How a steak dinner turned a recruiting trip into a celebration for Bengals

CINCINNATI -- Around 7:30 p.m. on Thursday night, several new and current members of the Cincinnati Bengals sat down for dinner hoping to seal the next key piece of the franchise's future.

They were split among three tables -- one downstairs, two upstairs -- inside Jeff Ruby's The Precinct, a fixture of Cincinnati's food scene. Among those at the downstairs table were three notable people -- quarterback Joe Burrow, coach Zac Taylor and free-agent offensive tackle Riley Reiff, who was on a recruiting visit.

Reiff sat down, had a steak and got a cigar from Ruby himself to celebrate a potential deal. When the group left a couple of hours later, Reiff's decision was sealed. He officially signed Friday morning on a one-year deal that includes $5.5 million in guaranteed money, according to ESPN's Field Yates.

The recruiting dinner doubled as a celebration for the Bengals as they wrapped up a big week of free agency. Other signees among those at dinner -- defensive end Trey Hendrickson, cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi.

Reiff was the one being courted. And after a steak and a night with Burrow, he agreed to become his right tackle.

"I walked away from eating that steak and I was like, ‘I want to block for this guy,'" Reiff said on Friday.

The Precinct or any other of Jeff Ruby's locations are common places for teams or companies looking to close a deal. Ruby was familiar with the Bengals and Burrow. The young quarterback has a steak named after him on the menu, with a portion of the proceeds going to his hunger-based charity in his home region of southwest Ohio.

For Taylor, the dinner had the feel of one similar to an official visit from his days coaching college football at Texas A&M or the University of Cincinnati. The third-year coach was struck by how these players are more concerned about the team's success, which is an important aspect given the Bengals' six wins over the past two years.

"Just a really fun group to be around," Taylor said. "The vibe is tremendous. They're everything that we want to be about, and I'm just really glad that we were able to make it work out for all these guys."

When Hendrickson, who signed a four-year deal worth $60 million, met Burrow for the first time, he saw the team-centric mindset Taylor referenced. He sat at a table upstairs with his wife Alisa and both ordered filets with sautéed mushrooms. They chatted with Hilton and his wife, Chassidy, and immediately felt a connection.

"It's a different feel to just say on day 1 that we're having conversations like we've known each other for five years so it was really special," Hendrickson said.

It wasn't just Taylor and the new players. Defensive end Sam Hubbard, coordinators Brian Callahan and Lou Anarumo and assistant Mark Duffner were also there.

The Bengals are hoping the team chemistry can translate to wins. Cincinnati finished with the NFL's worst record in 2019 and while improving to 4-11-1 in 2020, was the only team in the AFC North not to make the playoffs.

The franchise believes Burrow is the key to flipping Cincinnati from division doormat to its first playoff berth since 2015.

Hilton, who ordered a ribeye steak, said even over dinner he got a sense of who Burrow was in the locker room.

"He has an aura about him," Hilton said. "He's a young guy, but he commands the room. He takes pride in being the leader of the team and just embraces the room."

After Ruby greeted the tables and told a few stories, he grabbed his dinner and found an open tabletop in the bar area. By the time he left around 8:30 p.m., the dinner party was enjoying the meal and company.

Ruby offered Reiff a cigar for him and Taylor to celebrate a potential deal with the Bengals. Ruby also promised Reiff a box of his signature hand-rolled cigars from the Dominican Republic if he ended up signing.

One coach stopped Reiff and told him he wasn't planning on letting Reiff leave Cincinnati until he signed the deal.

Turns out such measures weren't necessary. All it took was a night out with his future teammates, a solid evening and a quality steak.

"Good food is a way to a man's heart and brain," Ruby said.