The Bengals lost to the Texans on Saturday.
In theory, this was somewhat surprising, as Cincinnati entered with wins in seven of their last eight games, a stingy defensive front seven and arguably the postseason’s best receiver. The Who-Deys -- don’t ask -- surfaced as this year’s “no one wants to meet” in the AFC playoffs, while their opponent, the Houston Texans, limped to the finish line with three losses in the last four weeks, as they helplessly watched their once-dominant defense succumb to big-play susceptibility. Even with J.J. Watt, Arian Foster and a rowdy opposing arena to overcome, more than a few “savants" saw Cincinnati playing in the second week of January.
But we who know the Queen City franchise, we suspected this stumble. The Bengals? Winning a playoff game? That’s like betting on Bruce Willis turning down a new Die Hard script, that’s what that is. Folly.
After all, this is the same organization that hasn’t won a postseason game since halfway through the first Bush administration, with just four winning campaigns (and one pretty horrific Carson Palmer knee injury) during that time. Which, given the parity in pro football, is quite the “feat.”
However, even more spectacular than the Bengals’ organizational “Commitment to Putridness” over the last two decades has been their front office’s complete obliviousness to the fundamental problems that continue to plague the franchise. Enduring mediocrity signals a need for a change in philosophy in most minds. Mike Brown is not of this conviction.
With an addict’s devotion to the irrational belief that doing the same thing over and over again will yield different results, the word insanity has been used -- along with a string of expletives and headshakes -- to describe Brown’s reign over the Bengals. Mike was handed to keys to the car after his father, the innovative and pioneering Paul Brown, passed in the summer of 1991. Given the track record of the previous years -- 32 wins in the preceding three seasons along with an appearance in Super Bowl XXIII -- the first thing the younger Brown did was immediately crash his shiny coupé into a ditch.
Brown, taking a page from his father’s playbook, decided it was in the best interest of the company to forgo hiring a general manager and run the show himself. Which was problematic for a number of reasons, most notably that it appeared his father -- a three-time NFL champion, Coach of the Year and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- had left only that leaf, taking the rest of his vast football knowledge (and basic understanding of the sports business) with him to the great gridiron in the sky.
Not surprisingly, history looks at this decision as somewhere between General Custer’s hubris at Little Big Horn and Tom Selleck turning down the role of Indiana Jones on the calamity scale. Not everyone blamed Brown for the Bengals’ 3-13 record that fall, but he certainly earned the near-universal derision derived from firing coach Sam Wyche in the season’s aftermath. Hilariously (we don’t even know anymore), Brown made an attempt to claim Wyche had quit, thereby surrendering further payment on the coach’s contract. The embarrassment not only highlighted the cost-cutting chicanery involved with Brown’s decision making, but his now-infamous “frugality” as well.
Wyche’s dismissal begat the Dave Shula Era (19-52), which led to the Age of Bruce Coslet (21-39) before delivering us the only unsuccessful stint of Dick LeBeau’s 55 years in the league (12-33). Even Marvin Lewis’ tenure, despite four playoff berths, is viewed by most with a resigned shrug (79-80-1). Five coaches: 134 wins, 217 losses, and 1 tie. That’s “not good.”
So “not good” that Bengals fans almost feel the need to defend these coaches. Brown’s personnel assessments fueled most of this futility, as questionable -- in the “does it exist?” sense of the word -- football acumen from the front office, as well as lack of an actualfront office played a much larger role in these disposable, inadequate regimes. To get a basic understanding of how pathetic Bengals management under Brown is, it’s good to hear one of the many urban legends that sprung up due to the diminutive size of their scouting “department.”
The most popular such tale around Cincy is that the team would make their draft selections based on the advice of college-prospect guru (not Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones’ Drugstore List publication. While hopefully apocryphal, it would explain the acquisitions of David Klinger, Dan Wilkinson, Akili Smith, et al.Few will rush to the support of Shula, Coslet, etc., but even fewer would have been able to win with the motley crews Brown assembled to suit up in tiger stripes.
Brown’s shortcomings are not confined to the team’s construction. While it should be noted that the 77-year-old Brown is sympathetic to second chances for athletes (or in the cases of many maligned Bengals, third, fourth and fifth chances), this compassion does not carry over to the facilities those same players spend nearly half their waking hours in. For years, team members had to bring their own towels to practice and were restricted on their usage of amenities, including such extravagances as Gatorade, practice gear, and shower products.
Speaking of penny-pinching, did you know the Bengals are the northernmost team without a practice bubble? Instead of helping the University of Cincinnati erect an indoor practice facility - which the Bengals now occasionally use -- Brown refused to foot any of the construction bill. He apparently found it more economical for the team to pay a fee every time they use the field. Better yet, before the bubble was built on the college campus, the Bengals were forced to practice at local recreational centers around the Greater Cincinnati area, choosing to abide by the adage that nothing quite says “National Football League” like sharing training space with an adult lacrosse league.
Not surprisingly, this ceaseless and almost confrontational frugality extends to the fans, who in addition to having to publicly fund it, are forced to watch games in Paul Brown Stadium. The building, which is more or less a concrete mausoleum, gives zero indication that the Bengals call the grounds home -- save for a tawdry tarp that drapes the padded sideline wall -- a constant reminder that the only reason the stadium was built in the first place was out of fear of Brown’s threats to move the team.
After Saturday’s defeat, numerous media outlets stated this won’t be the last we see of the Bengals, as a youthful offensive core and an embarrassment of riches on defense should translate to multiple January appearances down the road. But you’ll have to excuse the yawn emitting from Cincinnati supporters, as the same sentiment was applied to the 2005 squad featuring stars like Palmer, Chad Johnson and Justin Smith. After winning the AFC North division that year, the team followed with three straight seasons without a playoff berth.
And it will take more than a year or two of good fortune to change the outlook of most fans; they stayed away during last season’s unexpected prosperity, and this year’s success didn’t exactly cause a run on the box office. The rest of the country mocked the city’s stature as a sports town, citing a perceived “lack of fervor” for a playoff-bound crew in America’s new national pastime.
What the nation was oblivious to was that Brown’s perennial flip-off of the fans had taken its toll.
If there’s anything to be learned from Brown’s broken clock administration, it’s that anyone can get it right twice a decade, but sustained success -- the type of success Pittsburgh and Baltimore have -- can never be attained unless things change.. Brown may think he’s creating a winning atmosphere, but you have to spend money and/or expel effort to do that, which he seems to simply refuse to do. It’s this denial that forecasts an ominous future for the franchise.
For other parties, this picture is clear as day. It’s why Palmer decided to retire rather than return to Cincinnati. It's why Lewis is comfortable in his job despite a sub-.500 record in 10 years at the helm, and worst of all, it’s why the only guaranteed sellouts are games against the Steelers and Browns, with a crowd is largely comprised of the opponents' fans.
There is nothing more disconcerting as a fan than watching your home stadium overtaken by the enemy. But we do it to ourselves because as Bengals fans it’s better than the alternative: continuing to fuel this misguided operation by shelling out their own money for a subpar product.
Conceivably, the current roster could make the leap from playoff also-ran to conference contender in 2013, but Cincinnati fans know better. They see this song and dance once every ten years or so, don’t blame them if they feel like sitting the next one out.
Joel Beall is a writer and assistant editor for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives in Cincinnati with a Golden Tee Machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel @FOXSportsBeall.