The greatest coaches are the one's who live forever. Unfortunately in the Cincinnati Bengals' case, those with horrific regimes will be remembered equally as those who achieved exceeded expectations.
A couple obvious things stand out:
- Only two head coaches have won postseason games in franchise history; Sam Wyche and Forrest Gregg, both of whom are the only coaches to reach the Super Bowl with the Bengals.
- Paul Brown and Marvin Lewis have the same amount of postseason wins as Bengals head coaches. However, Brown went 9-5 (.643) in 14 postseason games with the Cleveland Browns.
- Three of the four worst coaches in franchise history coached during a stretch from 1991 through 2002 -- called the Lost Decade or the Age of Helplessism.
THE FIRST DOMINO TO LEAD TO A BIRTH:
Former Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell could be characterized as the Jerry Jones of the 1960s. In 1961 a 36-year-old Modell purchased the Cleveland Browns for $4 million, immediately portraying the elements of fanaticism most fans would express when turning their personal NFL team into a playground. Despite Paul Brown being immortalized as an innovator and the father of modern football, the subject of many autobiographies characterized an extremely bull-headed man where his way was the only way. You can imagine how an interfering 36-year-old would conflict with an old-school head coach who knew everything.
Let's simplify this: Head Coach and General Manager Paul Brown regarded Cleveland's newest owner like a housefly. A nuisance. A meddling Jerry Jones. Tensions built.
Sports Editor Al Abrams with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote an observation during the closing moments in the first half between the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins in 1962.
"I was in Washington (DC) on November 11 when the Browns met the Washington Redskins. A minute or so before the end of the first half, Cleveland got the ball in its own territory while training by ten points. The Browns' quarterback, on orders from the bench, played it safe by running a couple of plays through the line.
"While this was going on, an excitable young fellow walked back and forth behind the front row in which I was sitting, loudly second-guessing Browns' strategy. 'That's no way to play winning football', he shouted. 'Go for the scoring bomb! Throw the long pass!'
Abrams continued his observation:
"After the Redskins trimmed the favored Browns and I returned to Pittsburgh, I reported what took place to Art Rooney and Ed Kiely of the Steelers. Rooney shrugged, said nothing. Kiely said, 'If there is something wrong between them (Modell and Brown), I doubt if anything will happen. Brown still has a six-year contract the club has to honor."
Brown, with his towering shadow, often ignored the insight of his owner. The feud reached its peak on January 9, 1963, when Modell fired Brown.
It wasn't just Modell having trouble dealing with Paul Brown. Cleveland Browns players weren't happy with their head coach either, calling his system obsolete because the "parade had passed him by". And Brown passionately hated dissidence. Bart Plum, once a starting quarterback for Paul Brown, was traded to the Detroit Lions for openly criticizing the head coach. Former tight end Bob Trumpy hosted sports talk for 10 years in Cincinnati, and sometimes offered memories of those years; most reflected on how hard-headed Paul Brown could be. Starting cornerback Bernie Parrish, acting as a player representative, told The Herald on January 15, 1963:
"After being in contact with many of the Browns' veteran players, I found it is the virtually unanimous opinion that it was time for a change. We have complete confidence in Art Modell's decision. I am certain that it prevented premature retirement of at least five and possibly seven veteran players that form the core of our football team."
During a press conference within a week of Brown's departure, Modell somewhat articulated his decision:
"There were maybe 25 reasons why I fired Paul Brown, but only two were really important. First of all, in my considered opinion, I don't believe the maximum potential of the ball club was being realized. Secondly, it was reliably reported to me that, for various reasons, no less than seven key players - and these weren't rookies, believe me - weren't coming back next year under the same conditions."
Model... defender of the player and builder of the peace. When asked if Modell fired Brown because he wants to coach the Browns himself, Modell deflected saying, "I don't want to do that. I couldn't do the job even if I wanted to. I'm no more qualified than any fan who comes down to the stadium on Sunday."
