If you watched the game last night, you saw the Bengals get outplayed by a much better team. You also saw a lot of tributes to Art Modell. Makes you wonder if all owners go to heaven. If that’s the case, do you think Paul Brown had words with Modell?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Paul Brown lately. His is the story of a man who reinvented himself later in life. I like those stories. Brown invented professional football as we know it. Film study, training camp, staying in a hotel the night before a game, having a full time coaching staff—all of the little particulars of the game, came from Paul Brown.
Marvin Lewis has had ten years. Bu he still needs time.
After his falling out with Modell, and subsequent dismissal as coach, Brown retired and was inducted into the Hall of Fame. He could have stayed retired, and given in to cynicism. Instead Brown built a new team in Cincinnati, and more importantly, he remade himself, fashioning his new self around a pithy motto. “Bitter people bore me,” he said.
I spent one season in Cincinnati in the 90’s. Many old school traditions were still in place—in honor of the past. We weighed in before practice, ran gassers after practice, and had to complete a battery of fitness tests before the season. There’s a strange thrill in preparing yourself for an NFL season and knowing you’ll be evaluated on how many pull ups you can do.
Like I said, it was the old Cincinnati. The practice facility was crumbling. It was dank, mildewy—decrepit is the word. There was an opening in the ceiling of the main team room. It was common to see mice scurrying about on the exposed pipes overhead. There was just one equipment manager—not the standard two-person staff like every other team had. His name was Tom and he had the sensibility of someone who had come of age during the Great Depression, which he may have.
“Another pair of socks?” Tom would ask. “Didn’t I give you socks a month ago?”
We played in Riverfront in those days. It was a cool place, if not historic and completely outdated.
The new Bengals play at stadium named after Brown and all their facilities are modern and new. But that’s just superficial packaging. What matters is the infrastructure. But in recent years even that has lacked character.
Paul Brown said he didn’t want thugs. “I’ll take my players high class, cold, deadly, smart, hard-hitting, and hard running,” he said. That was a tall order in 1946, and it hasn’t gotten easier since then.
Maybe that’s why Marvin Lewis has, shall we say “revised” Brown’s philosophy. Lewis has made it a point to sign troubled young men with the intent of repurposing them as contributing members of his football society. From the late Chris Henry, to Jerome Simpson, to the currently incarcerated Brandon Joiner, the Bengals have placed a hold on the “high class.”
An edgy disposition is an essential part of football. How could it not be? It’s a violent game. But thugs are only useful if they’re good players.There is currently one player, whose reinvention could serve a purpose. Vontaze Burficit is an angry young man. Once a projected first round pick, linebacker Burficit saw his immediate future turn to mush in his final year at Arizona State.
There’s the usual accoutrement that accompanies an angry young man—imprisoned father, gang atmosphere, and all that. There are always stories about how angry young men discover football and by doing that discover a place for their anger. They become two different people, reconciling anger on the field with a mild mannered, law-abiding citizen off of it.
This isn’t one of those stories.
During his time at Arizona State, Burficit was as committed to unsportsmanlike behavior as he was taking the proper drop in pass coverage, or filling the correct gap on an isolation play. Actually he wasn’t committed to taking the proper drop or filling the right gap. He wasn’t committed to anything. That’s why he didn’t get a call on draft day. But at the combine, Marvin Lewis gave him his phone number.
Burficit called Lewis and Lewis told him what he expected from him. The Bengals signed Burficit and made him part of their final 53. Last night you may not have noticed it. In fact I’m sure you didn’t. But in the third quarter, Burficit tore downfield and made a tackle on the Ravens punt returner, Jacoby Jones. Afterwards he didn’t make a sound. This is exactly what you want from your special teams guys—hunger and silence.
Marvin Lewis has some other favorable elements in his possession. In fact some of those elements faintly resemble the last championship team of which Lewis was a part. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens offense featured a tough, straight-line running back, a magnificent tight end, and a solid quarterback. Benjarvis Green-Ellis can play the role Jamal Lewis did back in 2000. Jermaine Gresham has a skill set reminiscent of Shannon Sharpe, and quarterback Andy Dalton is every bit as good as Trent Dilfer was. But there’s the rub.
After Trent Dilfer, the last team to win a title without a “franchise” quarterback was Tampa Bay with Brad Johnson, which was the year Lewis took over in Cincinnati. Since then, no team—except the ‘04 Patriots—has had a defense that was so dominant that its quarterback didn’t have to be great.
Marvin Lewis was welcomed to Cincinnati because of that sensational defense in Baltimore. There’s a precedent here. When Tony Dungy arrived in Indianapolis, it was a given that he would immediately build the Colts defense. This was, after all, his area of expertise. Dungy and staff did build a championship defense, but it took a while for it to happen.
Marvin Lewis has lived a lifetime in his ten years as coach. Ten years? Has it been that long? I suppose these things take time. But who keeps a coach that long without winning a Super Bowl?
Actually, the Rooneys of Pittsburgh do. They’re an original football family, too. Bill Cowher coached Pittsburgh for fifteen years. He had success early on. But from ’98-2000, the Steelers missed the playoffs. Most coaches would have been fired. But the Rooneys knew that would mean starting over. They stuck with Cowher and eventually won it all.
That could happen in Cincinnati. But that requires patience, which unfortunately gives way to bitterness.
Follow Alan Grant on twitter @AlanGrant_NFL