LOS ANGELES – This is the season Mike Brown finally got it right.
His Cincinnati Bengals aren’t just in Super Bowl LVI with the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium Sunday, they’re the feel-good story in the NFL right now.
I know some people will scoff at any praise of the Bengals 86-year-old owner and say one Super Bowl trip in 33 years does not erase decades of unnecessary frugality, poor performance and contentious negotiations over the new Paul Brown Stadium that opened in 2000 and was funded on public tax dollars.
Over the years Brown has been pilloried in polls rating performance and popularity.
In 2015, Rolling Stone ranked him the ninth worst owner in all of pro sports. Before that, Yahoo Sports rated him the second worst owner and in 2011 the Bleacher Report made him No. 1.
And Brown himself tells the story of how one of his front-office people was driving down the road not long ago and came upon a pick-up truck with a bumper sticker on the back that read:
“Mike Brown Still Stinks.”
Here in L.A. this week, the national publications have tapped into that sentiment.
“Tightwad versus the Big Spender,” was the headline on a USA Today column comparing Brown and Rams owner Stan Kroenke.
“Avert your eyes, either Stan Kroenke or Mike Brown will get to hoist the Lombardi” was the headline of a Deadspin column that took both owners to task.
They say the Bengals are in the Super Bowl in spite of Brown, not because of him.
Although I agree with Tim McGee – the Bengals standout receiver from 1986 to 1995 who says some of those potshot are playing into false narrative these days – I also know I come into the argument differently than some of Brown’s harshest critics.
I don’t have to pay to get into games like the fans do and I didn’t play for Brown like many of those Bengals did in the lost decade of the 1990s…and later.
Former receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh was recently on the FoxSports show -- “The Herd with Colin Cowherd” – telling stories about the penny-pinching ways of the Bengals from two decades past:
How the team provided them no Gatorade and veteran players even went out and bought jock straps for everyone because only used ones were being offered by the Bengals.
On the other hand, Boomer Esiason – the quarterback on the Bengals last trip to the NFL title game, Super Bowl XXIII in 1989, and now an analyst for CBS’s “NFL Today” and cohost on WFAN in New York -- noted how Brown twice made him the richest player in the NFL.
He admitted many teammates didn’t fare so well, but he brought up some good points on how things have changed these days in Cincinnati.
Patience pays off with Taylor
One knock on Brown is that he’s often held onto people too long – whether it was ne’er-do-well players like Vontaze Burfict or flailing coaches like Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet – but now that tendency has paid off for him.
In his first two years in Cincinnati, young coach Zac Taylor went 6-25-1 and now admits he would have been fired by almost every other owner after that.
Brown hung onto him and magic has happened this season.
Esiason noted part of it is that Brown is loathe to pull the rip cord and end up having to pay two coaches at once.
But he also said Brown, who attends every team practice and walkthrough, could see the growing dynamic between Taylor and the wonder kid quarterback Joe Burrow.
“He knew how well they connected,” Esiason told reporters this week. “He saw something special in that pairing.”
That kind of magic never quite happened during Marvin Lewis’ 16-year tenure as the Bengals’ coach. Critics say he should have been gone long before he gave way to Taylor.
But Lewis is being short-changed here. He brought the team back to respectability after one of the most dismal decades in NFL history.
And Brown is to be applauded for his allegiance to Lewis – one of the very few black coaches in the league – when so many other owners, regardless of their lip service, would not hire a coach of color.
In some ways Brown is a pioneer:
He learned the lessons of race from his dad, Paul Brown, the Hall of Fame legend who made the Cleveland Browns a power and then built the Cincinnati Bengals.
Paul Brown broke the color barrier in modern pro sports when he signed Marion Motley and Bill Willis to play for Cleveland in the All-America Football Conference in 1946. Prior to that segregation fence had kept blacks from the pros for nearly 15 years.
He had done the same when he coached Ohio State and reintegrated the program when he made Willis a Buckeye in 1942.
“Bill played for my father at Ohio State and Marion did the same at Great Lakes (Naval Training Center),” Brown once told me. “When my father got to Cleveland, he knew who the better players were. He wasn’t thinking about breaking color barriers, he was thinking about winning football games.”
Mike hung around his dad’s teams from the time he was a teenager and every year he’d go to the Browns training camp at Bowling Green State University.
Back then, Mike said he helped the equipment men get gear together and was allowed to sit in on film sessions and meetings:
“I was an unpaid employee, just a kid, and I’d bundle socks and T-shirts and jocks and put them in the lockers.”
At night he’d go upstairs and play hearts with some of the guys he most revered, the team’s pioneering black players Motley, Willis and Horace Gillom.
“Those players were my buddies,” he said. “They’re still my heroes.”
‘This means a lot to him’
Although it may be a stretch to call Brown a trailblazer, he has made strides in a few areas where other owners have not. Thankfully he’s given a considerable amount of control of the team to his daughter Katie and her husband, Troy Blackburn.
If he hadn’t, the team almost certainly wouldn’t be in the Super Bowl.
Katie has been the team’s executive vice president since 2001 and was the first woman in the NFL to extensively negotiate player contracts.
The current Bengals have been built thanks to some lavish free agent spending the past couple of offseasons and some savvy draft classes that brought the likes of Burrow, receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins and ice-water kicker Evan McPherson.
There’s also been a reconnection to former players and that’s thanks to Brown’s granddaughter Elizabeth, who pushed him to finally launch the long overdue “Ring of Honor” to celebrate past Bengals greats.
The current players – too young or too new to the club to know about all those negatives of the past – have a different view of Brown.
After the team beat the Las Vegas Raiders for the Bengals’ first playoff win in 31 years – a game which Brown missed because he was at home dealing with a mild case of COVID – Taylor awarded the owner a game ball.
Over the past few days several players, including Joe Mixon, Tyler Boyd, Mike Hilton and Burrow, have talked about their appreciation of Brown.
“He’s one of the guys,” Mixon said. “He cares about the team and wants to love on the players.
“I know this means a lot to him. He’s getting older. At the end of the day, we just want to make his dream come true.”
This week Brown has kept a low profile. He’s the complete opposite of an owner like Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys boss who never met spotlight he didn’t like.
And thankfully, Brown is not like Washington’s Daniel Snyder, Miami’s Stephen Ross or the late Art Modell.
So there can be worse.
“It’s a wonderful thing for someone in my stage of life to be able to be involved with this,” Brown told Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer the other day.
The only time Brown’s really been on stage in this playoff run was when he accepted the Lamar Hunt trophy after the Bengals knocked off Kansas City to win the AFC Championship.
He wore an old trench coat and rumpled canvas cap.
“He’s had the coat, he’s had the shirt, probably 50 years,” Esiason said this week. “Part of that is the loveable Mike Brown.”
That Brown is not front and center this week is no surprise.
“Listen, I’ve been up, I’ve been down and I’ve been all places in between,” he has told me. “Certainly being popular is better than not being popular, but do I take credit for that.
“I wasn’t out there taking credit when things weren’t going so well, so maybe I ought to shut up and not take credit when it is going a little better. But I am happy when people don’t want to take a bite out of me.”
That some of that is happening now is understandable, said former Bengals receiving great Chad Johnson:
“Winning fixes everything.”
I once asked Brown what winning a Super Bowl ring would mean.
He thought about it a second, then said:
“It would mean a lot. I haven’t managed that. That doesn’t please me. It’s one of the things on my resume that’s unfinished.
“It would make a nice entry on my gravestone.”
It would signify a season where he finally got it right.