Due to the contract Brown signed, the former head coach was receiving a reported salary of $82,500 from Cleveland. Due to his love of playing golf, many mused at the time that only two people made more money playing golf. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In a bit of irony, Parrish, the cornerback that supported Modell's decision to fire Brown in 1963, ended up fueding with Modell in early January 1965 when Parrish called for the removal of Pete Rozelle as the NFL Commissioner, proposing the new NFL Commissioner become Paul Brown himself -- the guy Parrish said needed to be fired from Cleveland. Modell told reporters:
"I am going to have to assume that Parrish is speaking only as an individual and not for the NFL players association of which he is a vice president. Too many members of the players association are familiar with Rozelle's efforts on their behalf.
"If Parrish is unhappy with conditions that prevail in the NFL, then I suggest he seriously consider retirement."
A FRANCHISE, AND RIVALRY, IS BORN
War had been declared.
Brown wasn't one to take a slight. A response was needed. It would become the type of revenge of which the Count of Monte Cristo would approve.
Despite the National Football League's efforts to squash the adolescent American Football League, the AFL continued growing like a prickly little brother fighting back. Enough of a threat, a sort of gentleman's agreement was established during the mid-60s that prevented either league from poaching players already contracted by the other.
Eventually the NFL couldn't resist the idea of tampering, despite this "gentleman's agreement", the New York Giants signed placekicker Pete Gogolak, who was already under contract with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. Soon Al Davis became the AFL's Commissioner and began poaching players en masse. Author Ken Rappoport wrote in a book titled "The Little League Could: How the AFL changed the NFL forever."
The AFL had put together a war chest for just such an occasion, and Davis made sure they targeted the quarterbacks. Los Angeles Rams QB Roman Gabriel signed a contract that would begin in 1967 and immediately received a $100,000 bonus. Fran Tarkenton and Sonny Jurgensen, future Hall of Famers, were approached. So were solid NFL passers such as John Brodie and Milt Plum.
By this point, leaders on both sides -- Davis withstanding, perhaps -- were sensing the senselessness of it all. The AFL was not about to fold. None of its franchises, not even the financially strapped ones in Boston or Denver, was about to disappear. In fact, the league was about to grow, with an expansion team in Miami beginning play in 1966.
The NFL reached out to the AFL and the two leagues formed a merger agreement on June 8, 1966. Part of the original agreement included expansion, adding two teams from a combined 24 to 26 in 1969 and then bumping up to 28 in 1970, when both leagues would officially merge under the NFL banner with the AFL retiring its logo.
The AFL needed two teams and former Cleveland Browns head coach Paul Brown began a push to give Cincinnati one of those franchises. By November of 1966, Commissioner Pete Rozelle indicated Cincinnati had the inside track to win a franchise because voters in Seattle (the major competitor against Cincinnati) turned down a vote for a stadium two months prior.
Ohio Governor James Rhodes presented a proposal on Cincinnati's behalf on May 23, 1967, but a vote, requiring approval from seven of the nine owners in the AFL, was delayed with terms of ownership and the stadium location being factors. By this time Cincinnati had already approved construction for a new stadium, which would later become Riverfront Stadium, a multi-purpose "cookie-cutter" facility which would cost less than $50 million to build. A vote was eventually held later that evening (on May 23, 1967), and an announcement was made on May 24. According to an Associated Press report in a newspaper dated May 24, 1967:
Pro football commissioner Pete Rozelle said that no action would be taken Tuesday on the application of Cincinnati for membership in the American Football League. Rozelle made the announcement at a joint press conference of the AFL and National Football League which held separate, day-long meetings at a mid-town hotel.
From the Associated Press report in a newspaper dated May 25, 1967:
Cincinnati was named Wednesday as the 10th member of the American Football League, to begin play in 1968.
William N. Wallace with the New York Times wrote on May 25, 1967:
"Cincinnati, a city of 1.3-million population that has had a professional baseball team since 1869, gained a pro football team yesterday. The American Football League granted a franchise its 10th to Cincinnati, with the approval of the National Football League..."
The UPI wrote on May 24, 1967:
Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the joint pro football leagues, today announced Cincinnati would receive a franchise in the American Football League and begin play in 1968.
Who would own the team was an entirely different matter.
By 1967 there were five different groups seeking ownership of Cincinnati's professional football team; only two groups had a realistic chance. One was headed by Paul Brown, joined by son Mike; John Sawyer, son of former Secretary of Commerce Charles Sawyer; Wayne Brown, a grocery store magnate and William C. Nackett, a former Ohio State football player.
