The Cincinnati Bengals had a spectacular Week 7 last Sunday: no fumbles or interceptions, no dropped passes or missed tackles, no costly penalties or devastating injuries. That's because the league's only winless team had a bye week.
Sunday, the Bengals resume their march toward more expected misery with a home game at Paul Brown Stadium against the Tennessee Titans. Empty seats will be plentiful; those loyalists who do show up will watch a franchise valued by Forbes magazine at $507 million, despite no winning seasons or playoff appearances since 1990. The team is now on pace to score the fewest and allow the most points in club history.
Paul Brown, one of the greatest innovators and tacticians in NFL history, died at age 82 in 1991, and his son Mike Brown has run the team since. It remains a family business: Brown's daughter, Katie Blackburn, is executive vice president, No. 2 in the organization, and negotiates player contracts. Her husband, Troy Blackburn, runs the business operation. Mike's brother, Pete, heads the personnel department.
Last week, county officials threatened to look into the legality of re-opening the team's lease at the county-owned facility, where only seven of 19 home games have been sold out. They argue that the Bengals, who benefited from a half-cent increase in the county's sales tax to pay for the stadium, have not held up their end of the bargain, with a 10-28 record since it opened in 2000.
"It all starts at the top," said Boomer Esiason, the Bengals' quarterback in the 1989 Super Bowl. "Mike has run the team for a long time now. He's a very nice guy, but he's being very stubborn. I like to call it the permeation of mediocrity in the franchise. The organization is so flawed, and there's just no room for success."
Added one league official, "I work 14 hours a day, and when I call him, he's never there. No one is talking about taking the franchise away. Money is not the problem. They spend it. It's pretty obvious they need a football guy. Mike needs to move up, not out."
Brown and other family members in the organization declined through a team spokesman to be interviewed for this story.
Esiason described Coach Dick LeBeau, in his third season, "as a great defensive coach," but added "it's obviously not working right now. Whether it was Bruce Coslet or David Shula, when things go badly, Mike doesn't want to pull the trigger and change. He has a really hard time removing people or saying 'you're fired.' "
Some owners already have advised Brown to get a proven GM to run his operation. One owner who asked not to be identified said Brown has resisted because a change would be conceding his own failure over the last 12 years, a 53-129 record including four 3-13 marks, two 4-12 records and two 0-6 starts in the last three years.
"They had all those top draft picks and still haven't won, and it makes you wonder," said Ron Wolf, who fixed the Green Bay Packers into a Super Bowl champion and perennial playoff contender in the 1990s before retiring to Annapolis two years ago. "Mike is the guy you have to point at. He's in charge and he has to assume the responsibility.
"He's also got people helping him in this, and the players certainly aren't playing to their capabilities. They've got to take some responsibility, too."
The Bengals' scouting operation is the smallest in the league with only seven staffers, including Mike Brown. The Bengals have always relied on their coaches to do serious scouting, but that's virtually impossible during the season, save for a bye week. Most teams have between 14 and 17 full-time personnel people. The Redskins have 19, the Packers a league-high 20.
Former Bengals defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello, also a key man on Joe Gibbs's staffs in Washington, said he never felt scouting was a burden when he coached, and insisted it never interfered with his in-season coaching duties.
"It detracts a little from football things in the offseason, the evaluation of game plans, in-depth film study, that kind of thing," he said. "My own feeling is that football is a fickle deal, and great coaches usually get great because of great players. They've just been unlucky on some guys. If you get the right talent, you win."
That also means attracting top free agents, and with the Bengals' recent record, recruiting has been made even more difficult.
"It's a Catch-22 situation," said Fox broadcaster and former Bengals wide receiver Cris Collinsworth. "You can't get better until you get better players. Now they can't get better players because they've been so bad."
"Free agency also has changed how we all operate," said another top personnel man. "You've got to be doing this work almost year-round, and especially during the season. How are the coaches supposed to get all that done and try to win games, too. Will Mike change? It's a family shop, so it's hard to believe he'd push them all aside to pick a top guy. He has to realize it's time move into this century."
There have been some indications Brown may be seeing that light. Two weeks ago, Katie Blackburn told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "You can't just look at the coaches and the players and not evaluate the personnel side of it, too. . . . The bigger issue is how much responsibility the coaches are given."
Asked whether her father is considering hiring a general manager, she said: "The general manager position gets misconstrued. You could hire someone to sweep the floors and call that person the general manager. The important thing is we're going to look at the way we evaluate pro and college players."
First-round picks since '92 have been wasted on quarterback David Klingler, a major bust; running back Ki-Jana Carter, never the same after a devastating knee injury as a rookie; and quarterback Akili Smith ('99 third overall selection).
"What happened with Akili tells you everything you need to know about the organization," said another GM. "They started him right away, which is okay, but they kept bringing other quarterbacks in for big money, too -- [Jon] Kitna, [Gus] Frerotte. He's always been looking over his shoulder. Just leave him in there, let him know he's the future and do what the Eagles did with [Donovan] McNabb. Look where he is right now."
Many league personnel evaluators think the Bengals have a solid core of talent, with a franchise player on both sides of the ball -- running back Corey Dillon and linebacker Takeo Spikes. If Dillon keeps gaining well over 1,000 yards a season, the offensive line can't be too shabby, and one personnel director said three defensive lineman and all the linebackers could start on any team in the league.
Meantime, LeBeau and his players are looking for something, anything, to cure what ails them.
"We're the laughingstock of the league, it's embarrassing," fullback Lorenzo Neal said after the Steelers clobbered the Bengals, 34-7, in their last game. "For a professional team to do this . . . there's no excuse. It's a disgrace, an absolute disgrace."
Many thought LeBeau would be fired on Oct. 14, the first Monday of his team's bye week. When the coach was asked about it at his regular news conference, he offered an emotional response.
"I have always been proud to be a Cincinnati Bengal," he said. "I sought this job, and I think it's a very good thing in the life of Dick LeBeau that I got this job. I'm going to work my tail off to get this job done. That was the circumstance when I got the job, and that's where it is right now."
"Everyone loves Dick as a coach," Esiason said. "I loved him when I played. And everyone says it's not the coach's fault. But no one is making plays. No one there seems accountable, and no one is telling them not to just go out and go through the motions, which it's starting to look like.
"You need a GM. And you need someone in there who's busting chops and standing up and telling these guys 'I don't give a damn what the ownership is doing. We have to get ready to play, and play to win.' That's not happening either."