In 1975 the Cincinnati Bengals finished with an 11-3 record and for the third time in their eight-year history qualified for the playoffs. In those days no team in the NFL seemed to have a brighter future than Cincinnati. Not only were most of the players on that good '75 squad pretty young, but in the ensuing four drafts the Bengals would have nine first-round picks, more than any other NFL franchise. But somehow Cincinnati has bungled an extraordinary opportunity to build a dynasty. After narrowly missing the playoffs in 1976 and 1977 with 10-4 and 8-6 records, respectively, the Bengals dropped to 4-12 last season and settled in the cellar of the AFC Central. And this season they have lost seven of their first nine games, with one of the two victories being last Sunday's 37-13 defeat of Philadelphia at Riverfront Stadium.
"The biggest surprise of the 1979 NFL season is the Cincinnati Bengals," says Paul Brown, the team's part-owner and general manager. "I thought that we were going to be a pretty good football team."
You're not alone, Paul.
Brown coached the Bengals in their first eight seasons. He retired a few days after Cincinnati's 31-28 playoff loss to Oakland in 1975, confident that "I had nothing more to prove." In his 41 years of coaching, Brown, who is now 71, had introduced just about everything to football but the ball itself. He didn't just fade away, though. While he no longer is visible on the sidelines, Brown remains in full control of the Bengals, and now that his team's fortunes are flagging, more and more Cincinnati fans are pointing accusing fingers at the old master. As a coach, they thought Brown could reach Riverfront Stadium by walking on the river. As a general manager, they are beginning to suspect that he is all wet.
When the The Cincinnati Enquirer recently asked its readers, "What's wrong with the Bengals?" more than one-third of the respondents placed the blame squarely on Brown. Or on "management." In Cincinnati, management is a synonym for the Brown family; Paul's 43-year-old son Mike is the assistant general manager, and his 35-year-old son Pete is the director of player personnel. Management was also the guilty party in the eyes of The Cincinnati Post, which ran a four-part series on the workings of the Dallas Cowboys in an attempt to answer the question: "What makes one a championship organization, the other mediocre?"
Whatever blame the front office must accept for the Bengals' failures, another reason for Cincinnati's dismal performance has been the injuries suffered by Quarterback Ken Anderson, who was the NFL's No. 1 passer in the glory season of '75. He missed the first four games of the '78 season with a broken bone in his right hand and was ineffective thereafter, and he has missed two games this year with a back injury. Also, wide receivers Isaac Curtis and Billy Brooks have both been hampered by leg miseries.
Moreover, Cincinnati has a fearsome schedule. It has already lost to four of last year's playoff teams—Denver, New England, Houston and Dallas. But the Bengals also were walloped by lowly Buffalo, 51-24. After that game, Defensive End Gary Burley muttered, "I'm sitting here waiting for a wake-up call. I must be dreaming."
Around Cincinnati there is a feeling that the Bengals wasted many of those nine first-round picks on players of the sort the Brown clan prefers, that is, neither flamboyant nor disruptive. Says one Cincinnatian, "The Bengals need some players who can speak only in one-or two-syllable words, eat bananas and have to be chained to the bench." Other critics call for more intensity from Coach Homer Rice, a pleasant, low-key fellow who grew up in the Cincinnati area and also coached high school and college ball there. Rice wears a business suit on the sideline, "as though," one indignant fan says, "the game were a stopover before a cocktail party."
Brown is even under attack from some of his ex-players, the most vocal being retired Tight End Bob Trumpy, who hosts a local radio show and also serves as an analyst on NBC-TV football broadcasts. Trumpy's constant barbs have pierced the thin-skinned Bengal management; they also apparently cost him his job as a commentator on telecasts of Bengal preseason games. He is no longer allowed on Cincinnati's charter flights, a courtesy extended to most of the area's sports media. "On one occasion they told me there were no seats available," says Trumpy, "but they had a 135-seat plane and a traveling party of only 95. I don't occupy 40 seats." Still, Trumpy is quick to point out, "I respect Paul Brown. In fact, he may be the only person who can save this team, but he can only do it on the sidelines."
