Posted: 6:20 a.m.
Steve Sabol, one of the founding fathers of NFL Films, compares Bengals founder Paul Brown to Thomas Jefferson.
But by the time he and HBO get done with their training camp documentary on the Bengals, the comparison may be more like John Adams.
In a recent series on Adams, it was the TV cable giant that rekindled interest in one of the nation's most underrated statesmen. When filming begins as the Bengals report Thursday at Georgetown College, it could do the same for football fans and Brown, whose cutting-edge innovations have become taken-for-granted staples.
Sabol wants to begin at the beginning with the Bengals and that means Brown.
It also means Mike Brown, Paul's son and successor and one of the most private owners in pro sports.
"I think football fans all over the country are going to be fascinated like I am by the story," Sabol says. "This is one of the last of the family-owned teams. This is Mike's life. He doesn't sell cars or own some other company. This is it. For him, all there is is this team. It's the last of a breed. I'm real anxious to hear what Mike has to say."
"If George Halas is George Washington, then Paul Brown is Thomas Jefferson," says Sabol, who dabbles himself in American history and literature. "Someone once said that anything written in America goes back to Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Well, everything in the NFL goes back to Paul Brown. He gave the NFL shape."
But like they used to do with Adams, the historians don't remember Brown when it comes to publication covers and TV lead-ins. That is reserved for figures like the Father-of-his-Country Halas, the Franklin-like Lombardi who gave the league spark, and the James Madison-like Rozelle who gave law to the wayward NFL and AFL confederations.
"Paul wasn't a demonstrative guy; that wasn't his style," says Jack Clary, the man that co-wrote Brown's autobiography 30 years ago. "You know, 'Act like you've been there before.' I think that's a big reason you don't see a lot of him."
"He always liked to be in the background," he says. "I remember that last Super Bowl in Miami. He didn't want anything to do with it, really. He felt it should just be all about the players and coaches."
Sabol plans to end all of that early. He thinks one of the opening shots - if not the first shot of the six-part series of Hard Knocks - has to be the name on the Bengals stadium.
Solomon Wilcots, a Bengal old enough to have been drafted by Brown but young enough to be one of the most knowledgeable TV analysts in the game, is glad to hear it. Wilcots has always been perplexed at the lack of Brown's profile.
"Paul Brown was always in the middle of everything," Wilcots says. "The passing game. Integration. Look at the movie they just did on Ernie Davis. Paul was in the middle of that. I don't think there is any question there should be more out there about him than there is."
Wilcots is often fond of telling the story when he was a rookie in 1987 and Brown, a dozen years out of coaching and about to turn 80, approached him in the locker room just before a game. The foe that day had been successful picking the safeties with a wide receiver when they were one-on-one with the running back. Brown advised Wilcots to deepen his drop and go over the top of the receiver instead of taking a shallow angle that made him vulnerable to the pick.
"After spending five minutes talking to him," Wilcots says, "you knew why he was great."
But a later generation Bengal, the just-retired defensive tackle John Thornton, never knew Brown. The man who brought Thornton to Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis, is the first Bengals head coach who wasn't hired by Brown or didn't play for him or against him.
Thornton is beginning his post-playing career as a software developer looking to marry the benefits of social networking and the Internet for athletes. But he could use more information on Brown beyond Mike Brown's annual address to the team at the start of training camp.
An address, by the way, that now becomes the most important speech in Bengals history, just ahead of Sam Wyche's "You Don't Live In Cleveland" remarks and Anthony Muñoz's Hall of Fame induction.
"Other than what Mike told us in that meeting about the team's history, the players don’t know very much about Paul," Thornton says. "I watch NFL Films and read some things. How he's the guy that started out everyone running the 40-yard dash and he invented playbooks.
"But that's the way they like to do things there. It's all football. You walk into the stadium and there are no banners for the '81 and '88 teams. You wouldn't know anything happened in 2005. There's no ring of honor for past players. It's all football. There's not much extra."
The Bengals image has certainly taken a shot since Brown's death during training camp in 1991. They've been to the playoffs just once since, but Thornton thinks the series gives the Bengals a chance to be seen in a new light.
