7-23-02, 8:25 am. **
Since the end of World War II, Bengals President Mike Brown has spent virtually every summer at a NFL training camp. And this one is no exception as Brown opens the Bengals' 35th season when he greets the veterans and rookies at Georgetown College Thursday night.
But he admits this camp has a bit more urgency than most. On Monday, Brown sat down with Geoff Hobson of bengals.com and talked about why he thinks this year's team can be the first in a dozen years to make the playoffs. And why he wants the future to be now.* *
GH:** This seems to be a do-it-now-or-else year. There are about 25 guys heading into the last year of their deals, one quarterback (Gus Frerotte) has a one-year contract, and the starter is getting another shot mainly because it's the second year of the new offense. It seems like a lot of people around here have to do something now.
MB: We aren't looking for next year. We're looking for this year. We'll worry about next year when next year comes. Our focus has been getting things as close to right as we can for this season. **
GH:** And if it doesn't happen?
MB: You can sit down and ask me that question at the end of this year. **
GH:** You've been accused of being a big-picture guy who doesn't want play for this year, but who plays for the future. You seem to be doing the opposite now.
MB: Under this system, it's harder to sustain a team. You can sustain a team if you have a great quarterback that you can keep. **
GH:** Have you had to adjust your thinking in the last couple of years?
MB: I think everybody has. **
GH:** In the last couple of years, it seems that way. Last year you went after older (free agents) like Lorenzo Neal and Richmond Webb. The pursuit of Sam Adams now is an example of a guy you didn't used to go after. A guy with some age and some history of a sore knee.
MB: More and more, we're all thinking like George Allen. **
GH:** The future is now?
MB: The future is now, yeah. **
GH:** I think you feel like you have a pretty good team that can make a playoff run.
MB: If we can improve as much this year as we did last year, we should be able to have a winning season. I see that as our goal. I see that as attainable. If you have winning season, in this league you have a good chance at the playoffs. **
GH:** Usually you like to down play that type of talk in preseason. It sounds like you're expecting things this year that maybe you didn't expect in the past.
MB: Maybe I'm just a little less patient than before. **
GH:** Here we are again and the biggest question looks to be quarterback again with Jon Kitna and Gus Frerotte in a competition.
MB: It's the perennial question with us. That doesn't change the fact it is the key question for us once again. In this league the top teams are the teams that have quality quarterbacks playing. It's a little like the Atlanta Braves, if you will. You've got a good rotation in baseball, guess what? You'll have have the best won-loss percentage in baseball. In football, if you have a top quarterback, you come out the same way. **
GH:** Why has it been so hard to find someone there? Is it scheme or talent?
MB: It's not just the quarterback. It's other things as well. But there are quarterbacks I have seen who if you line them up on anybody's team, that team would win. If we're to win, we're going to have to do it with a combination of good defense, a strong running game, and a somewhat improved passing game. At the end of last year, we were throwing the ball pretty well, but we have to do that for more than two games. **
GH:** With more seasoned receivers in the second year of the offense, the quarterback position doesn't seem to have as many excuses.
MB: The proof is in the pudding. For me, I judge a quarterback on if the team wins. Does it work for you? He doesn't have to be Otto Graham or Kurt Warner or Favre. But he has to makeit work for your team, and we're hoping Kitna can do that for us. If not, Frerotte. **
GH:** Where does Akili Smith fit?
MB: We'll see if he's ready to go. We think he'll clear the physical (for a torn hamstring) and if he does, he'll be in the mix. **
GH:** Is it over for him here?
MB: I don't rule it out for him. It isn't going to be an open road for him. Things are going to have to happen for him to get a chance. **
GH:** He won't have the same kind of shot he had last camp (when he split the snaps with Kitna and Scott Mitchell)?
MB: He will not have as clear a road as he's had the last couple of years. **
GH:** Why hasn't he made it?
MB: He has had a lot of difficult things happen here. From holding out his rookie year, to injuries, to changes in the coaching staff and the system, it's been a challenge for him.