John Wiether, who was a former guard for the Detroit Lions and former coach for the University of Cincinnati basketball team, was Brown's only major threat. After months of speculation the league awarded Paul Brown with ownership of the Cincinnati team in the summer of 1967. Brown had been out of football since 1963 after being fired from the Cleveland Browns... and now a rivalry was born.
If Brown were alive today, he'd sport a wicked smirk under the shadow of his legendary fedora. After all, Cincinnati is 44-39 all-time against the Browns.
Despite having the same name, mascot and history, the Cleveland Browns 2.0 aren't the same as the original Cleveland Browns. In addition Cincinnati and Cleveland rarely (since the 80s) have quality seasons at the same time, their games are almost insignificant when you compare the Bengals games against division rivals like the Steelers or Ravens (Browns 1.0). In reality, this iteration of the Browns hasn't felt like an established rivalry since Art Modell moved his franchise to Baltimore and the emotional bickering (at most a skirmish born from pre-Ravens history) has largely dissipated through the annals of time.
Head coach Marvin Lewis has taken part in 24 games against the Browns, winning 16. Thankfully for fans paying exorbitant ticket prices, games were once relatively close and entertaining with the struggling team (during a given year) bringing their best effort against the favored squad. Unfortunately the winning team has won by 10 points or more in the last five contests. There was the win in 2007 when Cleveland entered Week 16 at 9-5 with a strong chance to make the postseason. The 5-9 Cincinnati Bengals exploded with 19 points in the second quarter, beating the Browns and largely eliminating them from the playoffs through tiebreakers.
Let's go back to 1970, when the 1-2 Cincinnati Bengals took a 20-16 lead into the fourth quarter on October 11. It was the first time that the Bengals and Browns met in the NFL during the regular season. Virgil Carter was making his first career NFL start (had seven starts in the AFL) and he was reasonably successful, completing 20 of 28 passes for 218 yards passing, including nine straight to start the game.
Unfortunately, Cleveland outscored the Bengals 14-7 in the second half to win the game 30-27. The Browns may have won the game, but the narrative was really how Art Model beat Paul Brown. Browns players gave Model the game ball. Chuck Heaton with the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote on Oct. 11, 1970:
Once again there was no handshake after the game between (Browns head coach Blanton) Brown and Collier, something that caused quite a furor following the Bengals' exhibition victory last August in Cincinnati. The two coaches did speak briefly before the kickoff, however. "We just said hello and wished each other luck," explained Collier.
Brown, who maintains that the post-game congratulations has been out for some time in the American Football League because of some incidents, said that they had agreed on no further get-together after the final gun. The fans were watching, however. The booed as the saw Collier come close to midfield and as Brown headed right for the dressing room.
The rematch was November 15, 1970 and Cleveland built a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter. Carter completed only 10 passes for 123 yards, including a second quarter touchdown to Jess Phillips. Running back Paul Robinson scored a third quarter touchdown, eventually giving Cincinnati a 14-7 win over Cleveland! Cincinnati improved their record to 2-6 with a third win and the continuation of an epic winning streak that would actually qualify the Bengals for the postseason that year. Yep. From 1-6 earlier that year to a seven-game winning streak and the team's first playoff berth in the NFL during the inaugural season following the merger. Thanks to 210 yards rushing, including 110 from Carter, this was Paul Brown's best victory, as the head coach enthusiastically told reporters after the game.
From the UPI's report in 1970:
"This was my best victory," Brown beamed in the dressing room afterwards. He was asked if the meant the best victory since he formed the Bengals in 1968.
"I'm talking about my best victory, period," Brown answer enthusiastically. "It's been a long, frustrating first half of the season," the former Browns coach said, "but this made it all worthwhile. It was a tremendous battle. We happened to get that second touchdown and held on for dear life."
The Associated Press draws a much different picture.
Paul Brown twirled his hat above his head, jumped in the air and dashed off the field like a happy schoolboy. The Bengals had just knocked off (the) Cleveland Browns, 14-10, and it was one of his biggest moments in his life.
