Changes stir Brown's Bengals

7-12-01, 3:10 a.m.

After presiding over what he calls the most changes ever implemented by his team during any offseason, Bengals president and general manager Mike Brown sat down with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com this week to outline his hopes for 2001 and beyond.

HOBSON: You've been saying it all offseason. Actually, since during last season when attendance was off (just two sellouts) in a new stadium. You need a good season.

BROWN: We need a good season badly. We have made as many changes as we have ever made between seasons. It's an attempt at a resolution. It's what we felt was the best way to go at it. I think we're a stronger team than last year if you look at it position by position.

HOBSON: Since a year ago at this time, you've got a new head coach, new coordinators on both sides of the ball, four additional assistant coaches, and five starters or potential starters in free agency, and you gave Corey Dillon the biggest contract in the history of the club.

BROWN: What we did was make major moves in coaching and made significant changes in the personnel area. (The public) wants change. We want change. We want to be better. We don't want to stay the same. We've been down too long. We all feel it keenly. We have to see if these changes will show in the results.

HOBSON: Will you also consider expanding the personnel department?

BROWN: Our knowledge on players is comparable to other teams. If you sit in the draft room, the guys we're all talking about go when we talk about them. Do we always pick the right guy? Obviously, no. I could name names and so could you of the guys who didn't pan out.

HOBSON: Then maybe the question comes down to development and coaching and scheme. You seem to have taken a whack at all that by changing the offense and expanding the staff, which is like adding four scouts because the coaches here scout more than most coaches in the NFL.

BROWN: It takes a lot of things. You have to have the right players. You have to have the right systems. And believe it or not, luck is an element of it, too, especially when it comes to injury.

You have to have the right so-called chemistry with players and their relationship with the coaches.

Is that a chicken-and-egg thing? I don't think so. It's just a matter when you win, everybody feels better about everything and everybody.

HOBSON: Since the team has been in the new stadium, it seems you've loosened up with the money. Signing more veteran players and adding staff.

BROWN: We don't have to operate as close to the vest the way we used to be. That's because we have a new stadium. The stadium lets us compete. We are not in the top quartile of teams (in stadium revenue), but we're high enough up where we can do the little things we couldn't do before. We can have a bigger staff. We can afford to pursue more free agents and things of that nature.

HOBSON: You've been accused of only spending money when you have to. But you weren't altogether unhappy when the league's finances in the last half of the '90s hit the press during the Raiders' trial against the NFL. You said at the time it showed how badly a small market like this one needed a new stadium.

BROWN: To look at teams in pro sports as though they have the same opportunity is a mistake. Because we don't have all the same opportunity. That's more so in baseball, but it's also true in football, just not to the same degree. You only have to look at the financial numbers published in ("The Los Angeles Times,") to see what kind of handicaps we have and how the stadium has made it possible for us to stay in Cincinnati.

HOBSON: I don't think people realize how much of a major change it was for you to turn away from the old offense and go along with Dick LeBeau's decision to hire new coordinator Bob Bratkowski and his system. It's the first time your father's framework that he used back in Cleveland in the '40s and '50s hasn't been part of the Cincinnati offense

BROWN: This is not the so-called West Coast offense, which is really the Southeast Coast of Lake Erie offense. It changed through the years.

This (new) offense is what Don Coryell has done. It's a different numbering system. In some ways, it is simpler, and I'm hoping it's easier for our guys than the old system was. It was just the fact that Akili had trouble with the old system. Even Mitchell wasn't comfortable with it. He seemed to think it was overly complicated.

It was hard to see it go because I know how good it can be and I saw it work. But you need someone who understands it. It has great flexibility, but that doesn't mean this system can't do a lot of things, too. I saw this system work when Coryell was in St. Louis and San Diego and it was the best passing game going. I'm hoping it can be productive here.

HOBSON: You're a big fan of throwing the ball down field. So was your father. You had to be frustrated by all the horizontal stuff that went on here the past few years.

