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Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don't

As the Cincinnati Bengals' front office absorbs the fallout from l'affaire d'Antonio, it occurs to me that one point isn't being examined: where they were right.

Oh, no doubt -- Antonio Bryant should never have been signed, and Mike Brown & Co. deserve every brickbat they're getting in the wake of his release. Yet at the same time, the Bryant debacle only provides further reinforcement to the front office's longstanding position that big-money free agency is a fool's paradise.

A lot of people mock Mike Brown for his resistance to free agency, but he comes by it honestly. Poppa Paul detested free agency as well. And he hated the players union, he hated agents, he hated paying for new carpet in the locker room and training camp per diems and on and on. If there had been an Internet in the Seventies, would be celebrating its 35th or 40th anniversary this year.

But I digress. The point is, not paying for players and "building through the draft" goes back way before Mike (Bill Bergey, anyone?). And as free agency blossomed in the 1990s, Bengals fans begged, pleaded and wept for Brown to pull a "Reggie White," referring to the small-market Green Bay Packers' blockbuster signing of the then-future Hall-of-Famer in 1993. It was an article of faith that Brown's penurious ways were murdering any chance the team had to compete, and the refusal of the Bengals to do more than sign late-March (and later) leftovers was example A-No. 1 why Cincinnati would never win.

I know this because I was one of them.

Then a funny thing happened: in 2003, the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis as head coach, and suddenly the free agent money began to flow. Now, no one would ever mistake Mike Brown for Dan Snyder, but still, for Cincinnati fans it was as if the Hoover Dam had burst. Suddenly, the Bengals were active, and if they weren't signing the cream of the crop, they weren't picking through the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, either. That first offseason, the Bengals bought themselves Tory James, John Thornton and Kevin Hardy. James broke out, Thornton was solid but never bloomed, Hardy was a bust. I guess I should have taken the warning, but like so many others, still championed aggressiveness and spending in March.

But over the last few years, it's become increasingly clear to me that, in large part, Brown was right. The Bengals continued to spend in free agency, from Sam Adams to Ben Utecht to Antwan Odom to Laveranues Coles to Antonio Bryant. Tens and tens of millions of dollars. And to secure their own free agents, tens and tens of millions more: Willie Anderson, Levi Jones, Robert Geathers, franchise tags for Justin Smith and Stacy Andrews. And the number of guys who have (or have so far) lived up to those contracts?

A so-big-it's-as-fat-as-Andre-Smith zero.

Yet during this process of setting a pile of dollars the size of the Staten Island Landfill on fire, Mike Brown and the Bengals were generally praised by the pundits, and if fans had different opinions (which they did in cases like Andrews and Smith) there was at least the grudging admission that it was hard to call Brown cheap. Stupid, yes; cheap, no. And that formed the core of the fallback position: OK, maybe the Bengals were spending -- but they had no clue what they were doing because of a lack of scouts and personnel evaluation acumen.

That's a view I've also argued in favor of in the past, but it's becoming tougher to maintain in the face of the franchise's success in the one area of free agency that many (including myself) always mocked them for: the bargain bin. In recent years, the Bengals have become masters of the free agent reclamation project, the -- if you will -- free agent redemption. Tank Johnson, Cedric Benson, Adam "Pacman" Jones, Terrell Owens (and, for those of you who think he still has a shot, Matt "Coke Zero" Jones). All signed for peanuts after being booted off other teams for legal or personality problems. All contributors, or looking like they will be. And all their signings made the Bengals subject of ridicule and mockery from pundit and fan alike.

In short, when the Bengals spend wisely, they've been getting booed. When they spend foolishly, they've been getting cheered (at least until their foolishness is exposed). Isn't something wrong with this picture?

Before I get labeled a Mike Brown apologist (I know, too late), I will say: yes, I get it: a few low-budget success stories in free agency doesn't come close to making up for the hundreds of millions that have been wasted on free agents that didn't pan out. On the other hand, had the Bengals not wasted those hundreds of millions and stuck them in the bank instead, would there have been roars of approval from the fans? Somehow, I doubt it.

Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.