With week four of the NFL season in the books, it's time for the inevitable spate of "first quarter of the season grades" stories. And no one deserves a good grading more than Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown, the guy whose desk bears a plaque reading "the buck stops next year."
In the run-up to the 2011 season, Brown made or signed off on a handful of key decisions whose outcomes would significantly impact the team. With a quarter of the season to look at, how do his choices stand up now? Let's take a look -- with the caveat that these are just Q1, not final grades, and things could (and almost certainly) will change -- for better and for worse.
Decision No. 1: The Head Coach. The Cincinnati Bengals finished 4-12 in 2010, a record that's a guaranteed death sentence for the coach of any other NFL team. Given the fact that Marvin Lewis' contract was in its final year, the prospects that he would return for a record-setting ninth season appeared bleak -- at least to observers outside Cincinnati.
Those who were more well-versed in the ways of the Bengals knew that retaining Lewis would simply be par for the putt-putt course on which this alleged pro franchise plays. And indeed, that's what occurred, with Lewis signing a two-year to deal to stay on through 2012. Bringing Marvin back was presented as part of a Grand Continuity Scheme which would allow the team to emerge in fine competitive form after the lockout.
Few believed at the time, but four games into the season, Lewis' Bengals are 2-2 with a rookie QB and rookie No. 1 wideout, both of whom, thanks to the lockout, had about a month's worth of preparation for the season. It's hard to argue that the team hasn't exceeded the (admittedly rock-bottom) expectations of both fans and media over the first quarter of the season, and despite Cam Newton's explosive arrival on the NFL scene, both Andy Dalton and A.J. Green are lurking about in the Offensive Rookie of the Year conversation. For that Marvin, and thus Mike, deserve some credit. Mike's Q1 HC grade: B-
Decision No. 2: The Offensive Coordinator. Was it always the plan to move on from Bob Bratkowski? Was the move a condition of Marvin's return? Was it spurred when Carson Palmer demanded a trade and detonated the Grand Continuity Scheme? Your guess is as good as mine. But the bottom line is that despite a long-time personal and family relationship, Mike Brown fired his offensive coordinator of ten years, and brought on the untested-in-the-NFL Jay Gruden.
Again, to anyone who has watched this team over the years, this was a typical Bengals move: Gruden was the cheap guy with the big family name (think Dave Shula). And not only was Gruden's NFL experience limited to helping out his big brother John in Tampa Bay, but thanks to the lockout he would have virtually no time to implement his system before the season.
After four games, no one is mistaking the Bengals' offense for the Greatest Show on Turf, but they rank 22nd in scoring and 18th in yards, or about where they finished 2010 (22nd in points, 20th in yards). Given all the changes on offense, particularly the loss of a veteran QB and two highly experienced wide receivers, simply staying even has to be chalked up as a victory. If the rankings (and wins) don't improve, this grade will go down, but for now Mike gets no worse than a C+ for dumping Bratkowski and bringing on Jay.
Decision No. 3: The Wide Receiver. Mike Brown finally gave Chad Ochocinco what he wanted: a trade to the New England Patriots. To replace one of the most prolific and successful receivers in Bengals history, he pulled the trigger on A.J. Green with the fourth overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Yet again, a familiar pattern for long-time Bengals fans: experienced player leaves, Bengals toss rookie into the fire to replace him. Perhaps there would have been more protests if Chad hadn't spent the last three years making himself obnoxious and playing like crap, or if the Bengals hadn't made big moves in free agency to get a veteran wide receiver in 2009 and 2010, only to have all of their efforts blow up in their face.
Bengals fans couldn't really have asked for things to play out better than they have so far. Through four games, Green has 19 catches for 312 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He's had his rookie moments as well, but wide receiver is notoriously one of the most difficult positions to transition to in the NFL, and Green's immediate impact is nothing short of amazing. Meanwhile, Ochocinco has struggled mightily in New England, accumulating just seven catches for 113 yards and no scores in the first four games. He's now splitting time with the Patriots' No. 3 wideouts.
To sum up, so far Mike Brown has overseen the drafting of a stud wide receiver, and gotten a pair of late-round draft picks for a No. 3 wideout. Yes, you can make the case that Brown screwed up big-time by not trading Chad to the Redskins for much more in 2008, but based solely on the wide receiver decisions made in 2011, Brown's WR grade so far is an A.
Decision No. 4: The Cornerback. Of all the offseason drama surrounding the Bengals, only the Carson Palmer story was bigger than the angst over CB Johnathan Joseph, who spurned the Bengals in favor of the Houston Texans shortly after the lockout ended. To replace him, the Bengals went out and signed free agent CB Nate Clements. And one more time, long-suffering Bengals fans groaned.
Yet again, the Bengals were allowing a good player in whom they had invested a high pick and years of development to walk away at the end of his rookie deal because he "wasn't worth" market value. And then they replaced that player with a less expensive, aging veteran (same old same old!) who would have been a good signing five years ago when he left Buffalo, but of whom all fans could hope now was that he had at least one more season left in the tank.
The good news is that, overall, Clements hasn't been bad. He's recorded 14 tackles, four passes defensed and is part of what, for the moment, is the league's No. 3 passing defense. The bad news is that Joseph has put up 13 tackles while defending more balls (5) and making two interceptions, as well as an almost-61-yard score on a blocked kick last weekend that was nullified by penalty. And at 10th overall, the Texans' pass defense is looking pretty good, too.
This decision will take longer than the first four games to play out. Joseph remains the better player who got away, but Clements has come through as well, both on the field and as a much-needed voice of leadership. So for Mike I will call this one a push so far, a gentleman's C.
Decision No. 5: The Quarterback. I don't think we need to go into a lot of detail here, because the Carson Palmer Saga has already been done to death, and it's not even over. Suffice it to say that Mike Brown chose to play hardball with his disgruntled starting QB and signed off on not just drafting Andy Dalton, but making him the team's first rookie starter since Greg Cook.
One thing I will say about Mike Brown: he's got Big Brass Ones.
Full disclosure: I'm in the trade Palmer camp. I think this whole whizzing match between Palmer and Brown is elementary school playground stuff and that the Bengals need to get what value they can out of Carson and close the door on that chapter for good. But there remains time to do that, and maybe that time is sometime early next year.
For now, all I can look at is the results on the field. And there I see that Andy Dalton has led the team to a 2-2 overall record while compiling a completion rate of 58.1%, 868 yards, 4 TDs and 4 INTs.
In 2004 Palmer, who might have had a tougher schedule but who also had the benefit of a year on the bench and two full offseasons, had through his first four games a 54.5% completion rate, 946 yards, 4 TDs and 8 INTs. And the team was 1-3.
Advantage Dalton. And advantage, Mike Brown. Had Mike dealt Palmer to the betterment of the team prior to the start of the season, this would be a slam-dunk A in my book. As it is, I give Brown a B for QB in the first quarter. If Dalton keeps playing well, Palmer's fate will matter less and less to me, and that grade will go up.
Mike Brown's Q1 Final GM Grade: B-
Bring on Q2.