Popo: Draft, develop & retain works for Bengals

Posted at 7:48 AM, Oct 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-18 07:48:34-04

BUFFALO, NY -- It started in the second week of the NFL season. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh told reporters that the Bengals personnel was among the best in the league -- pre-game flattery, we thought.

Rex Ryan was quoted as saying pretty much the same thing this week. (OK, maybe he was just trying to butter up the Bengals as well.)

But let's be clear: Neither guy blows smoke for the sake of blowing smoke.

You also hear it most every day in most every NFL forum. The Bengals are gifted in many areas, not just with their starters, but with the guys who back them up.

How did it happen that such talent just miraculously appeared in Cincinnati, and better yet, how it stuck around? It must be pure luck -- or perhaps the rotation of the earth as another goofy scientist might point out this week.

Is it possible that the Bengals have learned the game and perhaps even developed their own model for how it should be done?

If these were the Ravens or the Packers or the Broncos, the national media would slobber all over Ozzie Newsome, Ted Thompson and John Elway. They have no idea who gets the slobber in Cincinnati.

I know many people still look at this organization and can only see the dysfunction of the 90s. David Klingler and Akili Smith...need I say more?

Bad drafts and bad luck helped earned a bad reputation. For every great pick like Willie Anderson and Corey Dillon, there was a notable whiff like Dan Wilkinson and Reinard Wilson.

Those days are long gone. Every Bengals draft since 2009 has reaped positive results. That's six drafts in a row that worked while the 2015 draft is still to be determined. But, it too, looks promising.

So what changed? A lot of things, but most of all the culture, the system and the follow-through.

Certainly the decision-making is at the top of the list. The drafted players have become the roster players. From my count, 38 of the 53 current roster players were drafted and developed by the organization.

Players have been scouted and identified for the way the Bengals do things. Some have been easy to spot. I could have picked an A.J. Green, but that's not where the real detective work is done.

Look into the depth of the draft: Marvin Jones was the eighth player picked by the Bengals in 2012, George Iloka the ninth. Geno Atkins might be seen as no-brainer today, so why were 119 players picked in front of him in 2010?

And they've found guys that fit. Nobody touched Rex Burkhead for the first five rounds of  2012. The Bengals found a use for him.  They found a field-flipping punter in Kevin Huber in round five in 2009.

Keep looking deeper to fill in the gaps. Somebody wrote on their notepads that Wallace Gilberry, Ryan Hewitt, Vinny Rey and Emmanuel Lamur could play. And the superbly talented Adam Jones could behave.

Drafting and signing isn't good enough. Players have to be developed and then once developed, they have to be retained.

There were times that players couldn't run faster away from this organization. Alfred Williams Corey Dillon, Takeo Spikes, Justin Smith, Carson Palmer and Johnathan Joseph couldn't wait to get out of town for a variety of reasons.

That isn't happening now. The biggest stars are getting signed up for the long term. Even those who leave like Michael Johnson find out that this isn't such a bad place after all, and come back.

The funny thing about the renaissance, I think, is that it's hard to nail down who's responsible for this systemic turnaround. My belief is that it started with Marvin Lewis, but it's been a collaborative effort ever since.

Duke Tobin is the "player personnel guy" who nobody knows. He gets a short line of credit in the Bengals media book. But Marvin has brought up his name as a guy who has credibility within the organization. His team of scouts are often the first eyes on the players we see today.

Lewis has assembled a coaching staff that embraces continuity. Offensive line coach Paul Alexander is in his 21st season, Jay and Jonathan Hayes have been around for a dozen years, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther for eleven. Special teams coach Darrin Simmons and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese have been with Marvin from the start.

Don't discount what the front office has done. The same people who flew the "Step Down Mike Brown" signs have to give him and his daughter Katie Blackburn credit for signing the players the Bengals need most.

I know, I know -- Win a playoff game and show us something.

My point is that Cincinnati fans should appreciate a system that has allowed them to cheer for a contender for an extended period of time. If you think that's not a big deal, check out Cleveland, Jacksonville, Miami, Oakland, Minnesota, Chicago, Detroit and a host of other cities. They'll tell you: It's not that easy.

The Bengals were once the laughingstock of the NFL; they took a beating and they deserved it.

But they've turned it around and kept it turned around, and I think they deserve credit for that too.