Posted: 6 a.m.
As the Bengals get set to hire their third defensive coordinator under head coach Marvin Lewis in what is expected to be former Cowboys and Falcons boss Mike Zimmer, the semi-new coaching staff along with the NFL's smallest personnel department prepares for next week's scouting trip to the Senior Bowl like it has for all the others.
The week is one of the milestones of the scouting season that culminates in the late April draft and with the Bengals coming off another season out of the playoffs the club continues to take heat for its lack of numbers in personnel.
So if it is open season on college players, it is also open season on the Bengals.
But handing out stats showing his club rates in the upper half of the NFL during the last five years when it comes to games started and played by draft picks, Bengals president Mike Brown stands by a streamlined philosophy that has yielded 11 Pro Bowlers or alternates since 1996.
PRO BOWLERS OR ALTERNATES DRAFTED SINCE 1996
1996: RT Willie Anderson (first round) 1997: RB Corey Dillon (second round), KR Tremain Mack (fourth round) 1998: LB Takeo Spikes (first round) 2001: WR Chad Johnson (second round), RB Rudi Johnson (fourth round), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (seventh round) 2002: LT Levi Jones (first round) 2003: QB Carson Palmer (first round), LG Eric Steinbach (second round), FB Jeremi Johnson (fourth round)
"I think we're efficient and I don't apologize for that. I think that's what we should try to be," Brown said last week in a rare media session with Bengals.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer.
"Since everyone has more scouts than we do and there are just as many (teams) below us as there are above us, is that the answer?"
Brown points to the club's .525 winning percentage since Lewis became head coach in 2003, which is behind 14 teams and ahead of 17 others. In that same stretch, the 43 players the Bengals have drafted have played a total of 1,104 NFL games and started 525. The Bengals say that ranks them 11th and 12th, respectively in the league in those categories.
They are higher than that in percentage of players still with the team (fifth with 67.4), percentage of players still in the NFL (fifth at 81.4 percent) and percentage of players no longer in the NFL (fifth at 18.6).
After culling staff titles and descriptions from 2007 media guides, the Bengals figure teams have anywhere from 40 to 60 percent more people scouting talent. As listed in their own media guide, they give themselves six with senior vice president of player personnel Pete Brown, vice president of player personnel Paul Brown, director of football operations Jim Lippincott, director of player personnel Duke Tobin, scout Greg Seamon, and scouting consultant Bill Tobin.
(They don't count former Ohio State head coach John Cooper, also listed as a scouting consultant who is a liaison to a vast network of college coaches.)
When Lewis arrived in 2003, the Bengals added Seamon and expanded the travel of Bill Tobin, architect of the 1985 Super Bowl champion Bears and the Colts playoff teams of the mid-1990s.
"Isn't that what matters?" Brown asked. "This is the product. Not the number of employees, but what the group as a whole produces. I would argue that we do well."
Brown admits you can make numbers do whatever you want. Here is how the Bengals stack up in the AFC North over the past five seasons:
PITTSBURGH at 50-30: 10 scouts and execs; ranked 31st in games played, 30th in total games started, 27th in percentage of players still with team, 31st in percentage of players still in league.
BALTIMORE at 43-37: 10 scouts and execs; ranked seventh in games played, 20th in games started, first in percentage of players still with team, fourth in percentage of players still in NFL.
CINCINNATI at 42-38: 6 scouts and execs; ranked 11th in games played, 12th in games started, fifth in percentage of players still with team, fifth in percentage of players still in NFL.
CLEVELAND at 29-51: 15 scouts and execs; ranked 24th in games played, 23rd in games started, 26th in percentage of players still with team, 17th in percentage of players still in league.
Other teams? The two top teams of the last five years, the Patriots at 66-14 and the Colts at 63-17:
The Pats have 14 scouts and execs and are ranked 14th in games played, 11th in games started, 28th in percentage of players still with the team and 23rd in percentage of players still in the NFL.
The Colts have 14 scouts and execs and are ranked sixth in games played, second in games started, 14th in percentage of players still with the team and eighth in percentage still in the NFL.
It's not a simple computation. The Cardinals lead the NFL in total games started by draft picks since 2003 and have a 28-52 record. The Broncos, with 11 scouts and execs, have blown the most picks in that stretch with only 45.9 percent of their 37 selections still in the NFL. Yet they have the fifth-best record in the league at 49-31.
So it is clearly a mix of veterans, free agents, scheme, coaching, continuity, injury, and, as Brown sees it, having the most important piece, the quarterback.
"And we have a good one," Brown said of Carson Palmer.
In fact, when the new owner of the Patriots came to Cincinnati several years ago to have dinner with Brown and pick his brain on what an NFL team needs to succeed, Brown told Bob Kraft, "The two most important things you need are a good coach and a good quarterback."
And Brown feels he has both in Lewis and Palmer, but he restricted last week's interview to one piece of the puzzle.
"When you talk about the Bengals, I don't think anyone is saying they aren't able to find talent," said Rob Rang, senior analyst of NFLDraftScout.com. "They've made solid picks. They usually don't reach. Given their small staff, it would seem that they work well with Marvin and his coaches. You take a pick like David Pollack (first round in 2005) and I remember people were saying how that was the safest, most solid pick in the draft because of his motor, skill and he's such a good kid."
But Pollack (broken neck), like 2004 first-rounder Chris Perry (ankle) and 2007 second-rounder Kenny Irons (ACL) have been cursed by injury.
"We've had some good drafts that have been hugely impacted by injuries," Brown said. "We've had more than our share and they've been devastating. Not for one year or half a season, but longer. Maybe even career-ending. It's hard to explain why that has been so, but it has been."
