Let's take a trip back in time, shall we? The Bengals were finishing up their most miserable season in franchise history in 2002 with a 2-14 finish and completing more than a decade's worth of non-winning seasons. For those of you scoring at home, the last taste of the postseason that the Bengals had was after the 1990 season, when they lost in the Divisional Round to the then-Los Angeles Raiders. Many believe that was the beginning of the end, with the onset of "The Curse of Bo Jackson".
The futures of two of the most important jobs of any NFL team--the head coach and quarterback--were up in the air, and the outlook for the following season was bleak. Owner Mike Brown needed to make a series of decisions to turn the team around and reinvigorate a disenchanted fan base.
Those who follow the NFL and the Bengals know the path that was laid out over the next few years: a bright, young, first-time head coach, a Heisman Trophy quarterback and constant heartbreak after being on the verge of huge success. Then, something happened.
It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the chain of events occurred, but one could trace the early parts of a culture change all the way back to 2009. Though some of the old Mike Brown ways shone through that roster in the form of re-tread project players, signs of nepotism/favoritism (Jordan Palmer, anyone?) and hardball negotiations, there were visible changes. A more cohesive locker room, what has since become solid draft class after solid draft class, and outside perception of consistent over-achievement showed a different kind of Bengals football.
Unfortunately, the locker room leadership wasn't as strong a year later in 2010 as the team collapsed to a 4-12 finish. After shedding longtime "leaders" by a couple of different means, Mike Brown was again coach-less and quarterback-less.
The Letters That Begged For Change:
As the Bengals headed to that dreary offseason over a decade ago, some popular players who wore the orange and black for Mike Brown and his father Paul, publicly pleaded with the owner to re-examine the way that he had been running the team. You can find the copies via The Cincinnati Enquirer here.
In an open letter from Louis Breeden, a defensive back who played for the Bengals for 10 years, he pleaded with Brown to make big changes:
Your new head coach doesn't necessarily need to be one of the popular guys whose name is always thrown around. But give him the power to hire his staff. I think you should hire Marvin Lewis. He would bring a toughness and attitude to your whole team. His defenses have always had it. He's been very successful. If your defense could have played better this season, you could have won a few games.
The third thing I would do is no longer have your position coaches be your talent evaluators. You depend so heavily on that, and they can't do it. Not all coaches can do that. It's a skill. Take their advice, sure.
That leads me to the fourth point. Hire a personnel guy. This is my 3-year-old monkey theory. You could hire a 3-year-old monkey and call him general manager, but if you don't hire a guru, a guy who's good at evaluating talent, it doesn't matter. Bring in someone who is in charge of personnel, the guy who makes the decision on draft day. Pay him what it's going to take to get him here. There are guys out there who have done it and would be good. On draft day, if someone says draft Southern Cal quarterback Carson Palmer, let the personnel guy hit him in the mouth. Kitna is your quarterback.
These are changes that successful organizations make when things aren't going well.
I think you want to win. I know you want to win. You have a plan, but it has not worked for 12 years. I think you're holding on trying to prove that it can work.
Familiar, much? How about this little ditty from Solomon Wilcots:
In the end, part-time coaches and part-time scouts will get you part-time results. The formula for corporate success is not difficult. It's called, "Know your role." The owners can own, but let the managers manage. Let the coaches coach, and let the players play. Please, just ask Mr. Rooney. It works.
With that said, the use of public funds requires accountability to the public. The irony is, the fans want what you want. A WINNER.
Finally, it wouldn't hurt to communicate with your players and ask them how their families are doing. The lack of general interest in your players has been a common source of conversation in the locker room for years. Clearly, the players are seeking some element of relationship between themselves and their employer. This mere measure of humanity will go a long way in ushering in a renaissance of Bengal pride and tradition.
Bob Trumpy echoed those sentiments and begged Brown to implement a plan, including the hiring of a great football mind, while Dave Lapham urged Brown to form an attitude of winning and accountability around the organization. Twelve years later, it appears that these former Bengals greats are receiving their wish.
When It All Took Place:
It's hard to say when Brown began listening to the outcries and trusting others in his inner circle. Some, like my Inside The Jungle podcast colleague Scott Bantel, harken back to 2009 like I mentioned above. Bantel specifically looked at the death of Chris Henry as a turning point in the way Brown ran the organization. Perhaps the loss of the shining example of "Brown's guys" gave the head coach a little more sway with the old owner. While it's an interesting point and has validity, others believe it happened a little over a year later.
Before the 2011 season, the Bengals were in turmoil--again. As I mentioned above, Brown saw his team without two of the most important figureheads of any NFL franchise: a head coach and a quarterback. Carson Palmer decided he had had enough of Brown's modus operandi and wanted out. Marvin Lewis wanted to come back to Cincinnati, but wouldn't sign another contract unless things changed. Everyone assumed that Lewis received what he wanted in the early months of 2011, as the press conference that followed showed a haggard and disgruntled Brown.
While some changes might have been talked about in 2009, it was the 2011 offseason that kick-started the true changes that fans are seeing today. Chances taken on players with rap sheets are few and far between, and the ones that have issues while with the club aren't as easily tolerated. The team would not longer pay big money for a high-priced free agent who was over-the-hill and/or not acclimating to the locker room.
Finally, it appears that it's football first, second and third in this locker room and not fame or fortune. This culture change has resulted in three straight playoff berths and four appearances in the last five years.
The inner circle in the Bengals front office has been created. Brown still has major input, but Lewis, Duke Tobin and his daughter, Katie Blackburn make a good chunk of the personnel decisions as well. Don't believe me? Brown said it himself at the offseason opening luncheon a little over a month ago. If this has indeed been the deliberate plan over the past few years, as the team's success would indicate, then it would appear that Brown finally got out of his own way and listened to the pleas of both the fans and his former players mentioned above.
It would be hard to argue against the notion that the 2014 season is truly pivotal for the direction of the franchise going forward. They have their quarterback and coach. All of those associated with the club feel that they have constructed a team poised for a championship. It's their goal--they made that clear in Training Camp.
Will they do it? For all of the years of mismanagement by Brown, one year that sweeps fans off of their feet with the hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy would make the two-decade drought bearable--especially after reluctantly handing off power. This season could be a banner year in this franchise's history, or it could bring the familiar disappointment of seasons past.
Regardless of the outcome, Brown has given the Bengals faithful what they have begged for over so many years. He has let others make critical decisions of late, including savvy extensions to quarterback Andy Dalton and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. It's now on Lewis and Co. to make Brown proud of the faith he has shown in others.
The potential for a banner year starts in less than a week. To say that this football team has demons to slay would be such an egregious understatement that it should border on illegal. The team and who has assembled it owe a lot to the fans, but even more to Mr. Brown for this power shift. The path to redemption begins Sunday.