From used jock straps to Burrow's megadeal: How the once-cheap Bengals have leveled up

CINCINNATI — The jock straps said it all.

When former All-Pro linebacker Takeo Spikes arrived in the league as a rookie in 1998, he noticed something about the protective equipment offered by the Cincinnati Bengals.

At the time, the franchise was near the end of a dreadful decade that produced the worst winning percentage in the NFL (.395). And to acquire gear, getting new items meant turning in the old ones.

But when it came to jockstraps, the replacements weren’t guaranteed to be new.

“[There] would be times they would give out used ones and scratch out the number that was on it,” Spikes told ESPN.

Stories like these led to the reputation of the Bengals being one of the cheapest franchises in the NFL. But with each passing decade, the team has chipped away at that narrative.

The latest move should lop off a large chunk. Last week, the Bengals rewarded franchise quarterback Joe Burrow a record contract — a five-year extension worth $275 million that carries an average annual value of $55 million, the highest ever for an NFL player. The deal features $219 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, breaking the previous franchise record by seven-fold.

The deal is another example of how far the Bengals have come in recent years. Whether spending on the roster, improving facilities for players and fans or enhancing the infrastructure to set players up for success, one thing is clear — the days of used jock straps are a distant memory.

“To be able to see it come full circle, for me, I smile a little bit and just be like, man, they finally turned it around,” Spikes said.

TEAM PRESIDENT MIKE Brown has been the top executive since his father and franchise founder, Paul Brown, died in 1991. Over the next two decades, the team never won a playoff game and questions were asked about how much Brown was willing to invest financially. In 2005, Forbes ranked the Bengals as the 23rd most valuable NFL franchise. Cincinnati has since dropped to last in the most recent Forbes’ ranking.

The skepticism surrounding Brown was supported by anecdotes by former players, and the examples included more than just used jock straps.

Spikes, who was with the Bengals from 1998 to 2002, remembers that in his early days, the team didn’t supply breakfast. On some Fridays, he and former teammate Brian Simmons were responsible for making trips to Frisch’s Big Boy, a local fast-food diner, to get milk and donuts.

Not picking them up meant angry teammates and silent treatment that lasted days. One morning, Spikes was running late and didn’t have time to swing by Frisch’s. He was prepared for the consequences.

“I was prepared to get ready to throw blows,” Spikes said. “If you don’t like it, we’re just going to f—ing fight. But I don’t have time to get it.”

Former Bengals tight end Tony McGee recalls that the towels the team provided for the offensive linemen weren’t big enough to cover the players. So players purchased wraparound towels.

McGee, who played for the Bengals from 1993 to 2001 and ranks 13th in all-time franchise receiving yards, said how teams distribute and treat equipment can serve as a litmus test for what to expect when a player joins a franchise.

“Go into the equipment room and see how they treat you the first day when you walk in there,” McGee said. “And that kind of gives you, that’s your first [impression].”

Then there was a matter of the facilities. Before Paul Brown Stadium (now called Paycor Stadium) opened in 2000, the team was headquartered west of Cincinnati and practiced at Spinney Field, infamous for a stench that came from the industrial plants in the nearby district of Lower Price Hill.

But over time, the Bengals began to transform. Spikes, who now works for ESPN’s SEC Network as an analyst, pointed to Marvin Lewis being hired as head coach in 2003 as a turning point. Lewis led the Bengals to seven playoff appearances during a 16-year tenure that ended in 2018.

I truly believe he was the first one that really started the culture change there and had guys really looking to want to be a part of the Bengals franchise,” Spikes said. “Because they knew that not only could they compete, but they knew that they could win.”

That feeling has increased over the past two years. The Bengals gained national prominence with their Super Bowl appearance at the end of the 2021 season and last year’s trip to the AFC title game, where Cincinnati lost in a rematch to the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I’m just happy to see them evolve and [I’m] proud,” McGee said. “You can stick your chest out a lot more, put your Bengals gear on now because of the product they’re putting on the field.”

ANOTHER TURNING POINT came at the start of free agency in 2020.

At the time, the Bengals had been hesitant to commit significant money to external free agents, instead opting to spend on their own players. Defensive tackle DJ Reader knew this when he hit the market that March after four seasons with the Houston Texans.

At the time, there were three main suitors — the Bengals, the Buffalo Bills and the Denver Broncos. His agent, Joby Branion, had previous clients who signed with the Bengals. He knew players typically played out their entire contracts with Cincinnati — a detail that is important for those looking for long-term job stability and for players hoping to bank all the money on their deal.

Reader had been teammates with former Bengals defensive back Jonathan Joseph during his time with the Texans. Joseph vouched for the team and the Brown family as Reader mulled his options.

There was also the money. The Bengals gave Reader a four-year contract worth $53 million, the highest amount the team had ever given to an external free agent at the time. Reader said their offer was $3 million better than the next team, and he signed with Cincinnati.

