NFL's cellar team making its annual run for the bottom

Wednesday, October 2, 2002

CINCINNATI -- Pete Rose will talk nonstop about anything except his hometown football team. That topic leaves him as flabbergasted as everyone else.

"What's wrong with the Bengals?" Rose said, before a celebrity softball game last week. "They're like the Cubs -- they just don't get any better. It's unbelievable."

It's an apt comparison. With each defeat, the NFL's worst team of the past 12 years becomes a little more like those lovable losers from Wrigley Field.

No matter what the year, no matter how high the hopes, the Bengals always end up losing.

They lose even though their league is set up to help them win. The worst teams get the highest draft picks and the easiest schedules. With those built-in advantages, downtrodden teams routinely rise up each season and make a run at the playoffs.

Not the Bengals.

They were at their bumbling best Sunday night during their first national television appearance in four years. A loss to Tampa Bay left them 0-4 and made fans from coast to coast wonder how long it would be before their team got on prime time again.

"If anybody wants to jump off the bandwagon," tackle Willie Anderson said, "I can't blame them."

Bandwagon? The Bengals haven't had one of those since franchise founder Paul Brown led the team to two Super Bowls during the 1980s.

Mike Brown took over as general manager when his father died after the 1990 season, the last time Cincinnati had a winning record and made the playoffs. Since then, it's been nothing but misery.

The Bengals' routine has become predictable. As the losses mount, players drop their heads and talk about being embarrassed. Brown dusts off his standard line that everyone is equally to blame, so there's no reason to make sweeping changes in any area.

Change the quarterback, perhaps. Seize upon a small improvement in some area as a sign that things are getting better. Move on to the next game. Explain that one away, too.

No one ever addresses the underlying reasons why the Bengals have stayed so bad for so long. It starts at the top.

Brown grew up watching his famous father win championships and shape franchises. He also watched him get fired by Cleveland owner Art Modell after the 1962 season.

The lesson: Don't let anyone outside the family get control.

The Brown family owns the team and runs Paul Brown Stadium. Mike Brown picks the coaching staff and has the last word on draft picks and major roster moves. As a result, no accomplished coach will come to Cincinnati. It's an entry-level job, and no one succeeds for long under the terms of employment. A coach can hang on through a lot of losses, as long as he accepts the status quo.

Loyalty is the overriding concern for Brown, who gave Dave Shula a contract extension while he was losing 50 games faster than any coach in NFL history.

Paul Brown picked his assistants when he coached in Cincinnati. Mike Brown picks the assistants now, using loyalty as a measure. The result is a splintered staff that is at the root of many of the problems.

Quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson failed to develop first-round draft picks David Klingler and Akili Smith, but Anderson -- who led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl after the 1981 season -- has kept his job for 10 years because he's on good terms with the family.

On another team, some assistants would have been swept out long ago, but Brown keeps them around. Without top-notch coaching, the Bengals' draft picks never develop the way they should.

Paul Brown had a favorite expression for his players: Everyone is useful, no one is necessary. He developed a winning system, stuck with it and brought in players who fit it.

Mike Brown has a different approach. He figures all the team's problems can be fixed by finding the right quarterback. Brown, a quarterback at Dartmouth before he became a lawyer and general manager, is fixated on the position.

The Bengals have had eight different starting quarterbacks in the last six years, and five different ones started each of the last five seasons. The latest was Gus Frerotte, who lasted fewer than three games. Next Sunday, the Bengals will turn again to Smith, a first-round draft pick in 1999 who never got enough time to prove himself.

No team wins this way.

"I don't know what we are as a team, but I know we're better than what the record is," coach Dick LeBeau said.

Actually, the record fits. And most football fans know what the Bengals are -- the same thing they've been for 12 years now.

Cubs in chin straps.

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