Rang says the problem others point to about a small staff is the character issue. And the Bengals have been bit by that, particularly in the '05 draft where off-field problems for just Odell Thurman and Chris Henry alone have cost them 42 games in NFL suspensions.
"When I've talked to other teams, they tell me how much interviewing now has to be done at the school visits for character," Rang said. "Not just coaches, but trainers, equipment guys, tutors. If you've got a small staff, that may be too much for one guy, and maybe some of that stuff isn't discovered."
The Bengals say they've known about the character flaws before the draft and that they simply took the gamble. No more, Lewis has been saying.
But Rang gives them high grades for second-day finds. He agrees that critics can't have it both ways. The Bengals can't be ripped as underachievers that have no talent. Nine of the 11 starters on an offense that has finished sixth, eighth, and 10th in the NFL the past three seasons are draft picks.
Brown also points to regulars since 2000 drafted on the second day, ranging from long snapper Brad St. Louis to Pro Bowl wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, running back Rudi Johnson to strong safety Chinedum Ndukwe, and defensive linemen Domata Peko and Jonathan Fanene.
"Obviously our staff is uncovering these players and since we have so many of them, they must be doing it reasonably well," Brown said.
There has been a media buzz that Lewis is unhappy with the personnel situation, but there is no evidence that what Lewis wants is a general manager. He seems satisfied that there are no layers between himself and the three people that incorporate the job of GM in Brown, executive vice president Katie Blackburn and vice president Troy Blackburn.
Indications are the buzz may be about adding a scout or two dedicated just to pro personnel. The Bengals are one of the few teams that don't divide their department into college and pro. There are seven other teams that don't have a pro personnel director, including the Patriots.
The Bengals argue that it's advantageous for scouts to be well versed in both the college and pro game in order to keep perspective in judging which players can make the jump. Plus, Brown says the Bengals are one of approximately 13 NFL teams using PROSCOUT, Inc., "that we use as a starting point."
(The Bengals also use National Football Scouting, Inc. A total of 11 teams provide a scout. The other eight, including Cincinnati, pay an additional fee equivalent to the total costs of one scout in lieu of club scout costs.)
Brown believes the Bengals have the NFL covered as well as the colleges. They can point as recently to this past year when they identified veteran linebackers Lemar Marshall and Dhani Jones off the street who made key contributions. Or go back to 2003 when they took their franchise kicker, Shayne Graham, off the waiver wire.
"With the communications you have today, we don't have a scout that's not a button away," Brown said. "And we use our coaches more than maybe others do in personnel decisions."
There is no question that the Bengals do that in both college and pro scouting and Brown is going to continue to do it even though the argument persists it is too much on coaches nowadays because the Xs and Os have ballooned.
The anti-coach argument is that it takes too much time for an assistant before free agency and during the season to break down prospects on film and grade them.
But the Bengals argue that their scouts do a lot of the ground work for free agency during the preseason when they watch tape of all the other teams in trying to anticipate the final roster moves. The scouting then continues during the season when they scout the Bengals' own games.
Plus, Duke Tobin spends a day or two in the office each week during the season setting up the pro board before going out on his weekly college visits. Meanwhile, Paul Brown sets up weekly tryouts at the stadium by players on the street.
Mike Brown thinks the coaches' involvement is extremely important and he thinks they like being involved so heavily. He recalls in the 2001 draft how new offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was the crucial guy in the decision to choose between wide receivers Chad Johnson and Chris Chambers in the second round.
Bratkowski was just fresh off working with Johnson in the Senior Bowl as his last act as the Steelers receivers coach and was so impressed with Johnson's sheer physical abilities and love for the game.
"I don't think so," said Brown when asked if the work load is too much for the coaches. "We don't have (players) here until mid-March.
"This gives them access to the pool of players they potentially could be dealing with. They want to have that. It's important that they have a voice in who comes here."
The coaches don't make half as many college visits during March and April as they did before Lewis arrived in 2003. They check out the top 10 prospects or so at their position. The scouts are on the road all fall and hit nearly every prospect.
Lippincott visits the Midwest during the season. Duke Tobin works Oklahoma and Texas and everything West. Bill Tobin has the Southeast. Seamon has the East Coast. Come the all-star games, they begin to cross-check each other's players. By the time the scouts and coaches head to Indianapolis for the scouting combine in late February, the coaches will already have three separate reports on each prospect.
"By the time we make the pick, we'll have six, seven, eight opinions," Mike Brown said.
This gets to the heart of Brown's management philosophy. Far from wielding an iron fist with a closed mind, Brown has a full room on draft day between all the coaches and scouts and he listens to everyone and anyone before each pick. He has the final say. But on many NFL teams, the assistant coaches and even some scouts are sitting in their own offices Draft Day watching it on TV.
Brown's door is wide open. That's the way his father did it, too. Former long-time Bengals offensive line coach Jim McNally still remembers how he could burst into Paul Brown's office at any moment of the day raving about his newest find on the scouting trail.
"I didn't put my feet on the desk," said McNally, but he could have.
And that is Mike Brown's attitude on titles.
"I couldn't tell you what titles there are. But I can tell you what people do around here. I don't even know what my title is altogether," Brown said. "When it came to Jim and Duke to pick their titles a few years ago, I asked them what they wanted to be called. I know who's here and I know what they do and that's what matters to me. Not what they want to be called or what their titles are."
But Brown does know this is open season on him and his staff.
"There is more than one way to skin a cat," Brown said. "The end results, I think, that we do pretty well.
"We didn't succeed. We had a disappointing year. And there are going to be reasons offered up for that. The current theme is, 'Well, we don't have enough scouts.' Come back next year and if we disappoint again there'll be another reason. It goes with the territory. I think in this area, this theme is not properly understood."