“That’s $3 million,” Reader said. “That money’s real. Like, you know what I’m saying? People act like, like, ‘Yo, you could take less.’ Like, yeah. Imagine you saying no to three extra million dollars. Like, [that] seems insane, right?”

Since drafting Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020, the Bengals have been less reluctant about paying a premium for quality players. When offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr. became available during free agency this offseason, the Bengals immediately began their pursuit.

Last year, Brown ranked 18th in pass block win rate, which is significantly higher than any Bengal has ranked since ESPN and NFL Next Gen Stats debuted the metric in 2019. One team source said the Bengals didn’t hesitate to pay the asking price to sign Brown, who eventually inked a four-year deal worth $64 million, with $31.1 million guaranteed.

The financial terms also indicated something more important to Brown.

“As a free agent, that’s what you’re really looking for — to be valued and to have that opportunity to go somewhere where it doesn’t always necessarily have to be the best deal, but the best opportunity, the right situation, and they appreciate and value you,” Brown said.

EVEN AFTER THE Bengals went from the NFL’s worst team in 2019 to a Super Bowl contender in the span of just three seasons, other aspects of the franchise were lacking.

Media and players were among those who noted the lack of an indoor practice facility. The issue was thrust into the spotlight the week before Super Bowl LVI, when wintry weather made it difficult to practice outdoors. To prepare for the team’s first trip to the big game in 31 years, the Bengals bused to the University of Cincinnati’s campus to use their indoor practice bubble.

A few months later, the Bengals gained city approval to build a temporary practice bubble of their own — an item a player from that team said was the resource the team lacked the most.

The upgrades have continued.

When coach Zac Taylor arrived in 2019, the Bengals did not offer dry needling to their players. The treatment is common around the NFL to help with issues such as blood flow and pain reduction. The practice is now available to Cincinnati’s players.

Cincinnati took advantage of available taxpayers funds and spent $4 million to upgrade the team’s training room. The Bengals also increased the number of cold tubs after players said there weren’t enough in a survey released by the NFLPA earlier this year.

“Now we’re up to date on everything,” one current player told ESPN about training and treatment.

While the team has gotten up to speed on some key factors for its players, other auxiliary resources are still lacking. The NFLPA survey cited the lack of a family room — something the majority of teams have — which left partners of players to nurse babies in public bathrooms.

The Bengals are also the only team not to offer nutritional supplements to players, according to the NFLPA’s survey. Ariah Fish, a performance dietitian at EXOS, one of the leading training facilities in the country, said a player could spend around $3,000 annually for supplements if they buy them on their own. While the cost could extend into six figures for an entire roster, that also pays for a peace of mind keeping players from unintentionally taking a banned substance, Fish said.

Fish said one of the primary aspects of her role at EXOS is to make sure any substances taken by a player are tested by a third party to make sure they are not banned by sports leagues and are also consistent with its labeling.

“Supplements are not regulated by the FDA [Federal Drug Administration], which essentially means that any company can put whatever they want in a product,” Fish said.

AT THE TEAM’S annual media luncheon, Brown was asked about the perception Cincinnati doesn’t spend enough on its franchise. The 88-year-old answered by saying the Bengals spend as much as the league allows.

“It is hard to see why people would argue that we aren’t paying enough,” Brown said in late July.

Cincinnati’s construction of the indoor practice bubble, with hopes of building a permanent indoor facility, is a sign the team is interested in spending on upgrades in addition to the amount invested into the roster.

At an offseason event unveiling upgrades inside Paycor Stadium, team executive Caroline Blackburn said Bengals ownership spent roughly $20 million of their own money to provide enhancements inside the stadium. That investment comes at a time when the front office has made it a point to enhance the fan experience, strengthening relationships with former players and creating a more positive image for the franchise.

Taylor, who is entering his fifth season as Cincinnati’s head coach, has privately and publicly said he has been given strong support from the front office since he arrived in 2019.

“That’s all I’ve ever known — just collaboration amongst ownership, front office, coaching staff. It’s just been tremendous,” Taylor said at the team’s annual media luncheon in July. “It’s all you can ask for in this league.”

Burrow has played a major role in that turnaround. Before Cincinnati drafted him, former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer made headlines when he wondered if the organization was invested enough in pursuing a Super Bowl. Palmer, a two-time Pro Bowler when he was with the Bengals, eventually asked for a trade after gripes that the franchise didn’t spend enough to win at the highest level.

But Burrow’s pre-draft meeting with the Bengals in 2020 gave him confidence in his future. It was only a 17-minute meeting. But once Taylor laid out the plan for what the Bengals could become and after positive interactions with the Brown family, he was sold.

“The vision was very clear,” Burrow said. “After that meeting, you know, I was bought in. I was ready to be the best me I could be for them. I’m going to continue to do that.”

The team once known for not spending enough now has the distinction of giving one of its players a record-setting contract in pursuit of attaining a Super Bowl.

And that’s priceless.

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