The abruptness and finality of any NFL playoff loss are inclined to scrape uncooked the feelings of the boys who sink every little thing they’ve and all that they’re right into a chase for glory.
Add that the Bengals have been eight seconds away from extending their pursuit Sunday evening at Arrowhead Stadium, then instantly realized they have been greater than eight months away from merely returning to the beginning line to start anew, and the devastation contained in the guests locker room was understandably weighty.
Yet in a single nook of the cramped room, it hit even heavier. Bengals security Jessie Bates wasn’t merely wrestling the sudden cessation of a profitable season. He was processing the conclusion that his profession, his life even, would by no means really feel the identical as soon as he lined the 30 paces to the door exiting into a chilly, concrete tunnel main out of the stadium.
“Obviously it’s emotional,” Bates mentioned earlier than confirming the tears in his eyes have been a product of each the ramifications of the loss and spending three hours in subfreezing, windy situations.
“I’ve been able to build really close bonds in the locker room, in the training room, everywhere in Cincinnati,” Bates mentioned. “With some reporters. Everybody. Any time something like that comes to an end, it hits a little different.”
The finish of Bates’ time in Cincinnati isn’t as official because the epitaph of the Bengals’ season after a 23-20 loss to the Chiefs in AFC Championship Game.
But in Bates’ thoughts, it’s. And it stings.
The Bengals made him a second-round choose lower than 5 years in the past, immediately inserted him as a starter and recognized him as a core piece of the franchise’s future. Seven brief months later, when the group skilled its biggest upheaval in almost 20 years with the parting of the way from head coach Marvin Lewis, the earth round Bates’ toes by no means shook.
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Yes, Bates would have a brand new head coach and a 3rd defensive coordinator after his first, Teryl Austin, was fired halfway by his rookie season. But his place coach, Robert Livingston, remained, as did his position as a foundational block.
It wasn’t lengthy after head coach Zac Taylor arrived that the weeding-out course of started, with the brand new regime separating itself from the important thing parts of the Lewis locker room. Not solely was Bates by no means a consideration to be jettisoned, he discovered himself cradling the way forward for the franchise in his care halfway by Taylor’s second season when rookie quarterback Joe Burrow suffered a torn ACL.
The Bengals had gained simply 4 of Taylor’s first 26 video games as coach, and he wanted the blokes he trusted most to carry every little thing collectively.
“Zac specifically grabbed me and (wide receiver Tyler Boyd) and said we need to take control of the team,” Bates mentioned. “Joe got hurt against Washington. The week after, (Taylor) said it’s going to be a tough ride, but you guys are the leaders of the team. And it built a lot of character among the core group that is still here. Mix (Joe Mixon), Sam (Hubbard), TB. It’s cool to see something like that when you are going bad and still have that continuity now.”
That “now” was then. Those Bates feedback have been from final week after the Bengals beat the Bills 27-10 within the divisional spherical to advance to their second consecutive AFC Championship Game and prolong Bates’ fifth franchise-tagged season by at the least one other week.
Prior to kickoff in Buffalo, Bates and Boyd have been the 2 gamers Taylor despatched to midfield for the coin toss as recreation day captains, a short lived title Bates as soon as wore as a everlasting one on his chest. Not solely was he voted a group captain for the primary time in 2021, however his identify was on the lips of seemingly each teammate who stood earlier than a microphone, as “Pay Jessie Bates” turned one of many group’s first rally cries earlier than “Why not us?” “It is us” and “They gotta play us.”
That refrain of unsolicited help as he was making an attempt to barter a contract extension could not have been actively bridging the synapses of Bates’ mind as he spoke about his future Sunday evening and once more Monday afternoon throughout locker cleanout at Paycor Stadium, nevertheless it nonetheless was a driving drive behind the shake in his voice and welling of his eyes.
