Mike Brown steadies himself in front of a loose semicircle of reporters at the Cincinnati Bengals’ annual media luncheon, wearing the same dubious expression and black-and-orange-striped tie as he does every year.
“This group always asks the meanest questions,” he quips to no one in particular.
Held before the start of training camp every July, the luncheon is one of the few remaining occasions when the Bengals’ hermitic owner and president makes himself available for comment—which invariably prompts familiar questions about first-round playoff losses, head coach Marvin Lewis’s eternally purgatorial contract status, and whatever fresh controversy or criticism the team wandered into that offseason. Brown always answers in the same way: thoughtfully and honestly, with little concern for how his opinions will be received or construed.
“I plan to proceed at my own pace in my own way,” he says, responding to a question about the prospect of extending Lewis as head coach beyond 2017. “But I’m not going to be delving into it publicly.”
It’s a typical retort, one perfectly representative of the parochial ethos that was baked into the organization at its inception in 1967 by his father, Paul, and has defined the team ever since.
“I’m not deaf to outside opinion,” says Brown when asked about its seeming lack of influence on how he runs the franchise. “I’m aware of it. That doesn’t mean I always agree. I’ll do what I think I should do. You have the freedom to tell me that I shouldn’t. And you do. Fine. That ain’t gonna change. But … ”
He pauses, momentarily contemplating a justification, then shrugs instead.
The Cincinnati Bengals don’t care what you think—“you” being fans, media, pundits, prognosticators, Hamilton County taxpayers. Yes, the organization wants to win, despite what the 1990s may tell you. It wants to fill stadiums and sports bars on Sundays and sell jerseys and hats and tiger-striped cornhole sets at Christmas. But for better or worse, it has long elected to do so on its own particular, isolated terms.
“If you go back to the late ’90s, there were literal protests and boycotts outside Riverfront Stadium,” says Mo Egger, a local sports talk radio host. “Didn’t make them change the way they did things.”
This mind-set has remained evident up to and including this offseason, first with yet another Adam Jones arrest in early January that featured footage of him making rather profane comments to (and lewd requests of) police officers. Jones pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor charge and was suspended for the Week 1 shutout loss against the Baltimore Ravens. Many fans and commentators felt a fourth arrest in seven years with the team—which is a reduced rate compared with Jones’s first few NFL seasons—was reason enough for the Bengals to part ways with the aging cornerback. Instead, both Lewis and Brown pledged support, with Lewis curiously asking, “Other than his language, what did he do?” at the owners’ meetings in March.
Brown was slightly less charitable in July, stating, “What he did is get drunk publicly and make an ass out of himself,” while still remaining firmly in Jones’s corner. “He’s tried his best to work through it. I’m gonna help him work through it. If that’s a problem with someone, so be it, I accept it.”
The Jones controversy, however, was quickly overshadowed in late April when the team drafted running back Joe Mixon. While most of the league was pulling the Oklahoma running back off of draft boards because of video of him punching a young woman, Amelia Molitor, in the face in 2014, the Bengals hosted him for a private workout and floated to the media the prospect of taking him in the second round. It resulted in significant uproar from fans, but the team didn’t waver; by the time they selected him with the 48th pick, few were surprised, even as the outrage continued. One local outlet wrote an editorial urging fans to stop spending money on Bengals tickets and instead donate to organizations that work to prevent violence against women.
The front office wasn’t exactly caught off guard by the reaction. Leaking interest in Mixon before the draft seemed less about gauging fan response and more about easing the potential reception in case he was there when they wanted him. Once Mixon was in tow, the team addressed the issue directly, making him very available to the media. They talked up his future plans for community involvement. Brown wrote an op-ed in the local paper. Lewis traded his customary pullover for a suit jacket at the introductory press conference. It was a clear PR strategy—as Brown said, they aren’t deaf to public opinion—but it was also indicative of the racket the team was willing to navigate for a decision that had been easily avoidable. They could have, like most other teams, simply passed on drafting Mixon. They chose otherwise.
“He made a terrible mistake. He paid the price for it,” says Brown. “He’s here because he’s a good football player and because I think he’s a good enough guy to be here. We’re gonna bet on him.”
