12-6-03, 5:30 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
History goes on a fly pattern Sunday when it comes to Paul Brown and Art Modell again. Brown's Bengals and Modell's Ravens write the final chapter in one of sports' most intense rivalries on a snowy field in Baltimore in what very well could be the AFC North championship game.
"The players nowadays, I'm sure they're out there buying Madden '04 and have no idea about the Bengals and Browns and PB and Modell," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason.
But two guys who do are Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and one of his champions, Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome. Lewis sees the irony as clearly as Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis' No. 52 stalking the offense.
In Modell's last season as owner, the late Paul Brown's team is the one club standing in the way of one final playoff run. The Bengals. The team that Paul Brown began five years after Modell fired him as coach of the team that still bears Brown's name.
Lewis worked for Modell for six years in Baltimore and is grateful for his support during a tumultuous franchise move that transformed the Cleveland Browns into the Ravens. Mike Brown, Paul's son, hired Lewis to revive the Bengals and gave him his first head-coaching job. The gratitude caught on Lewis' voice when he awarded Mike Brown a game ball after the win over the unbeaten Chiefs last month in what now looks to be the watershed game of the new regime.
Mike Brown hasn't uttered a word to Lewis about "The Rivalry." Sunday's game stands on its own. Besides, Brown knows Lewis was four years old when Modell did the deed and it was just so long ago, and Brown has never gone for any non-football hype, anyway.
"I'm sure PB is looking down Sunday," Lewis said wistfully Friday. "It just goes to say that the owner has the right to hire who he wants to hire, and who he wants as his head coach. It was true in 1962 and it's true in 2003. It hasn't changed. The thing it showed me is that it doesn't matter. When you own the team, you need to put people in place that you feel most comfortable with.
"Sometimes people make decisions before they know enough about what they're supposed to know enough about," Lewis said. "And looking back at it, (Modell) may change it. Art's been great with me."
Lewis has read the book. "PB: The Paul Brown Story," in which Brown wrote his life story with Jack Clary. After reading the book and working with his family daily, Lewis thinks he knows the franchise's founder pretty well. He sees at least one similarity with Brown and Modell. If their feud was black-and-white, they were both colorblind when it came to finding the best people to help them win.
In his 11 months on the job, Lewis has shown an affinity for players and coaches he already knows. He can relate to how Brown built teams at Ohio State, Great Lakes Naval Training Center, and Cleveland.
"He always surrounded himself with players he knew and he knew a lot about," Lewis said. "From the time he went to coach at Ohio State, having been a successful high school coach as far as recruiting, he knew which guys he wanted to bring to Ohio State. Later on, when he went to coach at the military base, he got all the guys that played at Ohio State and the Big Ten. And when he went to coach the Browns, he got all the guys on his team at the base or Ohio State. He knew what to expect from them."
During that stretch, Brown is regarded as the first pro coach who regularly signed African-American players.
"He didn't care," said Lewis, the eighth African-American to be a NFL head coach. "As long as they could play football, they were going to be on his team."
While Brown took on barriers in the 'late '40s and '50s, Modell took them on 40 years later in the front office. Newsome, the Browns' Hall of Fame tight end from the late '70s and early '80s, became the major architect of Modell's 2000 Super Bowl champions in Baltimore in blazing another trail for African-Americans.
"Art didn't hire just me," Newsome said. "There were guys like James Harris, John Wooten, Paul Warfield. Art has given me everything I need to succeed. If he feels like you can do the job, he's going to go with you no matter what."
The Browns-Bengals, and therefore Brown-Modell, was a thing to behold in the '80s.
Casey Coleman, son of the late Ken Coleman, the Browns' estimable play-by-play announcer when Brown coached Cleveland to the NFL elite in the 1950s, remembers visiting PB on the sly in the '70s at the Bond Court Hotel whenever the Bengals played in Cleveland.
By then, Casey worked in Browns' TV and radio, but there was still a tie because Brown had been over his house as a kid and knew the family well. But Coleman feared he'd get in a jam with management if it knew he had met with the man the night before the game.
"You still run into people in Cleveland that stopped being fans of the Browns the day Art fired Paul," Coleman said.
On a day game in Cleveland in the '70s, the story goes, the Bengals' bus pulled up at the stadium at the same time Modell pulled his car into a parking spot. They got out of their vehicles at about the same time, never acknowledging the other.
But Newsome and Esiason say the two never injected themselves into the rivalry as they got it on in the '80s.
"The players never got the sense from Art in the locker room that it was a thing about beating Paul Brown," Newsome said. "It was always big just because twice a year it meant you were playing for the division."
The Bengals have always said there was a certain snap-crackle-pop in the air during Cleveland week.
"But it came from Sam (Wyche), not PB," said Esiason of the head coach. "He made sure he let us know how important the game was for him, and of course it was an easy thing to see because PB was still walking around."
Ravens-Bengals certainly hasn't had the same feel since Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995. Some like Coleman argue that it wasn't the same once Brown passed in 1991 training camp.
But on Sunday, in 2003, well, just like Brown and Modell, there are similarities.
"We had just got through the '70s with the Steelers as the team to beat," Newsome said. "Then, in the '80s, when we were ready to take over, this team from down south kept making it a battle. It seemed like we were always playing for the division title two or thee games left in the season."
If Lewis knows Brown is watching, Newsome knows Modell is, too.
"He's mentioned he'd like to go out on top," Newsome said. "We'd love to get him back to the Super Bowl."
One final bump-and-run into history.