But in this league, it's the old adage my Dad used to say. It's free air. Pump it yourself at the filling station. You have to go do it. If you don't do it, then people will look for someone who might. **
GH:** Do you think this is his last year here?
MB: I think he'll be here this year and it will depend on how he does this year as to what's in store for him in the future. **
GH:** Frerotte is a guy you have liked for a long time.
MB: We talked about drafting him when he came into the league. Kenny (Anderson) went out to see him before the (1994) draft. I've seen him when he was a productive, good quarterback and I liked what I saw when he played. He has a strong arm. He can throw it to all the different areas. He's got touch with his short patterns and he's got enough oomph to throw outs and down the field. He's got an NFL arm. **
GH:** No matter what happens this year, the Drew Bledsoe question is going to follow you. People are going to keep asking why you didn't sign him, particularly since you open the preseason in Buffalo and end the regular season in Buffalo.
MB: It will be a good story at the start of the season and at the end of season. I guess the season will tell whether we should have done something different. **
GH:** The Bills got him for a No. 1 pick next year, but it never seemed to get that far with you guys.
MB: We approached him. He didn't really want to play here. If that's the case, there's no sense in proceeding. We made approaches. We were told he didn't want to come here. **
GH:** Does that give you incentive to beat the Bills?
MB: It would be in my mind. I don't know if the players will think much one way or the other, but I don't know if I'll have forgotten. **
GH:** Does Bledsoe's decision make you mad as a guy who loves living in Cincinnati and works every day at trying to make the team better?
MB: I've seen this kind of thing go back and forth over the years. I remember once upon a time in the old days my Dad used to send players (from Cleveland) up to Green Bay. Green Bay was considered the Siberia of football. Who would want to go up there? But a couple of years later they were kings of the mountain. They were the best team in the league. When you're a good team, players are attracted. When you have not had a period of success, it's something that puts off players. That's the way it works. **
GH:** There are relatively no questions with the defense.
MB: We were certifiably solid at the end of last season. I think that is the strength of our team. If we can play as well as we played last year defensively, that will be good. I think we'll be better than that.
We picked up Jeff Burris and he's been a solid cornerback. And we drafted a couple of young safeties (Lamont Thompson and Marquand Manuel) and they should help. I don't look to rookies to help right away at the start of the season because they're still in the learning process, but before the year is out they'll be important players for us. (Eric) Ogbogu should be a good backup player at end. We haven't lost anybody.
I think we're better. All the other guys will be better situated than last year. Guys like Tony Williams and Justin Smith should be a better fit this year in their second season. On balance, we should be improved. **
GH:** With Burris and Kevin Kaesviharn in camp, your coaches feel like the cornerback situation has improved over last year's camp.
MB: Burris will help and Kaesviharn was a real ten strike for us. He plays well and that's what it's all about. **
GH:** Some guys here are saying Manuel will be starting at strong safety by Thanksgiving.
MB: I wouldn't be surprised if both of those new safeties come in and become starters for us. **
GH:** A free safety like Thompson (the second-round pick) can't miss a lot of camp time because of the position and I guess a left tackle can't either. It's not like Justin Smith last year, who basically just had to rush the passer.
MB: The thing that a left tackle has to do is learn technique. But we do have Richmond Webb. I think (first-round pick) Levi Jones will start out behind Webb and see how he comes on. **
GH:** With linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons still looking for contract extensions heading into camp, do you think that will distract the defense?
MB: I don't think it's going to be something that hurts the team. We would prefer to negotiate in the offseason. That's how we used to do business, but the system pretty well requires you to stay at it year round and see what we can get done. **
GH:** The perception is Simmons is the more signable of the two and those talks are farther along. Is the plan to sign Simmons and put a transition tag on Spikes (which allows the Bengals to match any offer)?
MB: We don't have to make that call until after the end of the season. **
GH:** You guys have said you feel like you have two pretty strong offers out there given they play the same position and command big money.
