Bengals mired in mediocrity

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- The revolution marches on in a lush-green field three miles from the Georgetown Scott County Airport. If the billboards and the urinal-cake campaign didn't do it, didn't stir the Cincinnati Bengals out of an 18-year slumber, surely Andrew Simon's banner will.

Simon was 8 years old the last time Cincinnati won a playoff game. Now he's a 27-year-old instigator, plunking down $1,000 for a guy named Bud to fly his single-engine prop plane over Bengals camp for an hour with a tersely worded message for team president Mike Brown. Simon's cell phone rings on an unseasonably cool Friday night during training camp. There is a problem: Bud is being denied access to the airport runway. But the fan uprising must carry on, so the plane lands near a church, and a banner that says "101-187-1 ... HIRE A GM!" is attached.

The tiny red-and-white plane manages to take off, banner in tow, and buzzes over the Bengals' scrimmage, over Brown, who's seated on a patio. By all accounts, the leader of Bengaldom is unfazed. He fixes his eyes on the football field. Another hopeful summer trudges on.

"What plane?" Bengals coach Marvin Lewis says jokingly after the flyby. "I think [Brown] feels like it's a waste of natural resources. I mean, that's all he says about it. He says, 'Well, if they've got that kind of money, they ought to buy some tickets.'"

It's hard, explaining futility, when it takes hold of a franchise for the better part of 18 years and refuses to let go. When it comes in a league built for parity and collides with a family legacy.

Members of the local media say Mike Brown talks to them only once a year, and that the son of football legend Paul Brown is somewhat of a recluse. Mike Brown is 72 years old, is one of only a handful of NFL owners to also serve as general manager, and, in the 18 years since his father's passing, has watched the team suffer through 17 non-winning seasons.

His critics say he runs the franchise like a mom-and-pop organization while corporate America crushes him. They say he doesn't have the football mind to make personnel decisions, and cares more about money than winning. They don't really know him, and Brown seems to like it that way.

He is standing at the edge of the field, near some staffers wearing T-shirts that say, "Fight Back." Like most summers, Brown is quietly hopeful. He believes this team is ready to move past its labels as dysfunctional, abysmal and occasionally criminal. Then again, he believes that every year.

"Would I have done a few things differently? Sure I would," Brown says. "But that isn't what motivates me or concerns me as much as what we can do about the next step.

"Do I think we will be perpetually down? I do not. I've seen every team in this league when it was down. And the lesson from that is you can come back and fly high."

The family legacy

You try stepping into these footsteps: Paul Brown won a national championship in his second year at Ohio State. He founded two professional teams, led the Cleveland Browns to seven titles and invented the single-bar face mask. About the only thing he didn't accomplish was becoming a lawyer -- he left law school at the age of 23 to become football coach at his hometown Massillon Washington High School football team in Ohio.

But Mike did get a law degree, after playing quarterback at Dartmouth, after following his dad around a football field at the age of 5. It was natural that Mike would immerse himself in his father's greatest passion. Bengals fans don't know this, says Jack Brennan, a former newspaper reporter in Cincinnati who now serves as the Bengals' PR director, but the younger Brown was a central -- albeit quiet -- figure in helping the city land the pro franchise in 1967.

People close to Mike say he's a throwback who would probably be more comfortable in that era, at least 40 years ago. He has been known to go canoeing in a dress shirt, a pair of khakis and fancy work shoes. "That's just Mike," a friend says, without elaborating.

The Bengals are Brown's only business interest, a family business, and kin make up more than half of the names listed in the administration section of the Bengals' Web site. His daughter, Katie Blackburn, is the team's executive vice president. Just below Mike's name on the organizational list is his brother Pete, who is senior vice president of player personnel.

When Paul ran the team, former Bengals coach Forrest Gregg says, Mike was making decisions right alongside him. They'd watch film on Mondays with the coaching staff, a rarity for men in ownership positions. Because Mike also serves as GM, it is assumed that he not only puts his final stamp on personnel decisions, but that he has an active role in evaluating players.

"It's a lot of work," says Gregg, who coached the Bengals to a Super Bowl in 1981. "I just think that he wants to be involved in the decision-making of the team. Just like [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones. ... That's their philosophy about running the team.

"Mike knows football. He has spent his whole life in it."

In a different era, Paul Brown had his hand in just about everything. He was the Bengals' GM, principal owner and head coach for the first eight seasons. He made it to the playoffs by 1970. He had a knack for talent, plucking Boobie Clark out of Bethune-Cookman and knowing he was a perfect fit for the offense. It was before the days of massive scouting staffs, draftniks and all-night video reviews.

Would Paul Brown have been able to successfully run his team today without a GM? Would he have picked someone from the outside to help, like the family owned Steelers have done with Kevin Colbert? Only one thing is certain -- that after Brown died in 1991, the losses started to pile up. The Bengals went 52-108 in the 1990s, and were stung by draft busts.

There was the David Klingler pick in 1992, a move that was supposed to secure the team's quarterback of the future, and the Akili Smith debacle in 1999. The Bengals were offered nine draft picks for their high selection that year, but were locked into Smith, a massively talented but unproven quarterback from Oregon. Smith started just 17 games and was released in 2002.

It has been reported in various media outlets that the Bengals have only one or two scouts on staff and rely heavily on their coaches to evaluate personnel. Brown disputes that and says he has six scouts on staff.

