Reign atop Mount Bengal
Brown's word is ultimate word
By Sean Keeler, Post staff reporter
Fans march into Cinergy Field and unfurl banners demanding that the king of Cincinnati's football fortunes, Mike Brown, abdicate his throne. A pocket of revelers in the upper deck chant like it's Berkeley, 1968: ''MIKE BROWN, STEP DOWN! MIKE BROWN, STEP DOWN!''
Brown has been president and general manager of the Bengals since August 1991, when his father, Paul Brown, the team's president, general manager, founder and first coach, passed away. That the team has floundered for the most part ever since is no longer considered a coincidence. It's Cincinnati math: Bengals minus Paul Brown equals no playoffs.
Often lost in the face of the Bengals' recent futility is Brown's behind-the-scenes role during the team's more successful past. Brown pushed for the Bengals to draft quarterback Boomer Esiason out of Maryland and to acquire running back James Brooks.
''It's easy to say he's not a football guy now that the team has had problems,'' said former Bengals coach Bill ''Tiger'' Johnson. ''He was a football guy in 1982 and 1989 (the Super Bowl years).
''A close friend of mine with the Green Bay Packers told me at the league meetings that the team that was always the most-prepared, had the questions and all the answers, was the Bengals with Mike and Paul Brown. It's unfortunate that he continues to get (blamed) because that's what people want to do.''
Still, the Bengals' .333 winning percentage this decade is better than just one team's, the Los Angeles-St. Louis Rams. The Bengals' scouting department is the smallest in the NFL, practically nonexistent.
Said former Bengal-turned-broadcaster Dave Lapham: ''Everyone has said, for a lot of years, there's great changes to be made. A lot of people think it's strictly Mike. I don't think you can pile it on one person, I really don't. He needs to bear the brunt of the responsibility, though, because he is the king.''
And the king is the one deciding how many people it takes to run his castle. And make no mistake - it is his castle.
The New Orleans Saints offered their entire draft lot to move up to the Bengals' slot in the draft. Brown said no. Coach Bruce Coslet suggested late last year that the Bengals could win with Jeff Blake at quarterback if they used the draft picks to help shore up the team's half-dozen other weaknesses. Again, Brown said no.
To former Bengal Bob Trumpy, now a broadcaster with CBS Radio, this is Brown saying to Coslet: ''OK, head coach, I don't care about your opinion.'' But Trumpy sees this as Brown buying three more years of understanding from the public for a young quarterback.
''And that's the vicious cycle we're in,'' said Trumpy.
But Brown will say that he does have a master plan, and it starts at the epicenter of any good football team: at quarterback.
''If you don't have a productive quarterback,'' he said, ''you won't go anywhere. That's the way it works in this league.
''I know it doesn't seem that simple, but it is.''
The Bengals have not drafted a successful quarterback since Mike Brown's ascension to the throne in August 1991. They took David Klingler with the No. 6 overall pick in 1992, and he bombed. Now Brown is trying again, banking the future on former Oregon quarterback Akili Smith, whom the Bengals took with the No. 3 pick in April. Smith will back up Blake, who's in the final year of his contract, but is expected to be pushed into the lineup before season's end - and certainly by the time Paul Brown Stadium opens next fall.
Brown said his decision to go with a quarterback goes back to the football lessons he learned from his Hall of Fame father, who, like Mike, was a college quarterback. Brown's critics call it another case of hard-headedness - and that he couldn't even get Smith into camp on time.
Brown's hard-line approach to negotiations made him infamous even when he was his father's assistant GM. Even now, while Brown has relinquished much of the negotiating to his subordinates - daughter and executive vice president Katie Blackburn; her husband, Troy Blackburn; Mike's son, Paul H. Brown; and director of pro/college personnel Jim Lippincott - he still dictates the bottom line.
Lippincott, Paul and Katie all have some autonomy to negotiate contracts, but, one agent said: ''Mike is pulling the strings. Ninety percent of the other teams in this league are professional about (negotiating contracts). 'Take it or leave it,' that is their typical opening offer.''
Few question Brown's business knowledge - a recent Forbes Magazine article said the franchise was worth $394 million, 12th-highest in the NFL, despite playing in one of the smaller markets - only his manner.
He is blamed for helping drive Esiason away from the Bengals and into the ''Monday Night Football'' booth - and for being unwilling to woo marquee free agents to Cincinnati. And the cries for Brown to surrender his duties as general manager have only intensified.
Katie Blackburn professes amazement at her father's resolve in the face of public discontent.
''It's the nature of sports that way; everybody gets blamed,'' Blackburn said. ''I don't think that he deserves, necessarily, to get the (bulk) of the blame.''
Brown makes no apologies for the football decisions he has made, nor for the fact that he retains much of the same autonomy his father did in making personnel decisions. He will not step down. He will not hire a general manager. He will not allow a coach to make the personnel decisions.
''Mike listens to the suggestions out there,'' Lapham said, ''but he makes the final decisions,''
For that reason, a high-profile, control-driven coach such as a Bill Parcells or Jimmy Johnson couldn't accept the Bengals' chain of command.
''Most people would say, 'OK, it's not working, you should try something else,' '' Lapham said. ''It stands to reason . . . if Jack Schiff at Cincinnati Financial has a bad decade, he's going to do something to change it. If Carl Lindner has a bad decade, he's going to do something to change it.''