BROWN: In my book, you can win an occasional game running the ball. But it's not what tends to win very often. You can win throwing short, but even that has problems because so many things can go wrong when you get there in small chunks. If you can make big plays down field and change field position quickly, you're going to win more consistently.

This new system is one that both Kitna and Smith are used to. They had it were they were before. Kitna in Seattle and Smith in Oregon and Mitchell seemed to be comfortable. That's a plus. If it helps us do more than just throw the ball to the outlet and get more balls up field than we have, that's good.

HOBSON: Every year always seems to start out with a quarterback question.

BROWN: That's the big question for us this year. It's true that people tire of me saying it, but that doesn't make it any less true. Look at how we played there last year. Until we do reasonably well in that spot, it will be uphill for us.

HOBSON: The Bengals' best quarterbacks (Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason) had break-out years in their third seasons. With Akili Smith heading into his third year, is this his last year to prove himself?

BROWN: Most quarterbacks come through by the time they've been in the league for three years if they're to come through at all. But, I can already think of one exception in Steve McNair. It took him a little more than three years.

So it's true that here it was the case with Boomer and Kenny that they did well at the end of their second years and by their third years they played as well as they can play. But a guy like Greg Cook did it in his first year. Everyone is different.

I don't know how it will work for Akili. I'd like to think this year he'll have the kind of year we all thought he could, but I don't know how it will end up.

HOBSON: Given what some recent teams have done, like Baltimore and the Giants, have you changed your mind about needing a Superstar quarterback to make it? They seemed to win by surrounding mere competent quarterbacks with a solid cast.

BROWN: Last year, Kerry Collins had some tremendous games (for the Giants). In the NFC championship game, he was beautiful that day.

As far as Dilfer is concerned, it's easy to talk him down, but keep in mind Baltimore was struggling before he went in there. Once he went in there, they became the most impressive team in the league.

He made the difference for them. When I saw him play against us and in the Super Bowl, the thing that stood out in my mind was, yes, he did miss some people short on occasion. But just when you would think he was hurting them, he would make some beautiful throws down field that would result in scoring opportunities for them.

HOBSON: Is there a possibility you could be better and go 4-12 again?

BROWN: I believe our team is stronger. I go position by position and that's what I see. The question is, whether stronger means strong enough to get the record we want. We have a tough, tough division. Make no mistakes about it. It's easily the toughest division in the NFL.

We know it's a tough road. When you play Baltimore and Tennessee twice, and Jacksonville and Pittsburgh, those are really top-notch opponents. Cleveland is a big rivalry for us and it always will be.

HOBSON: Is Cleveland going to be better with Butch Davis as the new head coach?

BROWN: I think Cleveland will be better because the quarterback (Tim Couch) will be healthy. He's improved. I think you'll see him play at about the level he's going to attain in the NFL starting this year. He will have had the experience necessary to get him as good as he's going to get and they will be a much improved team.

HOBSON: Why do you think your team is stronger?

BROWN: I look at it position by position and that's what I see.

We have a good running back. Everyone recognizes Corey is one of the top handful of backs in the league. We've added Neal, a proven fullback. I think we were all right there with Nick Williams, but we have replaced him because of his knee injury with a quality guy.

At quarterback, we added Kitna to the same two guys from last year in Smith and Mitchell and I think that's a plus. Smith has another year of experience, Kitna has performed well in this offense, and in Mitchell's case he got in last year and showed he's poised and can still be effective. So we think we'll be better there.

At wide receiver, we get back Darnay Scott and that should be a big plus. Warrick and the other young wide receivers have the experience they didn't have starting last year. Dugans and Farmer. We have Chad Johnson, who impressed us in the minicamp.

At tight end, Brewer is going to be a good player in the future and after that we've got the same people we had a year ago, but they're healthy.

We had one of the best run-blocking offensive lines a year ago and there's no reason to think we won't be back again this year. We should be better. O'Dwyer and Braham were out for extended periods of time. They're ready to go. John Jackson proved he's still effective at left tackle and with Richmond Webb I think we can get better pass protection at left tackle over last year. That's a plus.

