You're going to get dizzy from all these people coming full circle at Super Bowl LVI between the building Bengals and the high-rise Rams at the end of what Bengals president Mike Brown calls "a storybook season."
Brown, who advised his exiled father to revive his career in Cincinnati and kept the Bengals here 30 years later, is enjoying it as much as anyone. But he's not the only one who is going full circle:
- Bengals head coach Zac Taylor coached his last game as Rams head coach Sean McVay's quarterbacks coach in the Super Bowl loss to the Patriots three years ago Thursday. The next day he signed on at Paul Brown Stadium.
- Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, expected to announce his retirement after the Feb. 13 game, played his first 11 seasons and the first six of his 14 career postseason games as a 2006 second round pick of the Bengals.
- Cincinnati's brilliant Joe Burrow tries to become the fourth youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl against the team whose doctor helped get him there. Dr. Neal ElAttrache, the Rams orthopedic surgeon, repaired Burrow's torn ACL 14 months ago.
And yet, no one's circle is fuller than the one belonging to Mike Brown. The Los Angeles Rams were also the opponent when he attended his first NFL championship game 71 years ago as the 15-year-old son of Browns head coach Paul Brown.
It was 29 degrees on Christmas Eve, 1950, at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, but the 28 mile-per-hour wind biting off the lake made it a lot colder than that for the 29,000-plus fans, not to mention the West Coast Rams when they took a 30-28 loss in the last 28 seconds on Browns great Lou Groza's 16-yard field goal.
Mike Brown knows how much gentler it will be ten days from now when the Bengals play in the Rams' SoFi Stadium.
"We'll be playing in their home stadium, which is not the norm for a Super Bowl," Brown said. "That's a disadvantage. The Brown had that advantage in that 1950 game. I imagine it took a while for them to get adjusted to the weather."
The Rams used to be used to the weather, but they moved from Cleveland after winning the 1945 NFL title and Paul Brown, like he would do 22 years later in Cincinnati, started a new team. The Browns were part of a new league, the All-American Conference, but by 1950 they were in the NFL and taking the establishment by storm when they won it all in just their first year in the league against the starry Rams of Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Glenn Davis and Crazy Legs Hirsch.
"It was a great win for the Browns," Mike Brown recalls. "People in the NFL people had a hard time accepting them as deserving or equal."
The modern NFL isn't treating his longshot Bengals as rudely, but Brown is clearly enjoying what they've done to the preseason oddsmakers. At 150-1, they are the longest shots to make the Super Bowl since the 1999 St. Louis Rams, naturally, the Astroturf ancestors of these Rams before they moved back to Los Angeles.
"I don't know what they had us, but we were a pricey pick, I'm sure. That's just goes to show how this can work," Brown said. "We have a team that's likeable. it's a young team that plays exciting football. We've had success in these games with some last moment decisions. It's been a season to remember for a lot of reasons. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. It's been a great thing for us and it came in the way of a storybook season."
It certainly has a different feel than the team's two previous Super Bowl teams. Maybe the only similarity is they were all led by franchise quarterbacks who led the AFC in passing. Ken Anderson in 1981 and Boomer Esiason in 1988 both won the NFL passing titles on the way to NFL MVP. This season in the same 16 games, Joe Burrow broke most of their personal bests, except for Anderson's 70.55 completion percentage from '81 and Esiason's 8.4 yards per pass in '88.
But the 2021 edition's appearance in Los Angeles has to be the most surprising.
"Of the three teams, I would say probably," Brown said. "The first team was ahead of the other teams. The surprise there was that we lost. With the second team the 49es were the heavily favored team and we had a chance to win it at the end. It was a close-run thing and at the time was considered one of the best Super Bowls.
"This team surprised a lot of people. The only people who weren't surprised seemed to be the coaches and players, They thought they could make some headway and they sure have."
If there was ever an example of Brown's philosophy of patience and development, it is reflected in the case of his head coach, Zac Taylor. After two seasons of six wins and one on the road, the critics were out in full force. Now instead of a firing there is no doubt a looming extension with back-to-back road playoff wins.
"I think everyone sees a young coach who has settled in," Brown said. "I'm very impressed with what he's done. He has a clear mind."
At 86, Brown is still heavily involved. His daughter, Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn, runs the day-to-day operations. Duke Tobin, the director of player personnel, is the point man in free agency and runs the draft room. Taylor manages the team. But they all have conversations with Brown two-to-three times a week in a phone call to review what needs to get done.
And he's still on the sidelines for every walkthrough and practice. His players know it and know him.
"The good thing about Mike is I think he's one of the few owners in the league that comes to every practice, every walk through and just is there supporting the team no matter what the conditions are," said wide receiver Tyler Boyd before Thursday's practice. "Cold Hot. He's always out there every time. I'll go over there and chop it up with him and just talk football like we're friends. He's always been a good guy. Always respectful and I'm verry appreciative of the opportunity he gave me."
Brown isn't one to mingle with players. He can't now because of COVID, but even before he's always been very mindful of how he believed the owner of the Cleveland Browns came between the players and the coach and how it led to the firing of Paul Brown.
But before COVID and after, the door is always open. There's a player on the field next Sunday who never hesitated going through the door to talk to Brown. Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth spent his first 11 seasons in the league with the Bengals after Brown signed off on the Bengals taking him in the second round in 2006.
"I've always held Andrew in high regard," Brown said. "He was excellent as both a player and a person here."
Brown has seen the reports that Whitworth, 40, is going to retire after this game, but he'll wait.
"I don't know. We'll see," Brown said. "Forty is a long time for an offensive lineman to play. He still plays well. He just knows how to play. He's got long arms. He's a big man and he knows how to take the angles. He's a text book on how to play left tackle."
Make no mistake about it. Brown loves his players. He's been criticized for holding on to some of them too long. He especially loves those that come from Ohio State. One of his first boyhood memories is head coach Paul Brown's Buckeyes winning the school's first national title when he was seven in 1942.
So it's a bit amazing to get your hands around the notion that in the last eight minutes of regulation and overtime last Sunday in Kansas City with the Super Bowl on the line, the Buckeyes helped win this thing. Sam Hubbard had back-to-back sacks and a great five-yard line tackle. Eli Apple defended a pass he almost picked off. On the next play, Vonn Bell did make the interception to set up the winning points. And, of course, like Paul Brown, Burrow began his college career at Ohio State before transferring south. Burrow to LSU and Brown to Miami of Ohio.
"We have a good group of Ohio State players," Brown says. "I've always liked Ohio State guys, maybe it's because of my background. I admit to a bias in favor of them."
He didn't see Bell's pick until he saw the film.
"From my vantage point I knew the ball was contested," Brown said. "But I couldn't see the ball because we were so high and far away. Somehow Bell had it. That was unbelievable. That saved the game."
From the full circle, he can see everything. And he knows he has company.
"It's a great run for us," Brown says. "Everyone in Cincinnati is hoping it continues."