There are many ideas on how the Bengals might solve their problems. Trumpy's faith in Brown's coaching ability is the cornerstone of one, which could be called the Heal Thyself theory. It traces its origins to New Year's Day 1976, when Brown retired and named Offensive Line Coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson as his successor. Shortly thereafter Bill Walsh, Cincinnati's receiver and quarterback coach, disappointed at not getting the head job, packed up all his cares and woes and moved West. Under Walsh, now the San Francisco 49ers' coach, Cincinnati had the most dynamic pass offense in football in 1975. "We suffered a triple loss that day," says Trumpy. "We lost our best teacher in Johnson; as head coach, he had to be an administrator. We lost a great offensive innovator in Walsh. And perhaps most important, we lost the aura of Paul Brown on our sidelines."
Brown had motivated his players by fear. His successors—Johnson, who was fired after an 0-5 start in 1978, and Rice, whose record to date is 6-14—are players' coaches. "Under Brown you played your heart out on Sunday," says Pat Matson, a former Cincinnati guard, "because you didn't want to be embarrassed when we looked at the films on Tuesday. You didn't want to be singled out as the guy who lost the game. Under Brown you dreaded Tuesdays. The players now tell me the coaches never say a word on Tuesday. Maybe that's one of the problems."
Some critics have advanced the Regeneration theory, whose thesis is that as a general manager Brown has been too willing to trade experienced players—particularly discontented and outspoken ones. This may well explain why the present Bengals aren't quick to offer reasons for their 2-7 start. The Browns like to talk about keeping the franchise "green and growin'," but the fact is that because of the constantly changing personnel the Bengals have not matured. Sure, some 17 of Cincinnati's starters are first-, second-or third-round draft picks, and the Bengals' average age is only 25.6 years, but the record still reads 2-7.
One first-round draft choice who has not yet panned out as Paul Brown had expected is Running Back Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State. Griffin rushed for 4.5 yards per carry as a rookie in 1976, but slumped to averages of 4.0 in 1977 and 3.7 in 1978 and had a 3.4-yard average this season until he suddenly exploded for 103 yards against the Eagles on Sunday. He has not rushed for a touchdown since he was a rookie. Bengal management used to be quick to defend Griffin against charges that at 5'8" and 184 pounds he is too small and not maneuver-able enough to excel in the NFL. Now the only thing Bengal coaches say about Griffin is that he is "reliable." For his part, Griffin says, "How can I think about 1,000-yard seasons when I don't carry the ball nearly enough [an average of nine carries a game] to do it."
Then there is the Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You theory, which argues that while Brown demanded total autonomy as a coach, Johnson and Rice have been little more than Brown's puppets. "Rice has the same authority as the average normal coach has," Brown insists. "I try to conduct myself as I would want a general manager to conduct himself if I were the coach." But, of course, Paul Brown usually worked for a general manager whose name was Paul Brown.
Rice claims he is happy with things as they are. "I have full control of the football operation," he says. "Paul has never interfered. He's never come to me. But I go to him for advice. With his experience, I'd be stupid if I didn't."
In his capacity as the ultimate authority on the Bengals, Brown is more often assailed for sins of omission than commission. Around the NFL, it is common knowledge that Cincinnati doesn't cater to the wishes of its players, which leads to the Love Thy Player As Thyself theory. While some organizations, notably the Cowboys, bend over backward to create a happy atmosphere for their players, the Bengal management maintains a "strictly business" relationship.
"They negotiate your salary, they pay you your salary, you play, and that's it," says one Cincinnati veteran. Trumpy describes the Browns' approach with an analogy: "I've always pictured the Bengals saying to a $40,000 Rolls-Royce, 'You cost me a lot of money, so I shouldn't have to wax you. You should stay clean.' There are many little things the Bengals could do for their players but don't, things that don't cost any money, little things like a handshake or a pat on the back."
Mike Reid, an All-Pro defensive tackle who quit the Bengals in 1976 for a career as a musician, agrees. "If you want to be cared about on a football team, Cincinnati is the last place you'd want to play," he says. "You won't get Paul Brown adjusting to any social change. He believes he's right, and in 1979 football is all wrong." But Reid also says, "The players aren't blameless here. When they step on the field, problems with management should be the last things on their mind. Athletes as a whole are people who have a hard time accepting responsibility for their own actions. It takes maturity to realize you're the one screwing up."
For the moment, Brown does not see the need for anything other than patience. When the Bengals snapped their losing streak at six with a 34-10 upset of the Steelers three weeks ago, their mood improved noticeably. "But if we hadn't won that game, there might have been a disaster around here," said veteran Tackle Vernon Holland.