Privately owned companies valued north of a billion dollars do not achieve such status by crowdsourcing. And if you asked, every NFL front office would likely tell you it’d prefer to operate the way the Bengals do.
Teams don’t hand play-calling duties to the best local Madden player or make roster signings based on their Twitter mentions (though the Ravens came pretty close). But public opinion can still have an impact when it comes to things like getting a coach fired or benching a struggling quarterback or cutting ties with a troubled player. We’ve seen it with the Browns’ constant coach-and-QB carousel, Jerry Jones’s ceaseless thirst to be liked by Cowboys fans and Dallas media, and the Ravens’ cutting of Ray Rice after the elevator footage of him punching his fiancée unconscious was released. Fan frustration and bad PR hurt the bottom line, and in the NFL, money is the only thing that spurs change. Most teams that claim autonomy don’t back it up with their actions.
But for Brown and the Bengals, it is dogma, the residual impact of Paul Brown getting fired from a team in Cleveland that bore his surname by new owner Art Modell and vowing to never let the same thing happen again. Despite having complete control of business and football operations from the start, the Brown family owned only 10 percent of the Bengals when the team was founded; they spent subsequent decades methodically utilizing team profits to buy back shares from investors until they owned nearly every last one. It was never a question that Mike would succeed his father in running the franchise, in the same way his own daughter, Katie Blackburn, the team’s executive vice president, will someday as well. The only non-Brown or Blackburn listed in the team’s administration directory is Mike’s longtime assistant, Jan Sutton.
The reason this cloistered, nepotistic attitude was so galling on the part of the Bengals is because of how ineffective it was for so long: From 1991 to 2002, the team went 55-137 with zero winning seasons or playoff appearances.
“He would get a lot of letters from people who were angry or upset with the way things had gone,” says Jack Brennan, the team’s longtime PR director, who retired after last season. “I know he would read them all, and he would wrestle sometimes when somebody made a particularly good analytical argument against what he was doing. But in the end, he believed he had a logical, reasonable answer to that.”
Losing season after losing season, and little in the way of contrition, saddled Brown with a reputation for being obstinate and rigid. It was a largely accurate depiction before Lewis’s arrival in 2003, though Brown has relented in recent years—at his own pace, in his own way. Up until 2011, he didn’t even let Lewis pick the game-day roster.
“The way we do things has changed,” says Lewis. “[Brown] has adapted. He’s given us the ability to keep up.”
Lewis is the biggest reason for the (slow) shift of this dynamic. He’s managed to earn Brown’s trust over his 15 seasons with the club, and in turn siphoned more and more responsibility to himself, Blackburn, and director of player personnel Duke Tobin. This eventually spurred the more recent iteration of the Bengals—a perennial playoff team (last season notwithstanding) regularly praised for the way they’ve developed talent over the past decade. It’s been a power struggle at times, and plenty has remained the same—the team is still willing to overlook reprehensible off-field actions if a player is talented enough—but the franchise managed to turn things around without abandoning its core identity.
“They just figured out a way to become one of the better-run franchises in the NFL,” says Egger. “But in terms of who they’ve acquired, kept, drafted, traded, what they’ve done—they’ve never allowed public opinion to really dictate what they do.”
The great irony, of course, is that the team reached this level of success and respect thanks in large part to Brown finally, glacially arriving at the same conclusion that outside opinion had been clamoring for all along: relinquishing control. For too long, Brown was that stubborn dad behind the wheel refusing to admit he was lost as angry fans and baffled columnists lined the roadside, shouting directions.
And now, despite how long it took the franchise to overcome Brown’s mulishness, that window of respectability appears to be closing, and without much of anything to show for it. For all the division titles and playoff berths, all the plaudits from draft analysts and salary cap wonks, all the organizational continuity and resolve, it hasn’t exactly paid off. The ultimate goal is to win championships, or at the very least, playoff games. This is why the mercurial, secretive, Belichickian ethos that defines the “Patriot Way” is so revered. Winning masks all other criticisms. Under Lewis, the Bengals are famously 0-7 in the postseason.