“I’ve been emotional about it for a long time,” Bates mentioned. “Still numb to it. ‘Gratitude’ is the word that I can really describe about everything that happened here over my past five years. I learned so much about myself, learned so much about the game. I learned so much about Cincinnati. I’m just so thankful for everybody I ran into. Inside this building, outside this building.
“I’ve created some very special relationships that will last me a lifetime,” he continued. “And that’s all you can ask for when you come to an end of something, if you left it better than when you came in. And I think that I played a good part of that. I can’t dwell on anything because I love my teammates. Every year when s— was bad, I love them. S— was good, I love them. Like I said, I’m just thankful.”
The 2021 contract concern affected Bates bodily and mentally, nevertheless it was no coincidence that his play started to enhance across the identical time the Bengals went on their post-bye run to win the AFC North Division, earn the franchise’s first playoff win in 31 seasons and its first postseason street win ever — sparked by a Bates interception on the Titans’ first offensive play.
The run ultimately reached the Super Bowl, the place Bates recorded one other interception earlier than the group fell brief with a late loss that solid the template of feelings that resurfaced Sunday evening.
Coming off the 23-20 Super Bowl loss to the Rams, the contract dance started anew however by no means actually went wherever. And whereas the Bengals did technically reply the calls to pay Bates, the one-year, $12.9 million franchise tag felt extra like a backhanded slap.
He skipped the offseason program and the beginning of coaching camp, however he retained the complete help of his teammates and even the teaching workers, because it allowed Bates to deal with the enterprise facet of issues with none type of stress to return again. Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo even mentioned at one level Bates may present up the day earlier than the season opener and begin the subsequent afternoon.
Bates misplaced his captain’s “C,” however he by no means let go of the position, staying in contact along with his teammates and even reaching out to first-round rookie security Dax Hill, the person drafted to switch him, with a pledge of help and a proposal to assist.
“I think that I showed how to be a leader, how to be the same guy every day, even when s—‘s not going your way,” Bates mentioned. “I could have easily come in here on a franchise tag and been a cancer to this team. We started off 0-2 and could have went to the media (to ask to) get traded. But no, I didn’t. I love my teammates, no matter whether it was going good or bad. I hope they got that from me no matter what, coming here every day, and just work, whether it’s working your way or not. Try to do your best and be here for your team and the ultimate goal of the team, and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Bates ultimately rejoined the group in time to get in a couple of practices for the season opener. His 2022 season performed out equally to 2021, with a slower begin earlier than enjoying a few of his greatest soccer on the largest time because the Bengals ran off 10 straight wins to return inside a couple of seconds of one other Super Bowl look.
Bates made it clear he desires to remain in Cincinnati and attempt to assist the group hoist its first Lombardi trophy, “but that’s not up to me.”
“I was drafted here. I became a man here,” Bates mentioned. “I’d love to be here. Whatever happens at the end of the day, I can say I love my brothers like no other. I played my heart out like no other.”
The “never say never” contingency feels manufactured. The Bengals are going to heap unprecedented money on Burrow this offseason and are watching a number of different powerful selections that come as soon as the face of the franchise strikes off his rookie contract. So the reluctance to pay Bates is extra in regards to the stability sheet than a discrepancy in how the 2 sides view the security’s worth.
The $12.9 million he made this 12 months is life-changing cash. At some level this spring, he ought to signal a fair larger deal that might affect his household for generations. The thought of that ought to be thrilling, and it little doubt would be the day he sits down in one other metropolis carrying completely different colours and smiles as he indicators the contract.
But at this second, along with his muscle groups and reminiscences nonetheless sore from a season that stopped too quickly, his focus is on all the relationships, the tradition and the successes he helped construct and is about to depart behind.
“I was here when it was all the way down to the dirt,” Bates mentioned. “Nobody believed in us. Then being able to be a part of something special like that, you can’t ask for anything better. I gave it my all. I know my teammates gave me their all. It’s just the love that I have for these men in this locker room that makes it so hard.”
(Top picture: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)