On the defensive line we've added a number of free agents over the last couple of years who ought to be good, solid people. All the way starting with Gibson. Booker and Barndt should have better years because they were injured last season. Henry and Tony Williams are the two new experienced players. And of course, we drafted Justin Smith.

We don't have on our defensive line one player who is overwhelming. We don't have a Bruce Smith or Reggie White. But look around the league and tell me who does? Smith has a chance to become a good pass rusher from the outside. We think he's an exciting prospect.

Our linebacking crew is excellent. It's as good as any we've ever had here. The only reason they don't get much credit is we haven't done well as a team for anyone to get much credit. But when I stack our linebacker group with the best ones in the league, even Baltimore, I don't see much to choose from.

We're pretty good in the secondary. They're better than their reputations. They all have one more year of experience and we have veterans to go with those young guys. We don't have a shut-down cornerback. I wish we did. That would help a lot, but there are only a handful of those in the NFL.

HOBSON: There were free-agent corners out there like Ronde Barber, Walt Harris, DeRon Jenkins, but the bidding never got close.

BROWN: I'm not getting into names. We thought the ones that were out there were about what we had. It wouldn't have been a significant upgrade.

But when you look at the squad overall, I think it's a solid team in a lot of places. I'm hoping things can progress for us that might make us even more than that.

It's happened to teams like St. Louis and Baltimore. Every team hopes they're the one where the fairy godmother comes down and taps them for that great year. Yet, while that is improbable, we all harbor those hopes. I think we're going to be better. We're going to be more competitive. I hope we do well enough to meet the expectations of our fans.

HOBSON: This is the most experienced Bengals' team probably since 1991. Did you guys make a concerted effort to get older and is it a legitimate observation that your biggest disagreements with (former coach) Bruce Coslet were over his desire for more veterans?

BROWN: When you bring in free agents, they are likely not going to be all that young. Usually coaches want older players, but I know my father always felt it was a young man's game. Yet there are coaches like George Allen who have been successful working with older guys. It is unclear what the formula is for the mix of experience and youth.

Right now the fact is we do have more experience than we have had before in many years. We did that because free agency brought it about and we did it in part purposefully. We might not have been so anxious to sign older players in previous years as we have this year. We were willing to look past the risk and it is a risk.

HOBSON: I guess one risk is Richmond Webb at left tackle who got people concerned when he showed up at minicamp about 20 pounds overweight.

BROWN: Can you still get it out of him and other aging players? You worry about things like that.

HOBSON: It's hard to believe Paul Brown has been gone 10 years.

BROWN: My Dad will have been gone 10 years August fifth. For me, he left a lot of memories. It's hard to think it's been so long. If he walked in the door right as we were sitting here, I could picture him doing that and feel that he was just late getting into work.

HOBSON: What would he say to you? Besides giving you a hard time about this new office?

BROWN: He'd wonder about this office. Of course, he'd be sitting in it and I wouldn't. I don't think anyone knows what he would say. He never cried much over spilt milk. It was always, ''That's behind us.'' I think we've done a lot of things that he would agree with.

HOBSON: Like keeping the salary cap tight? Not extending a lot of cash over cap like a lot of teams?

BROWN: We've tried to keep our cap expenditures down so we don't mortgage the future, if you will. We try to keep every year on its own. Maybe at some point in time we could get away from that some.

If we had a run. If we were successful. But it doesn't seem like the thing to do right now.

HOBSON: You mean, if you got close to the playoffs?

BROWN: If we got close to having a championship team, we might want to reach over (into future years) and see what things we could do to establish that. But until we get within reach of that goal, I don't know that we want to unbalance the future. More and more you see teams that went through that who aren't doing it anymore.

HOBSON: Some would say you can't get there unless you do some of that cash over cap.

BROWN: I'm not sure that's so. St. Louis didn't get there by doing it. Baltimore didn't begin to do it until they got there.

HOBSON: The big example seemed to be when people thought you could make a statement by signing left tackle Todd Steussie. But even though Carolina had just $1.5 million under the cap and you had almost $10 million, they put together a structure he liked. This was before Dillon signed and you guys were dug in on a number.

