Sunday, December 21, 1997
Brown won't give up
player control

BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In his classic narrative of Ted Williams' final game, John Updike observed Gods don't answer letters.

Mike Brown, who has been called everything from the Bengals' God, to emperor, to grand Pooh-Bah, does write back. He responds to anyone who doesn't get nasty. As a man befitting his pre-Word Perfect generation, many of his answers are handwritten.

Best and worst
of Mike Brown
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Five best moves as GM
  • Drafted RB Corey Dillon in the second round.
  • Drafted WR Carl Pickens in the second round.
  • Re-signed QB Boomer Esiason.
  • Signed free agent CB Ashley Ambrose.
  • Went against coaches to claim Garrison Hearst off waivers.

    Five worst moves as GM

  • Hired Dave Shula as coach.
  • Drafted QB David Klinger with the 6th pick of the 1992 draft
  • Traded up for RB Ki-Jana Carter for DE Kevin Carter, RB Curtis Martin.
  • Didn't sign impact free agent at left tackle or on defense in '97.
  • Bypassed future All-Pro OT Willie Roaf in the 1993 draft.
  • And when you're the general manager of a team that is tied for the worst record in the NFL since you took over the job in 1991, you get the kind of letters where the words should be cut out of magazines.

    Many wonder why the heck the owner doesn't can the GM.

    ''We'll never know, will we?'' Brown asked.

    No, he won't fire himself. No, he won't bring in a football guy to help him. No, he won't expand the scouting staff or start doling out exorbitant bonuses to scads of free agents.

    And when you're not merely the head of football operations, but also the owner, you can just say no.

    Brown says he'll make small, unspecified changes in some job duties on the football side of the business. And he won't rule out throwing a big bonus at one free agent or two.

    He admits this off-season, which begins today at about 4:10 p.m., is a key one. Ground is to be broken on a new stadium under fire for its price tag for a team that hasn't had a winning record since George Bush's only term and Boomer Esiason's first term.

    If you're looking for major changes, you've got the wrong franchise.

    ''I'm unhappy we haven't won. The fans are unhappy we haven't won. We understand that,'' Brown said. ''But I don't agree with the media suggestions for correcting it . . . We feel we've got people here who have the knowledge.''

    Only Jerry Jones in Dallas and Al Davis in Oakland do it like that anymore in the NFL. It has been that way in the Brown family since the Kennedy administration, when coach Paul Brown got fired by Art Modell and then vowed to own his own destiny.

    Since Mike took over
    Team            W  L T  Pct.
    San Francisco  83 28 0 .748
    Dallas         76 35 0 .685
    Kansas City    74 35 0 .667
    Pittsburgh     71 40 0 .640
    Buffalo        69 42 0 .622
    Denver         68 43 0 .613
    Green Bay      67 44 0 .604
    Miami          64 47 0 .577
    Minnesota      63 48 0 .568
    Philadelphia   62 48 1 .563
    Carolina       26 21 0 .553
    Detroit        59 52 0 .532
    Tennessee      57 54 0 .514
    San Diego      55 56 0 .495
    N.Y. Giants    54 56 1 .491
    Oakland        54 57 0 .486
    New Orleans    54 57 0 .486
    Washington     52 58 1 .473
    Chicago        52 59 0 .468
    New England    49 62 0 .441
    Atlanta        48 63 0 .432
    Baltimore      46 64 1 .419
    Seattle        43 68 0 .387
    Indianapolis   43 68 0 .387
    Tampa Bay      41 70 0 .369
    N.Y. Jets      39 72 0 .351
    Arizona        37 74 0 .333
    Cincinnati     35 76 0 .315
    St. Louis      35 76 0 .315 
    

    Seven years after Paul Brown's death and a 35-76 record later, Mike Brown only owns controversy and mediocrity. But he has no intention of stepping down. Even though radio hosts from New York to New Richmond have made a living off flaying him for being (pick one), cheap, narrow-minded, a '50s guy in the '90s.