"There's a new-age player and fan out there that just think the Bengals have always been bad; they don't know any differently," Thornton says. "They have no idea about the Super Bowls and that they were almost always good."
Brown's family has always been careful about not only exploiting Paul's memory, but anyone else's. Others don't see it that way, but Mike Brown has always been cautious about handling such matters delicately.
Which is why everyone is so anxious to see how he handles the hard knocks of the microphones and cameras. When he talks to the media, which is usually only once a year at Tuesday's pre-camp luncheon, he's open, accessible, and rarely dodges questions.
But when it comes to his family and his team…
"To me the most interesting thing is if they're going to show how they cut down the roster," Thornton says. "That's what they did in Dallas last year. Who's on the bubble and all that. No one around the league really quite knows how the Bengals do it. There is no general manager. Does everyone have a say? How much do Mike and Marvin work together on it? As players we never knew that. That will be interesting."
But it remains to be seen what will be seen.
As someone familiar with how NFL Films works said when the series was announced back in May, "At the end of it all, Steve is going to sit down with Mike and whatever Mike doesn't want in there, you've got to figure Steve won't put it in there."
Wilcots has spent quality time with both Mike Brown and Sabol. Wilcots still lives in Cincinnati and does a lot of reporting for the NFL Network and CBS out of Paul Brown Stadium. He's also at the NFL Films office in Laurel, N.J., so much breaking down tape that he can walk into Sabol's office, take a seat and start talking.
"Mr. Sabol is a lot like Mike in that he started NFL Films with his father," Wilcots says. "Both of those guys were innovators and they've passed the torch. Steve has built up a tremendous amount of trust with the owners. He's known Mike for a long time (more than 40 years) and I don't think he's going to do anything to make the team look bad. And, really, I can't ever remember anything on the past shows that was embarrassing."
But Sabol says once they get past the first episode he has to be careful not to turn it into Paul Brown meets John Adams. It is, after all, the first in the reality TV genre.
"There is no script. You have to ride the momentum of the show," Sabol says. "People are interested in those roster battles and the underdogs, the guys you never hear about. They want to see football."
And one of the great questions regarding this football team is the maturity level of a club that has had a declining record in each of the three years since it won the '05 AFC North title.
Thornton isn't sure what Lewis meant when he said this team was more mature than his others and better equipped to handle Hard Knocks.
"I don’t know because I think we had a bigger veteran presence. They've still got a lot of young guys," Thornton says. "What he may mean is that the egos aren't as big because they haven't been as successful. Everyone should have a chip on their shoulder. No one made the Pro Bowl last year. Maybe he feels like they can handle success better because they haven't had it."
But Wilcots, the old player, and Thornton, the biz kid, think the more positive than the negative will come out of the series.
"It can shed some light on things," Thornton says. "Maybe they don't have 12 scouts, but they have put some talent on the field. There are a lot of negative perceptions out there, but this will show they've got some good players and that they do have a tradition to build on."
Wilcots doesn't even think
"They can say what they want," says Wilcots of the producers downplaying The Ocho. "He's a big reason they wanted to do the Bengals. He was a big attraction and I'm sure he's got something pre-planned for the cameras. He always does.
"But this is a daily thing. They're not going to get into scouting players or any of that stuff. If you love the Bengals, this will make you love the Bengals more and if you don't, you'll probably find out stuff you didn't know."
And some of it will probably be about Paul Brown. One of Clary's theories why Brown has slipped below the radar stems from his portrayal in the New York media.
"They saw him as the enemy during all those years the Browns were battling with the Giants in the late '50s and early '60s," Clary says. "They portrayed him as the cold, calculating genius on the lakefront. Back then, your national perception came out of how you were perceived in New York. The way they wrote about him, it was tough and it didn't make him a loveable figure."
Now, he ought to get a better fate. Ironically, the fate will be headed to the New York area daily. Each day's video is ferried back to Mount Laurel, where Sabol is going to stay put and edit.
"There has to be a balance," Sabol says. "There's got to be some history and there's got to be what is going on now. It all makes the story."