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Unassuming Bengals owner Mike Brown unlike any of his peers


It's easy to paint Mike Brown as a fuddy-duddy. That's if you paint the Cincinnati Bengals president as anything at all, which, given that he's in Cincinnati and runs the Bengals, would require an impressive leap of imagination.

Brown is an NFL owner, though not anything like one. The proprietor of one of 32 teams in the most financially successful sports league anywhere doesn't indulge himself. He wears winged-tips and seersucker. He drives a sensible, American-made, midsized sedan. He lives in a modest home where he disdains air conditioning, even in the scorching heat of a Cincinnati July. His idea of a good time is feeding the birds in his backyard.

When the Bengals trained at Wilmington College, a sleepy little place about an hour north of Cincinnati, the players lived in tiny, brick dorms, where the rooms had no air conditioning. Move-in day featured player after player toting window units. Brown always kept his window open.

It's easy to surmise that if Brown had his way, all his players would fold up their leather helmets and tuck them in their back pockets after practice. He runs the leanest mom-and-pop shop in the league.

So when he traded retired quarterback Carson Palmer last week to the Oakland Raiders for Oakland's first-round pick next April and no worse than a second-rounder in 2013, the football world fell off its chair.

The experts figured Brown would get no better than a second-rounder for Palmer, a 31-year-old quarterback with an injury history. They also figured it didn't much matter, because Brown wasn't trading Palmer at all. Brown is a stubborn, principled, deal-is-a-deal guy. Brown said he wouldn't "reward'' Palmer for Palmer's lack of "commitment'' to the Bengals, who had him signed for the next four seasons.

In Cincinnati, angry fans wondered where Brown's commitment to them was. This fall, they have stayed away from Paul Brown Stadium by the tens of thousands. Casual fans simply shrug. Mike won't trade Carson. Mike is Mike.

But here's what we forgot about Mike Brown:

He is a businessman. He doesn't relinquish a commodity until he's sure he can replace it. The fact that rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has played so well was the underlying reason Brown felt comfortable dealing Palmer.

More, Brown is a lawyer, Harvard Law '59, and a bear in any negotiation. This wasn't unfamiliar territory for Brown. He doesn't lose negotiations. Generally, he owns leverage the way Brett Favre owns passing records. You might not mind lining up against Brown's football team. You never want to line up against him in a board room.

Ask the commissioners of Hamilton County, Ohio. They gave Brown a taxpayer-funded stadium deal that the rest of the country still views as Manhattan for beads. Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000. As recently as last July, The Wall Street Journal ran a story headlined "Stadium's Costly Legacy Throws Taxpayers for a Loss.''

The Journal called the agreement between the team and the county "one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government.'' This doesn't play well in a city that has pondered laying off police officers.

The Bengals countered in a letter to the paper, calling The Journal's reporting "gravely flawed.'' And it was, in fact, a terrific deal. For the football team. Brown leveraged a threat to move the Bengals to Baltimore into a deal whereby the county is responsible for paying most of the bills, right down to light bulb replacement.

So, no, Brown wasn't going to trade his franchise QB for a second-round draft pick. That would go against his way of doing business. No player would whine his way out of town. Others have tried, most recently the erstwhile Chad Johnson.

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Besides, maybe Brown could get more for Palmer. It's a quarterback-dominated league. Sooner or later, any team that aspires to be anything needs a good one.

Brown's critics -- and there isn't an abacus big enough to count them all around the Queen City -- dismissed the steal-deal as luck. In their minds, the Bengals Godfather simply was handed an offer he couldn't refuse.

A day after the deal, rather than rejoicing in the bounty, some chose to deny Brown credit. It fell into his lap, they said. Yes, it took a fortunate set of circumstances. Jason Campbell had to break his collarbone two days before the trade deadline. Hue Jackson, a former assistant coach in Cincinnati, still good friends with Brown and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, had to be Campbell's coach. And the Raiders had to be off to one of their best starts in a decade.

Still, had Brown done what many had suggested, the Oakland opportunity would not have been there.

For the time being, Brown is riding a wave of local feel-good. The Bengals are 4-2. Brown's miniature personnel "department'' -- one scout, three "scouting consultants'' -- managed to snag two potential rookies of the year last spring, Dalton and wideout A.J. Green. Optimists see the Bengals as an overachieving, young team on the rise.

Veteran observers revel in the recent fun, yet remain in Chicken Little mode.

The fact that Brown pulled off a brilliant deal does not change who he is, or how he runs his team. The same characteristics that resulted in the Palmer trade -- his stubbornness, his negotiating skill, his rigid principles -- are those that keep locals from embracing Brown the way they have the other pro sports owner in town, Reds CEO Bob Castellini.

The dichotomy between rooting for a striving group of young players while maintaining a healthy disdain for ownership is causing Bengals fans sleepless nights.

It might sound crazy. But if Brown hadn't steered the Bengals ship to the worst record in the NFL in the previous two decades, he might actually be well liked locally. He is a nice man, a good man, unassuming, loyal to his employees and privately generous with his money.

And in his finest hour, Brown didn't gloat. He never gloats. When you've pulled off a coup, you admire the chips as they're raked your way. You observe, silently and from afar, as the pundits dine on their opinions.

Raiders coach Hue Jackson complimented himself on the deal. "I don't think you ever mortgage the future of an organization when you're putting a real big-time franchise quarterback on your team," Jackson said last week.

Brown didn't appear publicly. He issued a statement, which read, in part: "We (found) ourselves rather suddenly in a position of being able to receive real value for Carson. When this opportunity arose, we felt we could not let it pass.''

Brown knew he'd gotten the better of the deal. He let it go at that.

Modesty is flattering. It's also unusual.

If only his team won more often. This trade might help. These are the Bengals, though. The jury is forever out.