BROWN: You aren't going to get every player in free agency. That's a fact. We made a run at more players than most teams did because we had cap room to do it. The one rule we adhered to was not to go overboard for somebody. Keep in mind the results of free agents aren't overwhelming. Half of them don't meet expectations. That's not our statistic. That's a league office statistic.

If you go overboard on someone financially, that doesn't make them better as a player. That just means you put more money out there.

HOBSON: You turn 66 on Aug. 10. What are your plans about staying on and moving in (daughter) Katie to your spot?

BROWN: I'm not sure I know. Nothing lasts forever. We all know that. I enjoy doing what I'm doing. It's still fun for me. I get a lot of help. More and more I delegate, and with that kind of help maybe I'll keep on keeping on longer than you might think.

Sixty-six is still younger than my Dad was when he was coaching here. He retired at 67 if I remember right.

HOBSON: But that's not a magic number for you?

BROWN: I don't have a magic number.

HOBSON: Your role in the first 20 years of the franchise seems to have diminished with what's happened in the last 10 years. People seem to forget you and your father were a pretty good team together.

BROWN: I had a role when we were successful. I played my part. I think it was a worthwhile part, but I don't want to take credit for yesteryear. My father's record speaks for itself.

HOBSON: Isn't that your record, too, as well as the last 10 years?

BROWN: I wish we had done better lately. We've done some things that are good for the franchise. We got the new stadium up. That was a key thing. It wasn't an easy job. There were a lot of trials and tribulations associated with it, but it's here. Now we have to concentrate on the team and get the kind of record the public wants to see.

HOBSON: Would it be easier to step aside if the team was winning? The perception is you don't want Katie to have to take the kind of criticism you've received.

BROWN: Eventually it will happen, but I'm not about to get into that now.

HOBSON: Everyone knows how you love history and the hot guy this summer is John Adams. He's a guy you have admired for a long time. Do you see any similarities?

BROWN: We're both overweight and bald. The thing about him is he got less credit for what happened than what he merited. Suddenly, 200 years later we're discovering that.

HOBSON: I'm not comparing you to a historical giant like John Adams. But that seems to be something you might have in common with him. Adams knew history would write Franklin and Washington created the country out of lightning.

With the way things have gone lately, the perception is Paul Brown created the Bengals from Jim Brown's jersey and you showed up 10 years ago. You've got a letter from Pete Rozelle that says how much your father benefited from having you with him.

(Editor's note: When his father was alive, Mike Brown was in charge of finding the right city for an expansion team and pretty much ran the day-to-day football operations of the two Super Bowl teams.)

BROWN: I hope I don't have to wait 200 more years. Look, I'm not going to underestimate what my father did. Not here and not in Cleveland. His record is tremendous and I will never equal that. But I'm not ashamed of that. I've played my part and I did the best I could and that's about all I can do.

HOBSON: With the stadium finished, you seem to believe it sets up your family's ownership for the future rather than using it as a vehicle to sell the club.

BROWN: We aren't like some other NFL clubs where the owners are people with other business interests. This is our only interest and we want it to remain that way for the next generation. Which is how it is set up with Katie and (her brother) Paul.

HOBSON: It looks like the generation after that is thinking about it already after reading the story Elizabeth (Katie's 8-year-old daughter) wrote about dinosaurs for her class.

BROWN: The thing I love about that story is the way she ended it up. In the story, she recruited T-Rex to play for the Bengals and we became dominant and went on to win the Super Bowl, 200 million to 3. And she concluded she felt, "very good," after the game.

HOBSON: Sounds like a budding general manager.

BROWN: Maybe we should put her in the scouting department right away.

HOBSON: The one line I liked was she said, "Mommy," was worried about getting one of the dinosaurs because he had too many injuries. And she mentions Corey Dillon and Peter Warrick and calls him Boomer-Rex. So she's clearly listening to somebody.

BROWN: That's what they know. That's what we do here. We live it. This business means a lot to us. People don't really know how much it means to us. We want it to be right. We want it to last. We want it to be good for the city.

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