    ''I'm used to it. I've been criticized for 30 years,'' Brown said.

    It was not always this vicious or constant. He keeps one of the letters in a frame on a desk in his Spinney Field office. It is a handwritten thank you note from outgoing NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, sent the autumn after the Bengals won the 1988 AFC championship.

    ''You have an amazing father of course, but you have augmented him and carried out your role beautifully,'' Rozelle wrote to Mike Brown. ''I have been particularly pleased that you two demonstrated that there can be another way to reach the Super Bowl than most attempt.''

    As former Bengals coach Sam Wyche recalled that Super season, Mike Brown was the assistant general manager to his father in title only. It was clearly a partnership between an aging father and son.

    ''Mike did most of the day-to-day work and probably made most of the decisions if the record was kept,'' said Wyche, now an NBC studio host. ''He kept a lot of his father's philosophy.''

    Maybe the criticism that rankles the Brown family the most is Mike Brown is simply a good businessman who doesn't know the game.

    ''Everybody loves the GM who is hot. A few years ago it was Bobby Beathard when San Diego went to the Super Bowl,'' said Katie Blackburn, Brown's daughter who handles the Bengals' salary cap as the club's top negotiator.

    ''Now where are the Chargers? I think he should stick with it. We've had some good years around here. I think my Dad knows as much football as anyone out there.''

    As former Bengal receiver and current NBC host Cris Collinsworth says, anybody who grew up around football and had Paul Brown for a father has to know something.

    Wyche remembers Mike Brown instructing Wyche and an offensive assistant named Bruce Coslet that no matter what happened, the Bengals had to somehow come out of the 1984 draft ''with that kid from Maryland,'' and Boomer Esiason became a Bengal.

    It was Brown who sat across the table from Dave Shula last year and in a rare disagreement with the head coach told him, ''This is one I'm going to get to do,'' and plucked Garrison Hearst off waivers to give the Bengals their leading rusher for 1996.

    It was Brown who mused about taking running back Corey Dillon in the first round instead of the second, which at the moment is the best pick in the entire 1997 draft. In 1995, he tried to get the coaches to give moody defensive end Alfred Williams a second chance, and when that failed Brown watched him start last year's Pro Bowl for Denver.

    But the mistakes have been just as glaring. His first two big moves were his worst. Hiring as his first head coach the 32-year-old Dave Shula who had worn out his welcome in two previous stops as an assistant, and then going along with Shula's scouting report on quarterback David Klingler.

    Brown had Boomer Esiason's trade demand hanging over his head during Shula's first draft in 1992. And Brown, who still believes quarterbacks mean championships, couldn't resist Klingler when Shula's reports told him Klingler would be close to Troy Aikman and Dan Marino.

    ''A mistake,'' Brown said.

    Just like trading up for the top pick in the 1995 draft to get the wrong Carter, Penn State running back Ki-Jana. No one knew he would rip up his knee, but mistakes don't care. The club would have had defensive end Kevin Carter and running back Curtis Martin if they stayed put.

    That's the bottom line. 35-76. There have been three coaches, three quarterbacks, two overall No. 1 draft picks, a recycled folk hero, a landslide stadium vote, and still Brown hasn't been able to get the Bengals to the playoffs.

    If he's not going to fire himself, the critics say, then at least bring in another football guy who's not family.

    Look at the successful teams of the 1990s. They either have an omnipotent GM/Coach the owners lets run rampant like Jimmy Johnson or Bill Parcells, or a strong GM with no family or financial ties to the organization, such as Green Bay's Ron Wolf or Pittsburgh's Tom Donahoe.

    ''Maybe make a guy a director of football operations and give him some quasi autonomy,'' said Dave Lapham, a former Bengal who is the club's radio analyst. ''Get somebody who has a different perspective, a different look who may not have the same goals and objectives.''

    Wyche defends Brown's knowledge, but he also observes, ''There's nobody on the planet who doesn't need help.''