MB: We think our offers, based on comparative deals around the league, are where they ought to be. Part of our problem has been the inclination of one of the agents for one of the linebackers does not want to compare apples to apples. He wants to exclude more of the money that we would pay this year and include money comparable players are never going to see because it's just part of the make believe they do with these deals in the later years.
It's not uncommon any more to see deals at the end of the term where the salary inflates to a ridiculous number and everyone knows he's not going to get that. But you can figure it into the average and then say, 'Gee, I can get that, too.'
Until we can get them to talk the same language we're talking, we're just kidding ourselves. With the other agent, as I sit here we have not received any proposal what so ever. So, we can try to deal with somebody, but if they aren't willing to play the game with you, you're just kidding yourself. **
GH:** Since you are talking to Simmons' agent pretty regularly, can we assume he's the one you feel isn't comparing apples?
MB: I don't want to get into it publicly. It just makes me think these things may not be quite ripe. It may be little while before anything gets done. **
GH:** Do you still want to keep both? Can you keep both?
MB: What you want to do in this league and what you can get done aren't always the same thing. This has a long way to go and I think it will play out. There are so many things that could happen. Things could happen to the players, things could happen in the league elsewhere. Things could happen on our team. **
GH:** What if Frerotte has a big year and you have to tag him before free agency?
MB: That would fall into the category of what could happen next year to our team. You could list a dozen things that could change. You just lay down your bet at a particular time and go. We were prepared to put down a bet at a certain level and if it goes beyond that, I guess we just have to wait and see how it may turn out . **
GH:** One of the arguments is to go ahead and just give them close to what they want because they have been so productive. Spend extra to get it done, the argument goes.
MB: The thing people don't understand is you have a cap system. The collective bargaining agreement gives each team a pie that is essentially the same. The only question is how do you split that pie. Who gets a big piece and who gets a little piece? One thing is certain. There's only so much. It's a zero sum game as they would say in business school. If you overpay somebody, then you're going to be hard pressed to get the next guy, who may be as deserving or more deserving. We think both guys are fine players and we want to keep them. **
GH:** Jim Lippincott (now director of football operations) and Duke Tobin (now director of player personnel) have new titles. Are we to read anything into that about your role?
MB: I don't pay much attention to titles. I'm not sure I could tell you everybody's title around here. I know what they do and what it means. **
GH:** Will they be doing the same things, which is primarily scouting and overseeing the mechanics of personnel moves?
MB: They pretty well will be doing things they have been previously. But more and more people are expanding their role and I'm contracting mine. **
GH:** You still call the final shot, though.
MB: I would say more often than not the shots call themselves. I don't think I impose my opinion mainly because my opinion is no different than everybody else's opinion. We're seeing the same things. We generally come to a consensus. **
GH:** Do you still plan to stay involved in the day-to-day operation?
MB: I don't have plans to go away just yet, but nothing lasts forever. **
GH:** You've been going to camps since 1946. And you're going to this one Wednesday, a day before everyone else. You must still love it.
MB: Ever since I was a kid up with the Browns. Ten, 11, 12 years old. It's always been important to me. I like watching players do what they do because they do it so well.
That's fun. I like the competition. I like to watch them come from the offseason, to practice, to the preseason, to the regular season. It's an exciting adventure. I don't know of anything that would be more fun to do. Some people go white water rafting. Some people go on cruises. Everybody does their thing. I'm lucky I can do this, which is what I would choose to do. **
GH:** Do watching guys like Corey Dillon every day make it fun?
MB: I've seen him do some tremendous things. He is a great player. I like watching him. If I happen to last so long, he'll be one of those guys in 10, 15 years from now where he'll be out of football and I'll be saying, 'You should have seen Corey Dillon. If you think this guy is good, what about Corey? He was really good.' **
GH:** Is that what you like about the game?
MB: Yeah, I do. It's the competition.