Rivalry Week

There really isn’t much to say about last week’s Cleveland Browns game. We showed up at a sports bar in New York before Game 5 of the World Series, and I asked the bartender if he could put the Browns-Arizona game on one of the televisions. He graciously put it on a television in the corner, one that was blocked by a wall so that I was the only person who could see it. That seemed about right. I don’t think he heard any complaints, anyway.

You may notice that I wrote “We,” and that’s because I was with a friend who lives in Cleveland but grew up in Cincinnati. He is a full-blooded Cincinnati Bengals fan, and he was locked in on the Bengals-Steelers game, pausing only to say, when the Browns led 20-7 just before the end of the first half, “So, how quickly do the Browns blow this game?” The Cardinals took the lead for good about 20 minutes later.

Watching football with a Bengals fan — especially with the Browns and Bengals playing Thursday — is educational. I worked in Cincinnati for a time in the 1990s, and in those days the Bengals were the near-unanimous choice as pro football’s most hopeless franchise. They had bloodlines. The team was owned and operated by Mike Brown, the son of Paul Brown, who basically invented professional football. The team was coached by Dave Shula, the son of Don Shula, who coached six Super Bowl teams and the only undefeated Super Bowl champion.

Both men are, in my experience, extremely nice and intelligent and they obviously know football, but together they built teams of such horror they boggled the mind. Dave Shula just didn’t have the soul of a football coach, and my understanding is that he has done brilliantly as a businessman for Shula’s Steakhouses. Mike Brown, well, of course he still owns the Cincinnati Bengals. There are so many great Mike Brown stories. One of my favorites involves agent Leigh Steinberg, who often negotiated with Mike. At the beginning of one of those negotiations, he sat down across the desk from Brown prepared to exchange numbers.

“So,” Mike begins, “let me ask you something Leigh. Why should we give these players signing bonuses before they have done a single thing in the National Football League?”

“It was incredible,” Leigh would tell me years later. “We have known each other for years, we had negotiated many times, and Mike starts by going back 50 years and negotiating whether there SHOULD BE SIGNING BONUSES.”

Well, yes, Mike Brown readily will admit to being a bit old-fashioned. This cuts both ways, as you will see. In those days, it cut Cincinnati. The Bengals were terrible every year. From 1991 to 2002, the Bengals did not have a winning record. They were outscored by 1,400 points — or 200 touchdowns, if you prefer. They had four different coaches, six different starting quarterbacks, and those drafts. Wow. Those drafts.

I would say their astonishingly cursed drafts are best represented by the saga of Ki-Jana Carter. You might remember, Carter was an amazing running back at Penn State; he averaged 7.8 yards per carry in his junior season. The Bengals traded up to the first pick to get Carter, a bold and exciting move for a team that had previously drafted first-round busts David Klingler and John Copeland and, the year before, Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson. Big Daddy was actually the first pick of that draft. The second pick was a guy named Marshall Faulk. “He’s freakishly strong,” is how the Bengals’ strength and conditioning coach tried to explain the Big Daddy pick.

In any case, the Bengals traded up to get Carter and then after the inevitable holdout and long negotiation, Carter signed a record-breaking deal that included, yes, a signing bonus. The Bengals put him into a preseason game to get him ready for the football field, and the Bengals were excited, Cincinnati was excited, everyone could feel the corner being turned.

Carter blew out his knee on the third play and was basically done.

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Why so much Bengals talk in the weekly Browns piece? Well, in 2002, the Cincinnati Bengals were 2-14. They had the worst defense in the league, their quarterback was scruffy veteran Jon Kitna, and when the season ended they fired coach Dick LeBeau. No team in football was as jumbled.

In 2002, the Cleveland Browns were 9-7, and they reached the playoffs where they had Pittsburgh beaten until the Steelers mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback. The Browns had a young starting quarterback in Tim Couch, a top-notch defense and Butch Davis’ coaching staff was filled with bright minds like current NFL head coaches Bruce Arians and Chuck Pagano and Todd Bowles.

Pause to note: None of those bright minds currently coach the Cleveland Browns.

What the heck happened? In 2002, the Browns had a future, the Bengals seemed as doomed as ever, so how do you explain where they are going into Thursday’s game? The Bengals are undefeated and looking as good as any team in football. The Browns, again, look incurable.

