It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The year was 1991. The Bengals had just completed their second trip to the playoffs in three years, losing to LA Raiders in the Divisional Round. Hopes were high for another run to the post-season, with Boomer Esiason under center, a young defense that was aggressive and opportunistic, and a fiery coach named Sam Wyche who was at the forefront of offensive innovation. Then on August 5, everything changed. The Godfather of the modern era in pro football, Paul Brown, passed away at age 82, clearing the road for his son Mike to take the reins. Since then, the Bengals have had five head coaches, nearly two decades of heartbreak, and exactly zero playoff triumphs. Although there was a (arguably tortuous) glimmer of light in 2005, the State of the Bengals Fan is more depressing than it has ever been. Anyone can point out the problems, but few have a plan of attack to solve what has ailed the Bengals for half a generation. Here are my six ways to fix the Orange and Black:
1. Commitment to Win a Super Bowl (at all costs) – Sounds simple enough, right? For the Bengals, it’s a little more complicated than that. The Bengals are like a fat person who wants to lose weight. Ask a fat person if they want to get skinny? They say, of course I do. Now, if you tell them that will mean drastically altering their diet, a lot of intense exercise, and basically changing their entire lifestyle…then they start to think a little harder. It’s clear whatever strategy Mike Brown and the front office has crafted to try and put a consistently competitive football team on the field year in and year out simply IS NOT WORKING. Now, all things being equal, does Mike Brown want to win? Sure. Is he willing to spend the additional dollars, hire more scouts and (more importantly) GIVE UP CONTROL in order to win? Sadly, the answer is resounding no. This guy freaking beat the IRS in tax court. No one beats the IRS. So if you think he has a little bit of an ego when it comes to doing things his way…you would be absolutely correct. More than signing a free agent, trading Chad Johnson (we’ll get to that later) or landing a stud draft class, I’d like to see the Bengals announce to Cincinnati: we are 100% committed to win. We will change the fact that we are the northern-most city without an indoor facility, we will add scouts and take the double duty load off of our coaches, heck, we’ll even buy a couple gallons of paint and dress up the concrete walls of Paul Brown Stadium. I would just love to hear ownership say: we will not sleep and we will not stop until we win a championship…no matter what the cost. Attitude comes from the top, and when the top does not have a mandate to win, it gradually creeps down below, to the coaches, to the players, the entire organization. Complacency is a big, big, big problem for the Bengals. Players know there isn’t a mandate from the top to win, so whether they give max effort or 75% effort…their jobs are secure. Maybe they will skip a weight lifting session or two, maybe they won’t watch as much film as they should, maybe the coaches won’t gameplan quite as much as they would if Jerry Jones was their owner. Face the facts: the Bengals will never, EVER win a Super Bowl until this changes.
2. Hire a GM, Drastically Expand Scouting Department, Relinquish Control of Player Personnel – Outside of what Mike Brown considers the ‘triple headed’ General Manager between himself, his daughter Katie Blackburn, and her husband Troy Blackburn, the Bengals have exactly six people in player personnel/scouting. SIX!!! There are more than eight people working the freaking night shift at White Castle! Not only is this the smallest player personnel department in the league, it’s flat out not working. In a recent article by the Enquirer, Marvin Lewis again reiterated how the organization would not try and build the team through free agency, instead focusing on the draft. I have no problem with this ideology. But, if that’s your strategy…you might want to beef up the scouting staff to accommodate this plan. Mike Brown then steadfastly defended the way the Bengals identify and draft players, calling his puny scouting department “efficient”. He pointed to the fact that over the last few years, the Bengals drafted the 5th most players still playing in the league. “It’s about the whole body of work, isn’t it?” Brown said. Yes Mike, it is. That’s why under your watch the Bengals have ONE winning season and ONE playoff berth in 18 years. The facts are the facts. If you want to build through the draft, then put the necessary resources in place to accomplish this. Hire football people to make football decisions. Period. One of my favorite stories to illuminate this is when asked about the questionable selection of Frostee Rucker in the third round of the 2006 draft, a Bengals coach said “We thought we had enough information about him to make the right decision.” Forget hiring scouts, we need to get the Bengals a $40 subscription to ESPN Insider! The arrogance of the Bengals ownership is astounding when it comes to player personnel and scouting. They think, after 18 years of doing it ‘their way’ that it’s still the best way. Think of it this way…for years, the Bengals keep banging their head against a wall, over and over again, in order to crack it. Hiring Marvin Lewis was like moving to a different spot on the wall. You would think after 18 years, the Bengals would realize you need a sledgehammer to bust down the wall. After 18 years, luck doesn’t matter anymore. The way they go about crafting their football team is seriously flawed, and sadly it will not change with Mike Brown still in control.
3. Ensure that our facilities are considered top notch when compared to other NFL teams - One of my favorite Mike Brown stories is when 320 pound DT Tony Siragusa was a free agent after the 1996 season. The Bengals were interested in him and set up a meeting in Cincinnati with Tony and his agent. When Tony received the plane ticket that Mike Brown had purchased for the top rated free agent, he promptly canceled the meeting. In an attempt to save money, Mikey had bought him a coach ticket. What does this have to do with facilities? Well, Mike is still cutting corners whenever he can to save money. The Bengals are most Northern team without an indoor practice facility. At the end of the season (and presumably if they ever make the playoffs), when the weather is too cold to practice outside, (as was the case in December 2003) the team is forced to practice at an indoor youth soccer center 30 miles away! This is an NFL team! Free agents know Mikey is cheap, players are not able to get the best training, and their performance suffers on the field. Come on Mikey, you got the best sweetheart stadium deal in the NFL, invest in some NFL caliber facilities.
