lost.

Justifiably, McCarron filed a grievance, arguing that the Bengals improperly placed him on NFI when he suffered a shoulder injury outside of team activities during his rookie year. An arbitrator agreed with McCarron on Thursday.

While the Bengals need to replace McCarron, who could make serious bank next month, the Bengals face another possible image problem.

“We need to be better at what we do,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said in January. “We’re going to have changes in our staff. We’re going to have to gain some better players. We’re going to have to augment some of what we do. We’re going to have to do a better job of adding some guys from other clubs.”

There’s a belief that Cincinnati will be active participants in free agency this March. I know, I know. We’ll believe it when we see it. Even if the Bengals sign free agents, we’re talking about second-tier players on the level of Brandon LaFell, Brandon Tate (lol), or Kevin Minter; guys that would still have to compete for a starting job. They’re not sexy, but often fill a supplemental role.

Even if there’s a pinch of hope from within your optimistic hearts that Cincinnati could replicate the Eagles approach by building a Super Bowl team with great free agency decisions, Thursday’s ruling might temper those expectations.

We should point out that we haven’t heard the arbiter’s reasoning, or thought-process. What evidence was presented? What convincing arguments were used? Will we ever find out? Without that information, it’s difficult to ascertain how this impacts potential free agents. Could it be leaked that Cincinnati was intentionally malicious?

Did they genuinely, and rightly, address McCarron’s classification properly? If we’re going off belief, then, based on the information we have, I’m not sure if Cincinnati did anything wrong.

However, There could be an external perception that Cincinnati tried screwing McCarron out of tens of millions, taking advantage of his shoulder injury by extending their control over him.

Look at it this way: If a potential free agent with identical offers from 3-4 teams sees this, or hears additional information that’s not public, how would they react? Might they think, OK, I know this now. Let me see what the other teams have. And if not that, could we be looking at more medical incompetence?

Since many of us view players as chess pieces, consider this: If you, my beautiful reader, job offers from 3-4 companies on the table, and you learn that one company tried squeezing an employee out of an opportunity to earn (intentionally or not), you might slowly step away from that minefield.

Now let’s be fair... Did Cincinnati plan on delaying McCarron’s opportunity to become an unrestricted free agent? We don’t believe that. In fact, I don’t believe the Bengals have that level of foresight, or that capable of pulling it off.

Did Cincinnati’s front office concoct a plan in November 2014 to ensure they’ll have McCarron on a leash as a restricted free agent? C’mon. Then again, they masterfully developed a stadium lease that’s one of the most team-friendly.

But a perception definitely exists; their image has sucked since the 90s, but at least it steadily improved. And yet, what are the arguments that Cincinnati could convince a free agent, who has other options, to sign?

  1. Cincinnati is, at best, a .500 team.
  2. No postseason success under this administration to boast about.
  3. They are perceived as cheap (just ask Johnathon Joseph’s view on gatorades).
  4. While Cincinnati is a beautiful city, especially to raise a family, it isn’t Miami, Los Angeles, New York, or even Dallas.

Could potential free agents think, “if they did this to AJ McCarron, could they do something to me?” Maybe they limit the playing time to reduce someone’s chances for incentives. We don’t believe that would happen, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all about perception and Cincinnati is already a difficult sell for potential free agents who have options.