Is Bengals’ Release of Iloka a Sign of Things to Come?

A stunning firing of the popular safety could portend an out-of-character focus on younger, untested players.

Hey Bengals Nation! I’m so pleased to be back writing about the Stars in Stripes for another season at Cincinnati Magazine. Hopefully this one turns out a bit better than last year’s 7-9 study in blandness…

Alas, someone who won’t be back in your life, at least in the same capacity as before, is safety George Iloka, stunningly released Sunday after the Bengals won their second straight preseason “game,” this one over Dallas. Let’s dispense quickly with the particulars of the night in Jerry World: The starters looked mostly poor, the depth looked mostly good, but draw conclusions about the regular season from this contest at your peril.

Iloka’s firing is far more interesting—unlike so many other roster decisions, there is a Rashoman-like quality to it. The Boise State grad and six-year veteran is a popular figure in the locker room and among the fanbase, thanks to a winning personality and an honest approach with the media. He was also a mid-round draft pick who became a valued starter, and the public will always root hard for a guy like that.

Iloka made 83 starts for the team in his career, including every game over the last five seasons (save a four-game stretch missed with injury in 2015), and led the team in snaps played on defense a year ago with 989. He was third on the team with 79 tackles. That doesn’t fit the usual profile of a player who gets cut three weeks before the opening kickoff of a new season.

So why is he now looking for work? There are a multitude of reasons, all of them valid. Let’s take them one at a time:

He made too much money
Relatively speaking, of course, and in contrast to his on-field production. Iloka was due $5.6 million this season with a cap hit of $6.2 million. The release saves Cincinnati just over $4 million and close to $18 million over the length of his second contract (signed in 2016), which presumably will be applied to looming extensions for the likes of defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. The team will tell you that’s the overriding reason for cutting Iloka, and it certainly that makes sense. Iloka himself reportedly told reporters the move was purely a financial decision as, in the end, so many roster moves are. There was no attempt at renegotiation, either—it was simply “goodbye and good luck.”

He wasn’t good enough

Again, for the salary he made. The Bengals went hard at veteran Kurt Coleman in the offseason (he decided to sign in the Big Easy instead) and flirted with Eric Reid as well (more on Reid in a second). Then they drafted Jessie Bates from Wake Forest in the second round (him too). The handwriting was certainly on the wall, in bold capital letters. Marvin Lewis talked about wanting more from his safety play, in particular forcing turnovers. Iloka had just one interception last season (the team as a whole managed only 11) and has nine in his career. He’s a rangy, smart player, but iffy hands have always vexed him. After watching Reggie Nelson turn games by snagging picks for several seasons, the lack of takeaways produced by Iloka has stuck in the team’s craw.

There hasn’t been a ton of talk about Bates this camp, but he has obviously caught the coaches’ attention. The rookie has played regularly with the starters in preseason, was drafted specifically for his anticipation and predatory instincts, and Lewis has dropped hints about Bates starting sooner rather than later, which of course is highly unusual for a coach who prizes veterans and slow-plays rookies, often to everyone’s detriment. Clearly, Bates’ presence was a key factor in deciding to move on from Iloka.

He was too woke

Still, ascribing cutthroat, Belichickian release-them-a-year-early-rather-than-a-year-late motives to Lewis and the Bengals flies in the face of a decade and a half of the opposite approach. No team has held onto the familiar long past their primes like Cincinnati. Maybe the old dog has indeed learned some new tricks—Russell Bodine, Pacman Jones, and Brandon LaFell preceded Iloka out the door, so the roster churn is real. But those guys were much less important to the 2018 Bengals, or so it seemed.

That brings us to the previously mentioned outspokenness. Mike Brown’s retrograde Trumpism kept Reid from signing (at least according to his grievance) before the draft. Iloka’s pinned tweet on Twitter is an ironic “Stick to sports…” and he has steadily opined on the political issues of the day, from the current occupant of the White House to economic inequity to prison reform. In short, Iloka is a man in full, with smart, informed takes on the world around him—precisely the kind of player suddenly deemed a “distraction” in these troubled times. His takes on the world would be just fine if he would have held onto a few more picks, of course. But if he can replaced by a quieter rookie who knows his place….

Safeties and dinosaurs

The future is here, and it is a 7-on-7 drill with occasional tackles. OK, that’s overstating matters somewhat, but between all the new rules that favor the offense and the increasing move toward hybrid types at every position on defense, the David Fulcher paradigm for whom this column is named is long gone. Now it appears even the likes of Iloka—smart, never out of position in the two-deep zone, a guy who may not dazzle but doesn’t kill you either—are being phased out. Safeties need to be more like corners than ever before, as do linebackers. Iloka just doesn’t possess that sort of athleticism, and at 28 he isn’t likely to find a new burst in his reserve tank. It’s why Reid and others remain unemployed—though Iloka quickly found a landing spot with the Minnesota Vikings.

Mix it all together, and you have a move that jarred an otherwise sleepy August. Iloka’s release will resound well into the season. Other vets (Michael Johnson, we’re looking right at you) have to wonder if they’re next out the door. Will leaving the back of the defense to a rookie come back to haunt Cincinnati at some point? Does this mean new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is priming the pump for less deep zone and more blitzing? Has Lewis actually been replaced by a more cutting-edge coach?

In what should be a fascinating season, here is a new plot development. Meanwhile, before we forget all about him, let’s salute Iloka for being not just a solid player but a mensch as well. Farewell, George, and thanks.

Robert Weintraub has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders and is the author of three books. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

This post has been updated.

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