"This is my best victory," Brown said later in the dressing room after the roar of a record 60,000 fans at Riverfront Stadium had died down. "It sure makes it feel like was worth coming back."
Brown would go on to finish his head coaching career in 1975 with a losing record against the Cleveland Browns, winning just five of 12.
THE BIGGEST "WHAT IF":
From 1968 through the 1975 season, a man named Bill Walsh worked under and was perhaps mentored by Paul Brown as the Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator. Predictably so, the Bengals offense ranked outside the top-10 only once during Walsh's stay in Cincinnati, which was the first year of the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.
On January 1, 1976, Brown decided to retire from coaching, naming Bill "Tiger" Johnson as the team's head coach while Brown served as the team's general manager. Walsh, already feeling that Brown worked against his candidacy for a head coaching job in the NFL, decided to resign and leave Cincinnati once Brown passed him over. After a season as the San Diego Chargers offensive coordinator, Walsh spent two seasons as Stanford's head coach until the San Francisco 49ers make their legendary hire in 1979.
By this time, Bill Johnson was no longer the Bengals head coach. After starting the 1978 season with five consecutive losses, Johnson met with Paul Brown and both agreed that change was needed.
"Bill met with us this morning and we mutually agreed that something had to be done," Paul Brown, general manager, said in a prepared statement Monday.
"He is a fine, proud man and he put the welfare of the club first and agreed that a change could help our situation."
The team would go on to finish the season 4-7, followed up with another 4-12 season in 1979, Rice's final season as the team's head coach. Through his first two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, Bill Walsh compiled an 8-24 record. Then 1981 rolled around. Walsh's 49ers finished the regular season with 13 wins while Forrest Gregg, during his second season as the Bengals head coach, posted a 12-4 record and the AFC Championship. Bill Walsh would face his former team for the first time in Super Bowl XVI.
Including Super Bowl XVI and Super Bowl XXIII, Walsh would go on to post a perfect 5-0 record against Cincinnati.
"By the time we got to those games, I didn't even think of the history," he said. "We were just playing another team. But when the plane took off the first time we beat them in Cincinnati, I looked back down and I was euphoric. I just sat there quietly. It was snowing down there. Lights on. We were gone."
Walsh's Hall of Fame resume is well known. Three Super Bowls. A .609 regular season career winning percentage, the Roy Oswalt of the Cincinnati Bengals. A coaching tree that includes names like Mike Holmgren, Sam Wyche, George Seifert, Jim Fassel and Dennis Green with Walsh at the head of the table. And that tree keeps growing today with names like Andy Reid, John Fox, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher, Brian Billick, Jack Del Rio, Mike Tomlin, Rod Marinelli and includes former coaches like Tony Dungy, Jon Gruden and Steve Mariucci.
Generally speaking, we don't care for what-if arguments, but this was a big one. Obviously Paul Brown founding the franchise could be considered a key event; otherwise there's no team. Anthony Munoz, while a great selection, isn't one of the franchise's key events; though the argument is fair. Mike Brown taking over as the owner in 1991 was huge. And, the last-minute loss in Super Bowl XXIII, against Bill Walsh, that was huge too.
Not only did Paul Brown overlook a Hall of Fame head coach in the mid-70s, but that same head coach would show up a couple years later to beat the Bengals in the only two Super Bowls in which they participated. Choosing Bill Johnson over Walsh has to go down as one of the more critical events in franchise history.
THE FIRST COACH IN THE SUPER BOWL
Forrest Gregg is largely remembered and associated around the NFL as one of the great linemen in NFL history. He played for head coach Vince Lombardi during Green Bay's golden years in the 60s. Lombardi praised Gregg, who played 188 consecutive games at one point, as the "best player I ever coached". Along with being named to nine Pro Bowl teams and seven First-Team All-Pro teams, Gregg was part of seven NFL championship teams, including three Super Bowl winners. Eventually his career was celebrated when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Once his playing career concluded, Gregg eventually became an offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns in 1974 and was promoted to head coach following Nick Skorich's dismissal in 1975. He eventually he was fired by Art Modell five days before the Browns' regular season finale in 1977. Gregg took a year off in 1978 before joining the Toronto Argonauts for a year in 1979. Then things got a little complicated. From the Associated Press on December 29, 1979.