    If Brown doesn't hire anyone new, the critics rage, then he should at least change the way he does business. Sure, Mike Brown knew what he was doing in the '80s. But with free agency's arrival the '90s, he is still writing notes in the computer age.

    Agents who wish to remain anonymous claim the Bengals are ''a low-class,'' outfit where the players complain about the team not going the extra yard. They Bengals can't lure players, agents say, because they don't win and can't offer up-front money.

    ''It's Mom and Pop,'' one agent said. ''A family business in corporate America. It doesn't work any more.''

    Indeed, Collinsworth wonders if the small business is dead in the NFL. He says it's hard to rip Brown for not giving the big signing bonuses to free agents that tie up the salary cap for years to come for the team that generates one of the NFL's lowest revenues.

    ''That's how I run my life. I like to pay off my house and car,'' Collinsworth said. ''Is (free agency) the way to build championships? Probably not. But can you win the way the Bengals do it? The jury is still out.''

    Mike Brown thinks he can and he thinks revenue from a new stadium will help.

    ''We ll have more options with staffing and free agents,'' Brown said. ''We won't have to run it so close to the bone. But until that happens, we have no choice.''

    The core of his philosophy resides in the Bengals' personnel department. With two full-time scouts and no full-time pro personnel people, it is the smallest in the league. The Bengals rely on their position coaches in March and April to cross-check what scouts Jim Lippincott and Paul H. Brown see during the college season.

    Even back in the 1980s, when the Bengals had just one full-time scout in Frank Smouse, Wyche was advising Brown to expand. Now with free agency throwing more players into the pool, scouting is at its highest premium ever for many clubs.

    The lack of production and locker room chemistry early in this season had critics questioning the Bengals' drafting process. With first-round underachievers such as James Francis, Dan Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, and Reinard Wilson, there was a theory the Bengals had only enough time to scout talent and not intangibles.

    Of course, wide receiver Carl Pickens and running back Corey Dillon slipped in the draft because of those very questions, and have turned out to be Brown's best draft picks.

    ''Frank Smouse was the best scout in the NFL, but there was only one of him,'' Wyche said. ''When you get right down to it, good drafting centers around personalities. The only way you can find the intangibles is through an in-depth study. Maybe you have to go in there (to scout a player in college) with somebody else who can stay around awhile.

    ''I think chemistry is very important,'' Wyche said. ''It's not the best players and coaches. It's the best combination of players and coaches.''

    Brown says chemistry is ''something you have when you're winning and something you don't have when you're losing.''

    He says you can basically cut through all the scouting and personnel buzz words to get to the heart of turning around a team, whether it's the '80s or '90s.

    ''If you have the bell cow quarterback, it works,'' said Brown, who saw it work with Otto Graham in the '50s, Ken Anderson in the '70s and Esiason in the '80s.

    ''You have to have the key guy. If you don't have the key guy, it doesn't matter . . . The system, changed (to free agency), but one thing that didn't change was you still had to line up with a key player or two. Look at San Francisco (Steve Young), Dallas (Aikman), Miami (Marino), Denver (John Elway). They were good before and after the system. I'm not disparaging other players because you need as many good ones as you can get. But the quarterback is the key guy. Look at Buffalo this year.''

    He also could have looked at the Bengals. With a hot Jeff Blake last season, they finished 7-2. While he slumped this year, they went 3-8. Now under a hot Esiason, they are 3-1. Bengal insiders point to the quarterback ratings from 1970 to 1990, when the club made the playoffs seven times. The starting quarterback had a rating of 85 in half the seasons from '70 to '90, but none above 82.1 since.

    Brown still wonders what would have happened if Young followed through on his deal with the Bengals in 1984 instead of bolting to the United States Football League: ''I'll swear to my dying day I had a deal for him. He's the guy who could have saved our bacon these past few years.''

    ''I agree with Mike you need the quarterback,'' Wyche said. ''You need him, a running back or a receiver, a solid, not great offensive line, and two or three playmakers on defense. And look at the drafts. Everyone thought he had gotten those defensive players.''

