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The mom-and-pop Bengals need to get serious about Joe Burrow’s future

Joe Burrow didn't make it to a second straight Super Bowl, but he proved his value to Cincinnati. (Reed Hoffmann/AP)
7 min

Joe Burrow did it again.

He backed up an MVP-worthy campaign in 2021 — his first full season in the NFL — with another one in 2022. We’ll never know if overtime in Kansas City on Sunday night would have resulted in Burrow’s Bengals going back to the Super Bowl, but what is quantifiable is the seismic shift in value of virtually everything about Mike Brown’s long-dormant franchise since the quarterback was selected first overall three years ago.

Burrow has delivered in every possible way. Arguably no quarterback has been better the past two seasons, with his flair for fourth-quarter dramatics and his moxie and cockiness becoming hallmarks of the team. Once an afterthought, the Bengals are now in the spotlight — and hardly just on game day. Burrow has had an impact on ticket sales and prime-time games, soaring fan interest and a booming merchandise business. The Bengals, irrelevant for so long, have joined the round-the-clock, year-long pro football conversations on cable networks, websites and social media. Heck, Burrow is the reason the Bengals finally sold the naming rights to the stadium that forever bore the name of Brown’s father, Paul, a legend in the game.

It isn’t the house that Burrow built, but it damn sure is the neighborhood that Burrow gentrified. And everyone in the league knows it.

That raises the questions long hanging on the lips of owners, team presidents and general managers: How much is Brown willing to pay the 26-year-old, and how much of the contract will be guaranteed? Burrow’s third NFL season is now complete, and he, like the rest of his 2020 draft class, is eligible for a contract extension. No player’s pursuit of that prize will be chronicled more closely than Burrow’s, and it comes on the heels of the five-year, fully guaranteed, $230 million deal the Cleveland Browns bestowed upon disgraced quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has never come close to Burrow-esque heights.

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Opinions around the league remain somewhat divided about how far the notoriously frugal owner will be willing to go. He has long been an iconoclast who often votes against the herd at league meetings and has, in many ways, run his franchise like a mom-and-pop storefront, even as the business of football became a $20-billion-per-year enterprise. But count me among those who believe Brown will find a way to get this done despite the league’s bizarre contract funding stipulations, which require teams to put future years’ guaranteed money into an escrow account ahead of time (as if the billions they bring in annually from their broadcast partners alone wouldn’t be enough to make payroll).

Brown has to make this right with Burrow ASAP, then worry about what that means for the future of wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and the rest of his star-studded roster later.

“He has to do this,” agreed one general manager, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he’s not permitted to comment on players under contract to other teams. “I think he gets it done. This didn’t sneak up on him. He sold the [stadium] naming rights. I have to think he’s been putting away $40 million, $50 million a year for a few years now, knowing he’ll have to cut a huge check. Nobody talks about it, but he has one of the best leases in the league. It’s going to be a record-setting contract, but I think he’s prepared to do what he has to do.”

Perhaps the sides will come to a shorter-term arrangement that would cut down on the escrow payment. What about $165 million for three years, fully guaranteed, with the right to retain the franchise tag in the future and with voidable years to lessen the salary cap drain? Maybe a four-year structure?

“If that’s the cost, [Brown] will want to tie him up for six or seven years,” predicted another GM, who spoke under the same restrictions. “The team will try to do something like the [Patrick] Mahomes structure” — a 10-year deal that was exceedingly cheap over the first three years — “but that won’t fly here. Burrow’s going to want to beat Watson. Is there a deal to be made somewhere in the middle there? You’d better find a way to do it.”

It says here they will. No one could be more aware of just how much more valuable Joe Burrow made this family business than Mike Brown himself. It’s time to share the wealth.

Succession plans in New England and Dallas?

It’s rare that NFL teams set up succession plans, but by golly if that’s not how league insiders are interpreting recent coaching machinations by the Patriots and Cowboys.

Bill Belichick’s master plan, as whispered to me by many of his coaching brethren over the years, was to eventually move into a football czar-type role — much like his old boss Bill Parcells did in his later years — and hand the keys to his son Steve, who has been helping coach the defense for years. However, such a move obviously would require ownership’s approval, and many doubted whether Jonathan Kraft, the heir to father Robert’s fortunes, would go along with that plan. And the team’s recent announcement of its intent to sign beloved assistant coach Jerod Mayo, who had a distinguished playing career with New England, to a long-term extension was a pretty strong tell.

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Mayo has been a hot head coaching candidate in the past, and Belichick is known to go to the wall for those he really wants to keep. For the Patriots even to announce their intent to do anything was so out of character that it set off alarms around the league.

“Mayo is the next man up there,” one longtime personnel executive predicted. “That’s the guy.”

Mike McCarthy kept his job with Dallas, but the enduring sentiment of the Cowboys’ early offseason was clear: Above anything else, Jerry Jones did not want to lose defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Why? That’s his head coach in waiting. And Quinn’s odds of landing a head coaching job were excellent. And now with McCarthy back to calling plays — never mind his reinvention media tour after being fired by Green Bay, in which eschewing play-calling to better manage the game itself was talking point No. 1 — his seat could not be any hotter entering next season.

A slow start and a team in need of a jolt? The interim coach is already running the defense.

“Dan Quinn is the next coach of the Cowboys,” one GM said, “whether it’s in November or next year.”

Notes from around the league

I found it interesting that Pittsburgh Steelers ownership didn’t go all-in to the media about a contract extension for Mike Tomlin last week. With Sean McVay quite likely in his final year with the Rams and that aggressive front office clearly willing to part with picks, could Los Angeles make a move to try to acquire Tomlin, who is signed through 2024, a year from now? Crazier things have happened. …

The Houston Texans are known to botch things, but they would have to really screw up not to cement San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans as their next coach. …

At the start of the week, it still appeared more likely than not — as it virtually always has — that Sean Payton’s next coaching job will arrive in 2024. Of course there’s a chance a team makes a late offer that can’t be refused, but none of these openings was ever a great match for Payton.