Under mild-mannered Homer Rice, the Bengals posted dismal 4-12 records the past two years. Rice was fired the day after this season ended. The Bengals immediately sought Gregg to take over.
When Gregg had heard the Bengals were interested, the head coach sought his immediate release from his three-year deal with the Canadian football team; he had a strong desire to return to the National Football League. Lew Hayman, owner of the Argonauts at the time, had a decision to make. "We'd like him to stay," Hayman told the AP on December 25, 1979. "It's going to come down to our judgment whether to release him or not. He's just asking for a big, big favor and I'm telling him how much I want him to stay. I made up my mind a year ago that I wanted him to stay and that hasn't changed." Hayman even reportedly offered to sweeten Gregg's contract.
After firing Homer Rice, Bengals president and general manager Paul Brown cleaned house, firing every assistant coach under Rice. However when Gregg began formulating his coaching staff, he elected to keep three of Rice's assistants in special teams (and tight ends) coach Frank Gansz, defensive line coach Dick Modzelewski and offensive backfield coach George Sefcik, along with strength and conditioning coach Kim Wood.
Gregg also convinced a little-known coach named Dick LeBeau to leave Green Bay for Cincinnati. "The hallmark of any secondary I coach will be aggressiveness," said LeBeau on January 2, 1980. "We'll play the game within the rules, but we'll hit."
Gregg coached the Bengals four seasons from 1980 through 1983, compiling the highest winning percentage in franchise history. He led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl in 1981 with Ken Anderson as his quarterback. Additionally he was the head coach of the only Bengals squads that went to the playoffs in consecutive seasons from 1981-82 at the time.
Despite having a year remaining on his contract, Gregg left Cincinnati to sign a five-year deal with the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve in 1983, replacing former head coach Bart Starr. Allowing Gregg to leave with a year remaining was understandable from the team's perspective. Paul Brown recognized the impact a head coach vacancy in Green Bay would have on Gregg and allowed him to explore Green Bay's offer, eventually conceding to his departure.
"We felt that with his relationship with the Packers that he deserved a chance to consider their offer. Forrest Gregg was an outstanding coach to the Bengals. He contributed so much to our team, and we are particularly grateful to him. Any time you have a coach that takes you to the Super Bowl, you have someone special."
Gregg admitted that if the Green Bay job hadn't come up, he wouldn't have left the Bengals, a team he left on good terms with. Gregg went 25-37-1 as Green Bay's head coach, failing to generate a winning record in any of his four seasons with the Packers, and eventually retired from the NFL. However he coached his alma mater at the Southern Methodist University for two seasons (1989, 1990) in the hopes to revive a program decimated from NCAA's "death penalty". Considering the SMU job would have been a failure from the start for any coach, Gregg resigned to be the school's athletic director through 1994. Gregg returned to the CFL to coach the Shreveport Pirates from 1994-95, however the CFL expansion into the United States was brief and folded in 1995.
Today, Gregg is fighting for his life with Parkinson's disease.
"I'm going to do the best I can to try to keep it from controlling my life," Gregg said. "I'm going to try to have the best quality of life I can."
Tyler Dunne with the Journal Sentinel writes about Gregg's fight, as well as the man himself from player to coach. Despite being associated largely with the Packers, Gregg had a significant impact in Cincinnati.
THE SECOND COACH IN THE SUPER BOWL
With Forrest Gregg gone, the Bengals needed another head coach. They looked toward a former quarterback who spent three seasons with the Bengals from 1968-1970. Sam Wyche left Indiana University after one season to join the Bengals. Despite being arguably one of the most popular head coaches in franchise history, qualifying for a Super Bowl and being the coach of the popular '88 team, his squads weren't always that good -- he compiled a losing record in eight combined seasons. However, his exit would set the stage for something much worse.