Well, let’s go back to what I said about Mike Brown: He’s as old-fashioned as hand-crank ice cream and Victrola phonographs and surreys with fringe on top. But with such frumpiness comes a connection to certain values that might not be particularly in vogue these days. Loyalty would be one of those values, steadfastness another. Brown hired Marvin Lewis to be the Bengals’ head coach after that 2002 season. And he stayed with Lewis ever since.

I don’t think there’s any doubt about this: There is not another owner in football (and perhaps none in the entire world of sports), who would stick for 14 seasons with a coach that has not taken a team to the Super Bowl. The Bengals have not even been to an AFC Championship Game. They have not won a single playoff game under Lewis. They had a stretch from 2007-10 where they went 25-36.

Mike Brown stuck with Marvin Lewis anyway.

His reasoning is so quaint, it almost defies belief: He continuously believed Marvin Lewis to be the best man for the job. The losing stunk, the playoff losses hurt, there were plenty of mistakes made. But these things did not change this most basic principle in Brown’s mind: Marvin Lewis was the right man to coach the Cincinnati Bengals.*

* I don’t want to go deeply into this here because it’s a bit too much like psychoanalyzing and Mike Brown would HATE for me to psychoanalyze him. But I suspect his insistence on Marvin Lewis goes back to one of the most painful experiences of his life: When the Cleveland Browns’ Art Modell fired his father in 1962. Mike is not someone who goes deeply into his own feelings, but we’ve talked at some length about that firing. In many ways, Paul Brown never got over it — the entire EXISTENCE of the Cincinnati Bengals is directly related to that moment. And as the son who idolized his father, I feel quite sure that Mike Brown promised himself that he would NEVER fire a coach unless it was the only real option.

The Browns, meanwhile, hired and fired coaches and general managers and coordinators every single year since 2002. They changed quarterbacks like underwear. They formulated plans, crumpled them up, threw them away, formulated new plans, crumpled them up, threw them away, again and again until, like a frustrated novelist, they had a trash can filled with old plans.

Some of those plans were probably pretty good ones. But who would ever know? Right now, the Browns are a ghastly 2-6, they have a 36-year-old quarterback who has taken such a beating he now looks a bit like the Black Knight from Monty Python, a young and hyped backup quarterback who clearly cannot play and continues to have issues with his personal life, a defense that can’t stop the run and so on.

And what are they talking about doing? Right: Starting over again.

This week, it was reported that the Browns were looking to basically trade anyone who had value, including left tackle Joe Thomas, who is not only one of the great players in football but someone who INSISTS he wants to stay in Cleveland and be part of the turnaround. When no trades were made, attention quickly shifted to GM Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine and just how quickly the Browns can fire them.

Farmer is particularly on the hot seat and, I can’t lie, he seems to have personally turned on that George Foreman grill. From what I can tell from the outside, he’s made a long series of shaky decisions, probably best summed up by his bizarre attitude about wide receivers. He has consistently passed up wide receivers in the draft, claiming that receivers are too plentiful to merit high draft picks. But the Browns did give a big offseason deal to aging star Dwayne Bowe. Bowe has been such a catastrophe that Cleveland just leaves him inactive most weeks. When asked about that, Farmer shrugged: “My job is to try and help bring the talent here,” he said. Yes. Yes it is.

In any case, the Browns seem on the brink of hitting the reset button yet again. Then you look at the Bengals (and, for that matter, the recently crowned Kansas City Royals) and you see an organization that bet on stability over change. There were plenty of times over the last few years when things in Cincinnati looked every bit as bad as they now look in Cleveland. The “Fire Marvin Lewis” Facebook page goes back to 2010. The dump quarterback Andy Dalton drumbeat has tapped away for a couple of years.

But the Bengals stayed the course. No one knows if it will lead to the Super Bowl this year. But everyone knows this: Dalton is playing great football, the Bengals might have more offensive weapons than any team out there, the Bengals’ defensive line gets to the quarterback. Cincinnati might be the most fun team in football right now, and my buddy as a lifelong Bengals fan is ecstatic about them, and I look on in hapless envy.

“You know,” my friend says. “the Browns might want to pick a plan and stick with it.”

I remind him that, yes, he was one of the loudest critics ripping the Bengals for not canning Marvin Lewis years ago and for sticking with Andy Dalton through the tough times and for a million other stubborn acts of Mike Brown. But he doesn’t hear me. He doesn’t hear anything these days except for the sweet sounds of victory. They call Thursday night’s Browns-Bengals game the Battle of Ohio. But the battle is already lost.

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