Beyond the playoff struggles, cracks are starting to show. The core of the team is aging: Quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green are now in their seventh seasons, defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins their eighth. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict is starting his second straight season on a three-game suspension for a running list of flagged and fined hits on opposing players. Tight end Tyler Eifert isn’t signed beyond 2017. The team lost wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu and offensive linemen Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler to free agency over the past two offseasons. Plus, Lewis’s goodwill has run dry among fans and media.
The turning point seems to have been the playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers two years ago. In the midst of the best season in franchise history, the team lost Dalton to a thumb injury late in the schedule, seemingly squashing any hopes of getting over their playoff hump, let alone making a title run. But even with backup A.J. McCarron under center, the Bengals had the Steelers beat late in the fourth quarter of the wild-card round. Adam Jones set up the go-ahead score with a long punt return; Burfict seemingly iced the game with a diving interception. Then running back Jeremy Hill fumbled, Burfict and Jones had a Wonder Twins meltdown worth 30 yards of personal foul penalties, and the team promptly turned back into a pumpkin as Pittsburgh turned the infractions into a game-winning field goal.
Even in light of Dalton’s injury, fans and media clamored for Lewis to be fired, raging about how the team’s affinity for “troublemakers” had finally and calamitously backfired. Seven straight playoff losses—the last five in consecutive seasons—was more than enough proof that some version of a reset was needed. Change was demanded.
A few months later, the Bengals and Marvin Lewis agreed to a contract extension through the 2017 season.
So should the Bengals abandon this insulated, stay-the-course plan? Are they foolish, or just unlucky? At this point, it might not matter.
The team is still only one season removed from that division title and 12-4 record, which tied the Patriots and Broncos—the last two title winners—for best in the AFC, as well as the team’s own 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl runner-up seasons for best in franchise history. However, the last 18 months have achieved little in the way of progress or positives. They finished 2016 with an injury-riddled 6-9-1 record, their worst since 2010. Toward the end of last year, Lewis admitted that he couldn’t seem to push the right buttons. The roster did get younger and faster (and healthier) at a few positions this offseason, but the team also lost the two best offensive linemen from a unit that allowed 41 sacks last year, tied for seventh most in the league. The Jones and Mixon situations justifiably angered fans. And they kicked off this season with a deflating 20-0 home loss to the Ravens on Sunday—in front of an already-lackluster crowd—and an abysmal performance by Dalton: four picks, one fumble, and a 28.4 QB rating.
It’s still possible that the team could rebound, starting with a prime-time win Thursday night against the Texans, maybe even a playoff win this winter to earn Lewis and the front office back some of that public favor. Last week’s result suggests otherwise, though, and if the current string of disappointment continues, or Lewis’s influence has in fact grown stale, it risks the team squandering the prime years of a talented core, or turning off fans en masse, or both. And if that’s the case, there’s little historical evidence that Brown and the collective Bengals-industrial complex will heed those warning signs before it’s too late—if it isn’t already.
As Brown’s interview session back at the July luncheon begins to wind down, someone asks where his enduring philosophy of self-reliance and second and third chances stems from.
“Oh, I just am who I am,” says Brown.
After searching a moment for the name, he mentions Stanley Wilson, the Bengals’ former standout and star-crossed fullback. Wilson’s cocaine addiction got him suspended for the entire 1985 and 1987 seasons, but his most notable misstep was an infamous binge in the team hotel the night before they faced the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII, forcing him to miss the game and earning a lifetime ban from the league. The Bengals lost on a last-minute touchdown pass from Joe Montana to John Taylor, 20-16.
“Before all that, I got involved trying to help Stanley go straight,” recalls Brown. “It was around the time where my dad was letting me do more, run stuff. And he looked at me and just shook his head and said, ‘Well, go ahead if you want.’ I knew what he was saying—he was saying, Go ahead, you dummy. But I went ahead. And they don’t all work out. God knows I know that. But I still I am who I am, and I’ll probably go ahead, given the chance again.”
Justin Williams is a senior editor at Cincinnati Magazine.