It all spiraled out of control on Christmas Eve 1991 -- a date that would rip the next 15 years into darkness. During a meeting between Wyche and President Mike Brown, something happened. Wyche was leaving and the CIncinnati Bengals were about to collapse into such a colossal failure there was a general fear among older fans of a vengeful return. Reportedly at the time, when the Christmas Eve meeting was over, two conflicting stories emerged. The Bengals said Wyche turned in his resignation, while Wyche denied that version of the story:
"I was simply fired by Mike Brown at a meeting today," Wyche said in a statement released by his lawyers. "I have no idea why the Bengals have chosen to announce this as my decision to leave."
The method of his exit was important. If Wyche were fired, he was due $1 million for the two years remaining on his contract, whereas if he resigned, he wouldn't see a penny of that money. Wyche's unemployment was short-lived. Once Richard Williamson left the organization after winning only four of 19 games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Wyche, who is partially responsible for drafting players like Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch.
The dominoes were significant after Wyche's departure. The firing/resigning, along with the team hiring the unproven and unqualified David Shula, severely fractured Boomer Esiason's loyalty to the Bengals. Esiason slipped into Mike Brown's office afterwards and demanded a trade. Brown agreed to capitulate, provided that Boomer stick around for another season while the team groomed a replacement franchise quarterback. Good on his word, Brown drafted David Klingler and after the 1992 season, traded Esiason to the New York Jets for a third-round pick.
Depression and darkness blanketed Cincinnati for more than 10 years. At least this happened.
THE MARVIN LEWIS ERA BEGINS
It was hopeless.
Cincinnati completed the 2002 season with only two regular season wins. There was no ambition. No goals. No future. Public money went into new stadiums with the promise of competition. It never happened. Take them to Los Angeles, some of us reflected. We're done. This franchise hit rock bottom so many times, it was often confused for a basketball. Dick LeBeau was fired. Another coach was needed. You just weren't confident in the team's decision-making process... the front office hired David Shula, and then kept him as the head coach for more than four years. Then Bruce Coslet, and then LeBeau.
A new direction was needed, sure. This franchise needed a new voice, a new face and a completely new direction. The Bengals hired Marvin Lewis on January 15, 2003. Within three years of a two-win season in 2002, Lewis had the Bengals in the postseason with one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Struggles ensued for the next three seasons and then yet again the team returned to the postseason in 2009 as the roster was rebuilt to be more defensive-minded.
Unfortunately, things weren't working. In addition to being inconsistent, the team was relying on aging talent with dated philosophies. Things changed during the offseason between 2010 and 2011 when Lewis' contract expired. Many wanted him gone and Cincinnati faced a significant crossroads. Brown and Lewis spoke, deciding to extend the marriage while changing philosophies on personnel and slowly reducing the overall influence Brown had on football operations.
Lewis wasn't just granted a fresh start. He was given more autonomy, wrote Dan Wetzel with Yahoo Sports!
"Things that we knew were true were proven in 2010 to be true," Lewis said. "If you do those things, you're going to get your butt whipped. And if you do these other things, you're gong to be successful. Unfortunately, we had to live the 2010 season to really get that imprinted on our foreheads."
He said he sat down immediately and began plotting out the revolution. Who would be in and who would be out. The Bengals have been drafting very good talent for years, now it would focus on character also. No more reaching for talent, Lewis said. He volunteered to coach the Senior Bowl that year to help get to know the prospects as people.
He absolutely had to have guys he could count on. This from a team that not only drafted the late Chris Henry, but re-signed him even after a slew of arrests.
Cincinnati's roster building improved; Lewis had a firm grip on general manager duties, scouting and most major decisions, excluding contractual negotiations. Now the Bengals are doing things that they've never done... completing four straight seasons with a winning record, all of which have qualified for the postseason. Lewis is the winningest coach in franchise history, the most-tenured, but remains on the outside from the exclusive group that includes Forrest Gregg and Sam Wyche. The elusive postseason win remains elusive and could eventually prove to be his downfall (though if he hasn't been fired by now, he'll probably leave on his own terms).
Cincinnati's coaching history hasn't been ideal. They missed out on Bill Walsh, lost Forrest too soon, failed to weather a five-game losing streak during Bill Johnson's short tenure and screwed up with Wyche. And there's the obvious 90s. Lewis has helped recovered the team into an age of respectability and credibility but the narrative isn't about that... it's about the postseason.
At least the Bengals have beaten the Browns 44 times.