How Mike Brown Changed the Culture of the Cincinnati Bengals

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How Mike Brown Changed the Culture of the Cincinnati Bengals
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

An NFL player has just been arrested, is facing suspension by commissioner Roger Goodell and has been released by his team.

There are a few conclusions that fans and the national media are prone to jumping to after learning of such a scenario, but one such notion that almost immediately surfaces: "This player would be a great reclamation project for the Cincinnati Bengals." Pundits and writers might ask, "How can we attach the Cincinnati Bengals' name to this?"

Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports
The Bengals removed Hernandez from their draft board in 2010—to the apparent shock of many.

Case in point, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was allegedly involved in a number of crimes off the field, ultimately culminating in his release. 

Before Hernandez was actually charged with first-degree murder and other charges (per ESPN) and came under investigation for a double-murder that occurred in 2012 (per Sports Illustrated), some NFL fans immediately jumped on the Hernandez-to-Cincinnati bandwagon. We're not going to fully acknowledge those posts here, but peruse any message board or website and the idea was brought up before the true nature of Hernandez's actions were revealed. 

The media was not innocent either. Despite shedding some light on the thought process of Bengals owner Mike Brown, Alex Marvez of Fox Sports drops this gem of a headline: "Even Bengals avoided Hernandez."

Apparently, if the Bengals are smart enough to pass on a player, the rest of the NFL better follow suit; Cincinnati sets the trend for taking risks on troubled players.

Except that notion is getting old. And falling back on that assumption is, quite honestly, lazy. Perhaps, even ignorant. 

As Marvez points out in his article, times have changed in Cincinnati. 

The Bengals did pass on Hernandez, as well as Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who had a history of back issues. Instead, Brown and company elected to go with Oklahoma tight end Jermaine Gresham. Brown recognized Hernandez's abilities—and his baggage—in opting for the former Sooner:

That one is no secret. We just stayed away from it...We didn’t question the playing ability. But we went for Gresham.

 

The Bengals haven't been keeping secrets for quite some time now. The writing has been on the wall: No more character risks for the upside of talent. 

Brown detailed the fact that his father, Paul Brown, would only bring in players of quality character, but his son elected to go against that pattern after watching opposing teams in past years bring in talent of questionable character, yet, still ended up vastly superior to his Cincinnati teams:

Going way back to when my father was here, we were very conscious of picking people we thought were people you could live with (and) the right type of person...And then, lo and behold, one of the teams we played seemed to reach out and bring in guys who weren’t always what they should be—at least that’s how it appeared to us. But they were good football players. They sort of had us for lunch. We then began doing some of that.

 

Brown went on to say that over the course of the last few years, he and his front office have gone back to following Paul's formula:

Sometimes you win doing that, and sometimes you don’t. There’s no way to tell going in how it’s going to work out. We had some people that we had question marks on at the time of the draft. A few were really tremendous players, but there came a time when, for the most part, they made life difficult. It wasn’t always the case, but there was enough of it. In the last few years, we’ve gone back to our old formula. We bring in guys, but only when we know that they’re sound people.

 

In other words, it appears Mike was scrambling to recreate the success of the past in Cincinnati after an embarrassingly bad run in the 1990s in which the team posted a 52-108 record. The end result, at least partially, was Brown taking risks and his team running up an alarming 40 arrests since 2000, tied for most with the Minnesota Vikings, according to Walter Hickey over at Business Insider

Brown reversed the strategy a few years ago, presumably with the help of head coach Marvin Lewis. 

The end result?

One AFC North championship and three playoff appearances in four seasons, including back-to-back appearances. The Bengals recent achievements come with one of the league's most talented rosters, yet, the team remains at or near the top the NFL in terms of cap space, depending on when you crunch the numbers. 

The biggest risk the Bengals have taken since 2009? Arguably, it is defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had a DUI to his name when he was taken out of Florida in the second round of the 2010 draft. He's kept clean since. 

You could make an argument for Adam "Pacman" Jones, who has a court case still pending and could turn out to be innocent. He's now a regular speaker to impressionable youngsters at the rookie symposium.

You could argue Vontaze Burfict, who, while probably a little immature at one point, kept his nose clean as a rookie, and now, he may be the most important player on Cincinnati's defense other than Geno Atkins. 

Sure, Brown dug his own hole and soiled his own reputation by taking risks on guys with questionable character. The years between 2000 and 2005, when the bulk of incidents happened, were an especially dark period for the franchise, but the nadir was reached in the tragic death of receiver Chris Henry, who had turned both his on-field performance and his life around, in 2009.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Before turning his life around, the late Chris Henry was the embodiment of a philosophy gone wrong in Cincinnati.

But take a look at the recent trends. Brent Schrotenboer of U-T San Diego has an NFL arrest database. 

Cincinnati has had three arrests this year. Tackle Andre Smith was allegedly stupid enough to take a loaded gun to an airport—we'll chalk it up as a brain fart. The status of the case is unknown. Jones was involved in a bar scuffle—the case is pending. Robert Sands, a training camp body, was arrested for alleged domestic violence and was subsequently released by the team. 

These three arrests have all occurred since the Super Bowl—three of the NFL's total of 28 arrests, as of June 26 (per Esquire's Nate Hopper). According to Schrotenboer's database, there were just two arrests for Cincinnati in 2012, three in 2011, three in 2010 and just one in 2009. 

We could go on. The point is, Brown has knowingly and willingly changed the culture of the Bengals for the better. The rest of the world is having a hard time catching up. 

Look at the core leadership in Cincinnati: Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Andrew Whitworth, Leon Hall, Geno Atkins and Reggie Nelson—you never hear about these guys linked to a police blotter, and the leadership they display is unquestioned.

Why? Quite frankly, they're boring. 

That's just fine. 

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
After acknowledging some past mistakes in evaluating players, Mike Brown is guiding the Bengals into a new era.

Mike Brown isn't stupid. He knows what is said about his franchise. He's publicly admitted to the mistakes he's made. He may have even been forgiving to a fault in the past, wanting to help, wanting to believe in the best in each person.

Times have changed in Cincinnati in more ways than one. The franchise is actually undergoing a bit of a modernization and has joined the ranks of the consistently competitive.

Are things perfect? Absolutely not. We're still wondering if Brown will pay to keep the talent around and propel the franchise toward a more modern version of his father's ideals. 

But to continue to blast the Bengals organization for past transgressions is being lazy. Cincinnati fans already know everything that's been stated here. Times are slowly changing in Cincinnati for the better in all areas. 

There's been a shift in culture over the past few years in Cincinnati, and Bengals fans have one man to thank, believe it or not—Mike Brown. 

 

Follow me on Twitter for more NFL news and analysis @Chris_Roling

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