4. Identify players that fit the system and be able to cut the cord – It’s a shame that when Art Modell fired Paul Brown decades ago, this singular event still haunts Bengals fans today. Above all else, one word is used to describe Mike Brown, and that’s loyalty. He saw what happened when his Dad was ousted in Cleveland from the team he founded, and he never forgot that. To this day, when it’s clear he should move on (see Shula, Dave and Anderson, Willie), he makes decisions that hurt the team. Take Chad Johnson for example. Unbelievable talent, very mediocre player when it comes to crunch time. Think about it for a second, when has Chad made a huge play in a huge spot for the Bengals. It’s a very, very short list. My point is this: the Bengals are clearly better off without Chad Johnson on the team, for the simple fact that when the chips are down, he either disappears, melts down, or both. From a cap standpoint, it’s probably illogical for the Bengals to trade him this season, but hopefully in 2009 we will be Chad free. We aren’t going ANYWHERE with Chad still on the team. Just ask Giants fans how much devastating this year was without their supposed best player, Tiki Barber. The blueprints on how to put together a football team aren’t that difficult to find. See what the Steelers are doing, the Patriots, the elite teams in football. They all have football people who work tirelessly to find specific players to fit their scheme. It’s not about finding the most talented or best ranking player at each position. It’s about identifying players who come in, do their jobs, and make plays when it counts. When the Patriots thought that Ty Law wasn’t cutting it anymore… he was gone. Their best receiver (sound familiar?) Deion Branch a distraction? See ya. We have too many selfish players on this team…and too many players that don’t fit the scheme. We have players with talent, but not enough of the ‘right’ players. Again, it all goes back to the fact that we don’t have enough football people making football decisions. You wouldn’t hire an exterminator to re-decorate your house, you wouldn’t hire the cable guy to tutor your kids, and you sure as hell wouldn’t hire Mike Brown to run your football team.
5. Offensive and Defensive line depth always priority #1 – There are reasons why the Steelers, Patriots, Giants, and Cowboys, etc. are able to compete year after year for the playoffs and beyond. For years and years, they can protect the passer, and they can get pressure on the other team’s quarterback with their down linemen. The Steelers defensive backfield is shaky at best, but they look pretty darn good when they can dial up pressure all game long. Bengals corners have long been the targets of scorn, but it would be a different story with defensive ends that actually sniff the quarterback every now and then. Any questions about this theory were answered with the Giants in the Super Bowl. Bottom line is this: the Bengals have always been an offense-oriented team…going back to the days of Paul Brown and Sam Wyche. When Paul Brown passed away, I guarantee you Paul told Mike in some capacity “Don’t ever change the way we do things.” The only problem with not changing is that the NFL is so much different than 1991. Teams are smarter, more intricate and much more competitive. Status quo doesn’t work from year to year anymore, let alone 18 years. This team already has the franchise quarterback. That’s the hard part, and it’s already there. Sign and KEEP an offensive line to protect him…and finally build and spend money on a defense that can keep you in games when the offense can’t put up 30 points. I keep hearing how the Bengals offense is so close to being like the 2005 season. Guys…those days are OVER and NEVER COMING BACK! 40 percent of that offensive line is gone, we will probably have a new running back this year, and who knows what will happen at receiver. If we had a defensive line that produced and got pressure on the quarterback, we wouldn’t have to worry about resurrecting the 2005 offense.
6. Bengals decisions and actions of all players and staff, on and off the field, is only judged by its effect on the Bengals quest for the Super Bowl - The focus needs to be 100% on winning a Super Bowl. Bottom Line. End of Story. Nothing else matters. Enough with the off field distractions, on field distractions, and locker room distractions. Enough with the rebuilding seasons and incremental changes. Do whatever it takes to win a Super Bowl.
I’ll leave the tortured Bengals fan with this last thought. My favorite sports story of all-time is the 1980 US Hockey Team. Right place, right time, right moment, right coach…the one time every single planet in the sports world aligned absolutely perfectly. More specifically, I am borderline obsessed on how coach Herb Brooks put together the squad of college kids to beat the Russians. In the movie Miracle (where Kurt Russell absolutely nails Brooks to a tee), Brooks is at the US Olympic Center watching tryouts. Before the first day of a scheduled week of tryouts is even finished, he has his team already selected (most aren’t even on the list of top tier players). When assistant coach Craig Patrick asks him why he won’t even consider the best players. Brooks answers: “Because I’m not looking for the best players Craig, I’m looking for the right ones.”
I almost feel bad for fans that are really optimistic about the Bengals future. Guys, we are not ‘close’ to winning a Super Bowl. There are glaring, startling problems that have prevented and will continue to prevent this team from being elite. If you are Mike Brown or one of the Blackburns, at some point, you have to ask yourself: aren’t you tired of getting kicked in the mouth year after year? Honestly, I don’t think they do. Bengals management cannot look in the mirror or look at their fan base and truthfully say they are doing everything in their power to win. And as someone like me who bleeds orange and black…that hurts.
Here’s hoping that somehow, someway the Bengals organization will realize it’s not always about getting players that have the best 40-time or physical skills…but about hiring football people to make football decisions, identifying players that fit their scheme and not resting until the Lombardi Trophy graces the halls of Paul Brown Stadium.