Summer vacation for the Cincinnati Bengals is nearly upon them. Later this week, players and coaches will begin a month away from the facilities to prepare for training camp on their own. The true down period of the offseason is approaching, but the work will persist.
For Zac Taylor, it’s his first offseason after achieving a winning record and the first that hasn’t been consumed with COVID-19 protocols since 2019. For Joe Burrow, it’s his first offseason with in-person work while he’s 100% healthy for it. There’s simply no time to waste now that things are aligning just right, and both alluded to that during their last pressers before the break.
As it stands, Cincinnati has 88 players on their roster. Two openings are not uncommon for a club in June, but Taylor is keeping them in case the usual training camp grind takes a toll.
“I think the reason those spots are open is just you never know what’s gonna pop up out there,” Taylor said. “Whether it’s offensive line, whether it’s defensive line, whether it’s any position, anywhere. Those two aren’t specific—it could be—I just named the first two that came to mind but it can be anything. Don’t read too much into that. I know that’s what people love to do. But as you go into training camp, if you feel like you need another body somewhere, you can grab that, so there hasn’t been a rush to fill all 90 spots. I think that can come in a lot of different ways. And that’s part of the way that we utilize that as training camp comes up.”
The aforementioned return to normalcy for Taylor is very much appreciated by the fourth-year head coach, but there’s an awareness that operations are never going to revert completely back to the pre-Covid era. What’s important is being able to adapt on a moment’s notice, like he’s been doing for the last few years.
“It feels more like the way it should be,” Taylor said of the offseason. “And I think our guys recognize that getting our bodies back right, getting the work done these last seven weeks that we’ve been around, and then continuing that during the season, you know, now we’re in it. I know we’re done here in two days, but we’re not, you know? There’s a lot of work to be done on their own. We got to be able to trust those guys to be able to come back and ready to go. But in a lot of ways, I don’t know if everything’s going to be normal, like it wasn’t 2019 ever again. It’s always going to continue to evolve and the quicker you can adapt to that, the better off you’re going to be.
Still, it’s a luxury to have a mostly healthy roster during the initial phase of practices, and that includes the quarterback. Burrow expected to be right by this time of the year, and his progression has allowed him to keep raising the bar in his coach’s eyes.
“I know that was something he mentioned months ago is looking forward to being healthy for spring and having a real spring,” Taylor said of No. 9. “And I think he just continues to raise the standard of what we expect. He’s certainly a leader of the offense and this team. And he holds himself to a very high standard and expects those around them to raise their standards as well. The quarterback, in my eyes, has always been an extension of the coaching staff. And it’s nice, there’s moments out there where the coaches don’t have to be the ones saying everything. It’s good when the leadership on the team can be the ones to step in, whether it be with a young player, whether it be with another player, a different position, to step in there and help make a correction or help get the drill going along. And we’ll never be complacent that way, but that’s a good sign of the direction of things.”
Burrow spent all of last year leading and playing with a brace over his reconstructed knee. When first asked about the possibility of keeping the brace for the upcoming season, he expressed cautious optimism that he could start playing without it. His latest answer reflects more of the same.
“I feel great and that’s the plan moving forward,” Burrow said of not wearing the brace. “We’ll see come preseason games see how we’re feeling—might put it on, might not, we’ll see. But I plan on practicing without it and seeing how it feels.”
2022 is an important year for Burrow in more ways than one. He’s got his mobility back, a new offensive line to pass behind, and a behemoth of a contract to play for.
If they could, the Bengals would likely offer Burrow a second contract right now. The Athens native led the franchise to its third-ever Super Bowl in just his second season coming off a traumatic injury. The arrow is pointing way up for Burrow, and anyone can put two and two together when it comes to his inevitable extension.
“I mean, the market is just exploding,” Burrow said of recent quarterback contracts. “It’s crazy the the numbers that these guys are putting up, I think it’s well deserved—all those guys are playing at the top of their game, and they’re being paid accordingly. But I’m not I’m not worried about it. I like to make jokes about it, but I really haven’t thought about it much right now.”
Having laser focus is one of Burrow’s many admirable traits, but he said it himself: The contracts quarterbacks get nowadays are staggering, and even for him, it has gotta own some real estate in his mind. Maybe a small studio with a half-bath.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to wrap your head around them. I mean, when it comes, it comes—if it comes—so, we’ll see. I’m excited about this year.”
The guy who is definitely concerned about a contract right now is Jessie Bates III, and Burrow didn’t mince words when asked about his teammate.
“Jessie’s a big part of this team,” Burrow said. “You can put a price tag on what he does on the field, but I don’t think you can on what he does in the locker room. He’s been a guy that has kind of built what we’re doing here. He’s one of the first, and Jessie’s exactly the kind of player that I think you want to reward for the work that he’s done for the last four years through the ups and downs. ... I know that he’s working really hard right now in the weight room, he’s looking great. He’s gonna be ready to go for for whenever he gets here; business is business, he’s got to care what he’s got to take care of, but I know when it’s time to show up he’s gonna be ready to go.”
The leadership Burrow exhibits is well know by now, but Bates is a captain on the other side of the ball. How he interacts with his teammates on defense is critical, and it seems like his personality carries plenty of similarities with Burrow’s.
“He’s one of those guys that I talked about being able to hang out with anybody on the team sit down at a lunch table,” Burrow said. “He’s one of those kind of guys that can have a conversation with anybody on a team and make them feel welcome. And I think those guys are invaluable to an organization and a program that’s trying to achieve what we’re trying to achieve.”
To no one’s surprise, there’s nothing but respect between the players and Bates. Burrow even mentioned he and Bates will be going to Las Vegas together, so that surely won’t be overanalyzed.
To end his presser, Burrow was asked if the conversation surrounding recent mass shootings and gun control has been a topic inside the locker room and if he’s led any of it.
“With everything that’s going on, if you’re not gonna outlaw everything you gotta at least make it harder to get those those crazy guns everybody’s using,” Burrow said. “I don’t think you should be able to just walk in there and buy one, you got to be able to go through a rigorous process to be able to buy something like that, I think. Hopefully, the people that get paid to make those decisions figure that out. My job is to play football, but hopefully the politicians can figure that one out.”
Burrow has not been shy regarding social issues including police brutality and the January 6th insurrection attempt. While these comments are little more than mild takes on a serious issue, they do stand out in an environment where little-to-no substance can be found when these topics are addressed by players.
Not everyone wants to have a public stance, but Burrow has almost always spoke his mind.