    But the Francises, the Williamses (Alfred and Darryl), Copelands, Wilkinsons and Wilsons who should have turned the Bengals into a top defense haven't panned out, and much of the blame gets placed on drafting numbers instead of brains and heart.

    ''When people talk about scouting, it's a red herring for people who don't know what they're talking about,'' Brown said. ''We have all the information everybody else has. There are no secrets. When the Broncos got (running back) Terrell Davis in the sixth round, it wasn't like he wasn't on our board. We talked about him. If they were so sure fire smart, why didn't they take him in the first round? We have the same record as the Rams and they have (eight) scouts.''

    Even though the Bengals are only a handful of teams who don't separate pro and college scouting, Blackburn says the Bengals have all players in the NFL rated just like teams with four times the staff. Cincinnati also uses Mike Giddings, who runs a scouting service.

    ''Some of what we do is required by our financial situation,'' Brown said. ''I don't apologize for it.''

    Brown is impressed the way two small-market teams have done it, Pittsburgh and Kansas City, teams that make the playoffs every year no matter who is the quarterback. He marvels how Pittsburgh loses players to free agency, but plugs replacements into a formula consisting of a strong offensive line in front of a power back and a pressure defense.

    Yet take a look at the Steelers' scouting staff, which is split between college and pro but isn't all that bigger than Cincinnati's. Their college scouting director has been in Pittsburgh 19 years and his three scouts have been with the Steelers 6, 9 and 11 years and have a total of about 74 years experience in college and the pros. This is Lippincott's sixth season in the NFL and Paul H. Brown's fifth.

    But there are those in the league who like the Bengal way of scouting.

    ''With the coaches doing the scouting, we knew as much about the personnel in the draft more than any team I've been with,'' said Larry Peccatiello, the Lions' defensive coordinator who was here the previous three seasons.

    ''We were aware of work habits and intelligence,'' Peccatiello said. ''The more input you have doesn't neccesarily mean anything great. I look at Mike's personnel decisions and I think they've been pretty solid.''

    Yet it all comes back to 35-76, and some blame it on Mike Brown not giving his coaches any power, which hurts their credibility in the locker room. It's a criticism that stuns Brown and surprises Wyche and Coslet.

    ''That's a bad rep then, because I coach the players on the field,'' Coslet said. ''I tell him who's active and who's not and who plays and who doesn't. He makes suggestions and sometimes I take them and sometimes I don't.''

    Wyche said Brown rarely overturned a final decision, which was usually reached by consensus. The only disagreements Brown can think of with his coaches are when he cut running back Stanford Jennings in 1991, took Hearst in 1996, and cut No. 3 quarterback Erik Wilhelm a few weeks ago.

    ''To say what the coaches put into the decision is minor, or they don't get their way most of the time is wrong,'' Brown said. ''People would be surprised at how little I'm involved. I only interject when I feel it's necessary.''

    Asked if the coaches have wanted to cut players in order to send a message to the locker room but were blocked by the owner, Brown said, ''Players are assets. There are occasions we say. 'Slow down, let's think about this. Maybe we will do it eventually, but let's wait awhile to see if there's a better answer.' ''

    Wyche is reluctant to rip Brown because he has ''seen so many different ways to skin a cat. Has the league passed him by? I don't think the league knows where it's going, so how do you know where you are? I think it's hard to slam Mike for the whole thing because he's done things like pay No. 1 picks, come up with as nice as any training camp facility in the league, and he fixed up Spinney Field.''

    If this is the NFL, then it's never just one play, one player, one mistake or one hero or one goat. Brown prefers to share the pain of Esiason and Dillon not getting on the field until the playoffs were lost.

    ''Sure, we all wish we had shuffled the deck earlier enough to make a difference,'' Brown said. ''Who's at fault? I'm at fault for not requiring it. Bruce is at fault for not doing it. We didn't do it and we suffer the consequences.''

    Mike Brown probably already wrote that to a fan in one of his old-fashioned letters.

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