"There's a million things you can say about [the struggles]," says Dave Lapham, a former Bengals offensive lineman under Paul Brown who is now the team's color analyst. "I don't think it's any one thing. I think everybody's clothes are dirty when something like that happens, all the way from Mike Brown to everybody in the organization all the way down to the bottom.

"You know, part of what happened, in my opinion, was that Paul Brown died. Paul Brown was a football genius. And I think Mike went through an adjustment without being able to run some things by Paul and get Paul's opinion on things."

Loyal to a fault?

He is unfailingly loyal. That, Lapham says, might be Mike Brown's biggest undoing. In a calculated world in which the New England Patriots know exactly when to cut bait, even when it means saying goodbye to loyal veterans who have toiled away on Super Bowl teams (i.e., Corey Dillon, Willie McGinest), the Bengals have been known to hold on (Chris Henry).

Brown kept his first coach, David Shula, for 4½ years as Shula compiled a 19-53 record. The Bengals have had just four different coaches during their 101-187-1 stretch during the past 18 seasons.

He's stuck with players through suspensions and despite rap sheets. The 2006 season had more players arrested (nine) than victories (eight). The most notable case was Henry, who, after arrests for driving under the influence, marijuana possession and assault during his first three seasons, was waived in April 2008. Brown said Henry had forfeited his right to be a Bengal and that his conduct couldn't be tolerated. Four months later, after a spate of injuries, Cincinnati re-signed him to a two-year contract.

"These guys aren't John Dillinger," Brown says. "Even the ones who are in the worst of troubles by our standards. But there's no question that they misstepped, and they paid a pretty severe price in a couple of places. We paid a price because we were painted with that brush. Our reputation was undercut.

"We lived through it. I think it's behind us now. I don't see them as bad people. I think they made mistakes. Some of them went elsewhere and played and nothing was said about it the minute they left here. But around here, it piled up. We had too much of it, and we suffered because of it."

From a fan's viewpoint

Simon knows all about suffering. He's standing outside a bachelor party in downtown Cincinnati on a recent Friday night, and he can see Paul Brown Stadium in the distance. He says he can't bear another season. One of his first memories was John Taylor's catch in Super Bowl XXIII, the one that capped a 92-yard 49ers' march and sealed the Bengals' loss, the one that signaled the end.

"I went every Sunday," Simon says. "I'm a very optimistic sports fan. I trusted the team. Then I started looking at what other successful teams do, what the Patriots do, the Colts do and the Steelers do. I started seeing how different it was from the way the Bengals approached things. I got more and more angry and frustrated."

Roughly 18 months ago, Simon started the Who Dey Revolution, a blog that he says is dedicated to demanding comprehensive reform to the decisions and approach of Bengals management. Last year, his group placed hundreds of urinal cakes in the restrooms at Paul Brown Stadium as part of a "Put Your Yellow on Brown" campaign. The small orange cakes had Brown's record printed on them along with the words, "Get Pissed."

Who Dey, by the way, is the chant that fans used to shout during the franchise's glory days of the 1980s. It goes, Who dey! Who dey! Who dey think gonna beat dem Bengals? NOBODY!

Simon hates it, the fact the answer to that question nowadays is EVERYBODY.

Simon is a business student, and he knows all about strategic advertising. That's why he took $19 donations -- a dollar for every year Brown has been team president -- and booked several airplane flybys during camp with different messages pointed directly at Brown. He wanted the banners to be shown on HBO's "Hard Knocks," which picked Cincinnati as this year's camp destination.

Maybe then, he thought, his message would get out to the people. In the first two weeks of the series, the Who Deys were ignored.

Hope returns each season

There's a story behind the numbers, the Bengals insist. Yes, they've had just one winning season in 18, and haven't sniffed a playoff win since the 1990 season. But four of those 18 years ended 8-8, two more were 7-9, and 2005 could've erased all of it.

Cincinnati was one of the hottest teams in the NFL in '05, went 11-5 under quarterback Carson Palmer and had home-field advantage for a playoff game against Pittsburgh. Just after Palmer uncorked his first pass of the day, a 66-yarder, he crumpled to the ground after defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen rolled into his knee. The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl; the Bengals slithered back into mediocrity.

The team goes where Palmer goes, Brown says, and that's why Palmer's elbow injury last year was so devastating. The Bengals finished 4-11-1. Lewis likes to coin a preseason theme for each season. The 2008 theme was "Now."

But the sun is still warm, and there is hope for a new season. Palmer is back and mentoring everyone from the rookies to the Twitter-happy Chad Ochocinco. When the cameras are rolling, the team has made a point to show its new and scrubbed-up side.

"I've been here for seven years," Palmer says. "This is the best this team's been mentally going into camp. They're excited, hungry, and ready to work, knowing that we have a lot of work ahead of us.

"It's a lot better group of guys. A lot of family guys, a lot of guys that are professionals and understand how lucky we are to have these jobs and how lucky we are to be able to come and do what we do for work every day."

Will it finally be enough to turn around Bengaldom? Brown believes it is every year. The horn sounds near the end of practice, and Brown is ready to cut off the interview. Actually, he's ready to cut it off after the first minute.

One question makes him light up for a second. He's asked about the biggest lesson his father taught him.

"I think there are over 1,000 answers to it," he says. "And yet if I were to tell you one thing I remember … It was that you just got up every day and you went about what you did and you did the best you could do, and it didn't matter what was going sideways or what was going up.

"You could be riding high or you could be low. But you'd better go out there and persevere."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com