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Bengals stuck in mediocrity and in no hurry to do anything about it

In Cincinnati, we are the NFL's Charlie Brown, in all ways. We're forever approaching the football, with a steady leg and a sweetly naïve heart. You know the rest.

But this is Ohio. We love football. We can't help ourselves. That's why even those of us who have been here a couple decades, long enough to see how things work with the Bengals, were optimistic that this time, things would be different. Marvin Lewis would meet with Mike Brown and from that summit would arise a new day, in which the Bengals would announce they'd rejoined the National Football League.

Didn't happen.

The coach and owner met for two long days and decided the coach would come back and very little would change. A scapegoated assistant or two would take a fall (nice knowing you, offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski) and candid discussions would occur in which Brown would once again make it clear who runs things. Beyond that, same old box of rocks.

We deal in a different reality here in Cincinnati. We exist in a parallel NFL universe, where coaches who lose 10 in a row and 12 of 16 are retained. Where, in retrospect, the most disappointing season in franchise history is now looked upon by the coach and owner as a jumping-off point for better Sundays to come.

"I'm excited where we are,'' Marvin Lewis decided Monday.

Do tell.

When it comes to the Bengals, we don't have expectations, only dread. Please don't be as bad as last year. We want only to be relevant, and not even every year. We've been conditioned/bludgeoned into believing annual relevancy is not possible. It's not as if we want to be Pittsburgh or anything.

In other places, real NFL towns, it's a cruel, bottom-line business. Win or dial Mayflower. Last week, speculation in New York centered on Tom Coughlin's job security. His Giants sat at 9-6, he'd won a Super Bowl just three years earlier. Four other coaches had been fired in midseason. Others hang by a thread. In Cincinnati, a 4-12 coach gets a new deal.

You could look at the Bengals latest folly a few ways:

It was a marriage of convenience. The Bengals would do no better than Lewis. Right now, Lewis would do no better than the Bengals. The coach couldn't be excited about taking a pay cut and an ego bang to coach in college (at, say, Pitt) or serving as some NFL team's defensive coordinator until he got another head coaching offer. The team couldn't be thrilled about trying to find a coach in the midst of labor turmoil. They needed each other. Or;

Lewis has made his peace with Bengaldom. He has been entirely Bengal-ized. It's a realization that Mike Brown will not change, that he pays well, that he doesn't like to fire people, that his aspirations can be excavated with a decent shovel. Lewis can have a job for life in Cincinnati, as long as he remains loyal and keeps the ship on the course to mediocrity. His eight-year record (60-67-1, 0-2 in the playoffs) is right where it needs to be. This is a cozy place to work. Coaching for the Bengals can be like acquiring tenure as a college professor.

Take your pick. Either way, the franchise is stuck in about 1975, and prefers it that way.

The press conference Brown and Lewis gave Tuesday only added to the reality. Brown declared his personnel "department'' (one scout, two "consultants'', a director of football operations and a director of player personnel, same as when Lewis was hired in 2003) to be "all right. I don't apologize for our scouting,'' Brown said.

Brown offered an arcane statistic he claimed proved how good the Bengals are in finding talent: In the last 10 years, Brown said, the Bengals rank 10th in the NFL in the total number of games played by players they've drafted. That those same players helped immensely in Cincinnati's exemplary 68-93-1 record in that decade evidently proves Brown's point. Or something.

"We don't have 10 area scouts, falling all over each other,'' is how Lewis explained it.

The Bengals don't have an indoor practice field. They're the northernmost team in the league without one. It has long been a bone of contention with Lewis. He sees the lack of a bubble as a metaphor for an ownership unwilling to commit to winning. At least he used to.

Now, Brown says he's "not as keen'' on an indoor workplace as Lewis. Lewis, compliant, says it's OK, his boss has a labor issue to deal with first. Lewis also is perfectly fine with competing against two of the best front offices in the business in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, armed with the mom-and-pop crew he works with now. "I'm very satisfied with where we are,'' he said.

Memo to Philly, Boston and New York: Please tell us how to deal with this situation. Beyond, of course, rolling over, which we've done for 20 years. We've all been Bengal-ized.

Fans declare insurrection, then write their checks. Corporate suite lessors lament the economy, then write their checks. The Bengals sold out 57 consecutive games, until the middle of this year. The revolution starts tomorrow.

The problem with all this Bengal-ness, this abject Bengal-ization, is that it spills from the football team all over the city's image. Nationally, the 'Nati used to be the Big Red Machine: Exemplary, clean-cut ballplayers who loved mom and country and always slid headfirst. Now, Cincinnati is Fly-over-ville, home to the Bungles, who finish 4-12 and re-up their head coach. We're not a big rube town. We're more of a medium-sized rube town.

"People are not happy with us,'' Brown concluded. "That's what happens when you have the kind of season we've had.''

Season, yes. Just the one bad season. We'll be back next year. The sky is the limit. Perhaps even 8-8.

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