Fans of the Cincinnati Bengals were livid last week. Free agency had begun and the Bengals, with the second greatest amount of cap room in the NFL, were sitting idly as teams like Buffalo signed big name free agents like Mario Williams. Meanwhile, the team's own free agents, Frostee Rucker and Jonathan Fanene, were signing lucrative deals elsewhere. Many fans assumed owner Mike Brown was returning to his miserly ways. They were wrong.
Mike Brown and the Cincinnati Bengals have shown a tremendous amount of wisdom and prudence in the free agent market, which will undoubtedly pay off in the long term for the team. Rather than throwing obscene amounts of money at players who may or may not be of help, Brown and the Bengals have taken a more deliberate approach.
The first thing that Bengals' fans need to remember is that Lombardi Trophies aren't won in March and April. Free agent signings are rarely the difference between winning and losing in the NFL. The draft is. That's why Mike Brown's Bengals have more playoff appearances than Daniel Snyder's Washington Redskins.
Every year, Snyder makes big news, opening up his checkbook to bring big names to Washington. To this point, that process hasn't worked too well for him. For over a decade, Snyder has lined up stars like Deion Sanders, Jeff George and Albert Haynesworth to put his team over the top. Meanwhile, the New York Giants who have typically eschewed making a big splash in free agency, have appeared in three Super Bowls since Snyder bought the Redskins, winning two.
The Giants strategy is mirrored by other successful teams: Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England (to a lesser degree) have built their success on great drafting and knowing when to cut loose players whose talents no longer fit their salary structure. Letting Hines Ward go this year wasn't popular in Pittsburgh, but his contract no longer matched his role. Smart move by the Steelers.
The Bengals similarly had to make that call with Rucker and Fanene. Rucker was (according to his agent) the "top priority" for the Cleveland Browns who intend to make him a starter and offered him starter's money. He would have been again part of a rotation on the defensive line in Cincinnati and didn't merit that money. Fanene had a great season last year, but was also part of that rotation. Not only that, he was heading into his eighth season with a history of injury problems. Adding in the investment (Fanene was originally a seventh round pick) and the Bengals were correct to figure he was replaceable.
Meanwhile, the team has stepped up where needed, getting a major upgrade at guard in Travelle Wharton, a solid corner in Jason Allen and re-signed S Reggie Nelson. The Bengals are courting two running backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Michael Bush and will most likely land one of them in addition to another defensive lineman. Re-signing Pat Sims is also a possibility and there are rumors that Adam Jones might rejoin the team.
Mike Brown will likely have plenty of cap space left by the time free agency ends and his 2012 draft picks are signed. Look for him to use some of that money to lock up valued veterans similar to the deals given Leon Hall and Andrew Whitworth before last season.
Using his money wisely to keep the good talent here and invest in areas of need with focused contracts is smart. It's what good franchises do. It's not what Brown has done in the past, where he let players like Justin Smith and Evan Mathis walk while wasting money on Antonio Bryant and Laveranues Coles.
Brown's patience should be applauded by Bengals fans hoping for something different out of the franchise. Fans wanting a quick fix can try another team like the Redskins.
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