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Brown seeks CBA, not second guess

Bernard Scott

When NFL owners broke from their annual league meeting earlier this week in New Orleans, some scattered to their private jets and others lounged for another night in the Big Easy.

But Bengals president Mike Brown took the 4:10 back to Cincinnati with his daughter and son and the next day he was where he is about 300 days a year: At his desk at Paul Brown Stadium before 7 a.m. If you weren't looking for him among the leather briefcases of the lawyers and the leather jackets of the media, you missed him. That's the way he likes it. But this NFL meeting in this, his eighth decade involved with the pro game, may have summed him up best.

With the collective bargaining agreement now dead five years after he was one of just two that told their fellow owners it was no good, he typically stayed in the background while the Giants' John Mara mused, "We should have listened to him." While teams with booming legs or dangerous returners voted against the new kickoff rule, Brown, who has neither, voted against it because he felt it was best for the game. But at age 75, he voted for an instant replay rule for the first time in his life, showing that the man who is supposed to be the last of the NFL's old-guard hawks isn't always so well understood.

"Obviously, you have to say he was ahead of his time," said Colts owner Jim Irsay, smiling at the incongruity and truth of the statement. "First of all, Mike is a Harvard graduate. He's one of the smartest guys in the room, unquestionably. He has a lineage in this league that goes even past me. I think Mike is deeply respected. He holds an old guard view on different things, which is important. He's principled on some things and sometimes stubborn, and that's good."

But Brown wasn't saying "I told you so" this week after he and the Bills' Ralph Wilson were ripped for being out of touch as the only two to vote against extending the collective bargaining agreement in 2006. With the league now in lockout, no one is crowing about anything.

"That was last time. That's water over the dam. That's history," Brown said this week. "I do know one overriding thing: Nothing is going to get done until both parties sit down and have a serious negotiation."

Several aspects of those final '06 negotiations between former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and late NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw disturbed Brown. The owners literally didn't know what non-economic items they were voting on and they weren't written down and given to the owners until a few days after the vote. Brown not only thought Tagliabue gave up the store on those issues, but his concern over the owners' spiraling debt and rising costs driving up the salary cap while revenue didn't match the pace wasn't addressed until the bottom of the economy fell out in 2008.

"I was for labor peace at any price and I always have been," said Carolina owner Jerry Richardson. "In hindsight, Mike was right. I wasn't."

Richardson, along with Brown, is part of the 10-member executive committee of the owners' Management Council that oversees the negotiations of the CBA. He says the committee has brought him closer to Brown since '06 and he's enjoyed getting to know him.

"He's been terrific throughout this process," Richardson said. "He's a team player. He wants to get it right. He wants to do the right thing. I'm honored to work with him."

Richardson says Brown "is an independent thinker and doesn't take long to say what he wants to say." Those are traits that have often put Brown on an island in ownership. But NFL vice president Jeff Pash, the NFL's lead CBA negotiator, says his style and substance is welcome.

"He's sort of a quiet guy. He's the opposite of someone who beats their chest. He's not a self-promoter. He doesn't like to call attention to himself," Pash said. "There's something to be said about stability and understanding history and what built the league and how it was built. I think he's a real plus in that respect."

But Pash says Brown is not a statue that gets consulted once every other grand event.

"He's not just a good historical reference," Pash said, "but he's a good strategic thinker. He's a practical-minded guy. He cares for players because he grew up around players. He understands the game. He's passionate about it. I think he's a very valuable resource."

If Brown was on the outside looking in five years ago on the financials, the others now have a grasp of the numbers.

"I don't know why he voted against it (in '06). Maybe he was right," the Steelers' Art Rooney said. "At this point we've got to get the economics straightened away for the players and for the teams. At a critical point? I think it's fair to say that."

Mara is the new-guard son of the old-guard Wellington Mara and while the younger says he doesn't always agree with Brown, he says he has a bond with him because they both grew up around players and teams and coaches.

"He has a very good sense of the history of the game, and he's a guy I respect," said Mara, like Irsay and Brown, a son who had a father in the business.

"Ralph and him, they were visionaries on those things that ended up a tougher deal for us," Irsay said. "I wasn't shocked. When we have one or two non votes, it's often the Raiders or Bengals. It happens that way sometimes."

Brown again found himself with Al Davis' Raiders this week when they unsuccessfully voted against the new kickoff that is going to cut down on returns for safety reasons with the ball being moved up five yards to the 35-yard line for the kick. They were joined by the Browns, Bears, Jaguars and Eagles, and it was easy to figure out why.

Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowksi was second last year in the NFL in touchbacks. The Eagles' DeSean Jackson, the Bears' Devin Hester, and the Browns' Josh Cribbs are Pro Bowl returners, and Jacksonville has a kicker and returner that finished in the AFC's top 10 for touchbacks and average, respectively.

The Bengals have none of that and if Brown was voting to get an edge in a division with Cribbs, Baltimore touchback record holder Billy Cundiff, and NFL return leader David Reed of the Ravens, it should have been a yes vote.

But Brown did what he's supposed to do and voted for the game. He remembered when he was on the NFL competition committee in 1994 why he was for the kickoff being moved back to the 30.

"There were too few returns and too many dead plays, and we wanted a live-action play," Brown said. "It's going to be hard to make me think that was a mistake.

"In my mind the overriding issue isn't how it advantages or disadvantages the Bengals. In my mind, it's how does it impact the game?"

Brown is also concerned about safety, but he's not sure the small percentage of injuries on kickoffs is enough of a reason to drastically limit one of the game's most exciting plays. A traditional hawk when it comes to replay, flow of the game is also the reason he chose to vote for the official in the booth having the option to replay any scoring play. In return, the third coach's challenge would be eliminated. But the proposal was rewritten with the third challenge put back in. Brown, tired of being labeled an obstructionist, let the Raiders and Steelers vote against it.

"You know how I feel about instant replay," he said before the vote. "It's marvelous how complicated we can make it."

But, maybe it's not all that complicated. Maybe he's mellowing. On some issues.

"I view him as a tremendous friend personally," Richardson said. "I've just gotten to know him better. He's gotten to know me better and I know him better."

But you better do it quickly. He's back behind the desk.

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