A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away (cue the music), the Bengals and Browns were rivals.
After all, legendary head coach Paul Brown, who had led the Cleveland Browns to seven championships and 16 winning seasons in 17 years as coach and general manager. was run out of Cleveland by then-owner Art Modell.
Brown was determined to return to the pro game, and his persistence paid off when the American Football League awarded a franchise to Cincinnati in 1967, the same year that Brown was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I don’t think (the Bengals) would have happened,” current team owner Mike Brown said. “That was the driving force to get a team here (in Cincinnati), and it was spearheaded by my father.”
When the Bengals began play in 1968, Paul Brown was investor, coach, and general manager. Cincinnati joined the NFL when it merged with the AFL in 1970 and made the playoffs that year, only their third year in existence. The Bengals would go on to make the playoffs two more times before Brown’s retirement as coach after the 1975 season.
Brown accumulated a career record of 351-134-15, including a mark of 22-19 against the Browns. He remained with the Bengals as vice president, general manager and voting trust officer until his death August 5, 1991 at the age of 82. In 1981 and again in 1988, Cincinnati teams played in the Super Bowl, something Cleveland has never done.
“His firing (in Cleveland) was an injustice,” Mike Brown said. “Getting the Bengals up and running was our redemption. It was very glorious in the old days when we played Modell’s Browns. When we won, we rejoiced in that.”
For all of the animosity that was generated then, tensions have settled considerably over the years. Several former Bengals’ players and coaches are now with the Browns, and at least one former Browns’ assistant has made the short trip down interstate 71.
Of course, former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is now head coach of the Browns. He is joined by guard Kevin Zeitler, a first-round selection of the Bengals in the 2012 NFL Draft, and safety Derron Smith, Cincinnati’s sixth-round selection in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Browns’ tight end Matt Lengel began his career in Cincinnati in 2015 and tight end coach Greg Seamon spent 13 years with the Bengals (2003-2015) as a coach and scout. Cleveland defensive line coach Clyde Simmons played for the Bengals in 1998 and its offensive line coach, Bob Wylie, coached for the Bengals in 1997 and 1998.
Bengals’ defensive line coach Jacob Burney was on the Browns’ staff from 1994 to 1995.
But, while intense rivalry may have cooled some over the years, the importance of this week’s game cannot be overstated. Sunday is a must-win for Cincinnati if it hopes to keep its dim playoff hopes alive, while Cleveland is desperate to avoid the label as the NFL’s first winless team since the 2008 Detroit Lions.