Sometimes in the NFL, you’re either all in, or all out. In his 37-year reign as the Cincinnati Bengals’ controlling owner, Mike Brown has shown a penchant to be a bit of a chameleon in this regard.
In the mid-2000s, smack in the middle of a renaissance under Marvin Lewis, Brown and the team decided to take chances on troubled players, who tumbled down NFL Draft boards. Some lauded the idea because of perceived value, but the attitude quickly soured as the team became a national punchline with so many arrests, suspensions and the like piling up. Names like Odell Thurman, the late Chris Henry, Reggie McNeal and A.J. Nicholson highlighted the list, as the team sacrificed long-term stability for short-term payoffs.
After the 2010 season, Brown and Lewis came to a crossroads. Aside from the head coach needing a new contract, the two discussed a different approach to how to re-create the roster after a four-win season. The “me-first” attitudes would be purged and the team would focus on the draft, with higher character being a priority.
For six seasons, it largely worked. Sure, they kept a couple of players with character concerns, but it was a paltry amount compared to Lewis’ early years with the club. The team made five straight playoff appearances, and two division titles. Going 0-5 in the postseason during the time aside, it was the most successful stretch of seasons the team had seen.
Then came the 2016 season.
Once again, the Bengals decided to focus inwardly in free agency last offseason and keep a major surplus in salary cap space. Aside from good players leaving for big money elsewhere, the team experienced major turnover in the coaching ranks. It was a perfect storm that led to a still-talented team ending the season at a very disappointing 6-9-1 mark.
Now, after one poor season, it appears that Brown has begun re-usurping the control he supposedly gave to Lewis, Duke Tobin and daughter Katie Blackburn seven years ago. “The Great Redeemer” has seemed to return, as Brown publicly stated he wants to give Adam Jones a “second” (more like ninth) chance after his most recent off-field incident in early January.
“I’m going to give him a chance,” Brown told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I hope it comes out right for him, for his family and for us. I know there are critics. I understand. But that is a full answer. And that’s what I have to say about it."
“He knows full well what he has done to himself. He regrets it,” Brown continued. “But it’s been made into a public issue and maybe I am overly tolerant. If so, so be it."
If there is a motto on the Brown family crest, “So Be It” might be the most apropos.
What’s more, the Bengals continue to be linked to star-crossed Oklahoma running back, Joe Mixon. As almost everyone knows by now, Mixon was the young man who punched a young woman in the face in 2014, and followed that egregious act up by blowing up on a campus parking attendant this past fall.
Making this entire situation incredibly ironic is the allowance of long-time locker room leaders like Domata Peko and Andrew Whitworth to leave this year. Sure, getting younger and faster is always a necessity in the NFL, but how do you explain letting those two thirty-somethings and their leadership leave, while an almost-34-year-old Jones, who signed a big contract last offseason, is allowed to stay? Did we mention the Bengals currently have three other first round corners on the roster?
To be fair, some of the players seem to like Brown’s level of tolerance, when it comes to off-field issues. In fact, shortly after Brown went public with his comments on Jones, fellow starting cornerback, Dre Kirkpatrick, voiced his support over Twitter.
Mo Egger of ESPN Radio 1530 in Cincinnati believes that Mikey and Marvin simply don’t care about outside perception. They may be content in their mediocre ways, while getting good money from fans as the team somewhat-consistently sniffs the postseason. After all, in the NFL, character often takes a backseat to winning.
Regardless of your stance, the Bengals’ tolerance of poor behavior on-the-field (Vontaze Burfict) and off-the-field (Jones) not only goes unpunished by the team’s powers-that-be, but also often get rewarded. We mentioned Jones’ three-year deal he signed offseason (his third deal with the Bengals), while Burfict is in the last year of his second contract, signed before the 2015 season.
Whether they realize it or not, the indifference shown by Brown and Lewis on character issues resonates throughout the entire locker room. Some believe that it was a big reason why Carson Palmer forced his way out of Cincinnati, and now some of us are wondering if this supposedly-rebuilt locker room that started back in 2011 really has been as sturdy as we’ve been led to believe.
Regardless, employers have to know the message and mission statements they expect employees to follow. With 11 picks in this year’s draft, bright-eyed youngsters will be injected into a culture that tells them it’s okay to be a jerk, and they’ll even be rewarded for it, as long as they stay healthy and produce as an NFL player.
Here’s the thing, Mike and Marv: either fold, or push the chips to the center of the table. Don’t feed the fan base mantras of change and “different landscapes” in 2017—if you want to win now and sacrifice reputation in doing so, don’t be coy about it. If you want to be the NFL’s “bad boys”, as you were a decade ago, embrace it. Just don’t lie to us about it and expect us to believe otherwise.
Keep and publicly support Jones, add Mixon to your already-talented stable of running backs. Heck, go ahead and kick the tires on Josh Gordon while you’re at it. If you believe troubled talent can get you that oh-so-elusive playoff win, then go for it.
Just know of the firestorm that will come your way. Know that the players you pay handsomely will understand the culture you’re creating. Don’t act shocked, defiant or holier-than-thou when the media and fans question you about the strategy—especially if it isn’t translating to wins.