Football's odd couple has Bengals rolling to playoffs - NBC Sports

Football's odd couple has Bengals rolling to playoffs
Brown, Lewis have forged lasting relationship over decade of working together
Getty Images
December 13, 2013, 12:15 pm

CINCINNATI – Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown has a cell phone. Nobody has ever seen him use it to actually talk to someone. He will use it to check scores every now and again. But nobody has ever seen him talk on it.

No, that’s not exactly right. Sometimes he will put out his phone and PRETEND to talk on it.

“I see you guys doing this all the time,” he will tell Marvin Lewis and the coaches as he holds the phone awkwardly to his ear. “I just wanted to know what it feels like.”

* * *

Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis remembers one thing above all else from his Super Bowl championship. He remembers the music. This was January 2001, he was defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, and they had just bludgeoned the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. There was the Super Bowl party afterward.

“They had a band playing from East side of Baltimore,” Lewis remembers. “I don’t remember the name. I always call them Joe (Bleep) and the Ragmen. And they sounded wonderful. When I was with the Steelers, and we lost the Super Bowl in 1995, they had Kool and the Gang.

“But after you win the Super Bowl Johnny (Bleep) and the Ragmen sound much better than Kool and the Gang. That’s what I remember.”

* * *

Here’s a trivia question for you: What is the longest current owner-coach relationship in the NFL? That’s too easy, right? It’s Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick in New England. Right. But what’s the second longest? Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis might not be the combination that comes immediately to mind.

They are an odd pair. Mike Brown is the son of perhaps the most influential man in the history of the NFL. He will tell you, without hesitation or embarrassment, that he’s an old man who believes in being old fashioned. “Some would say the world has passed me by,” he says. “I would say in some ways that’s so.”

Marvin Lewis grew up in Pittsburgh, an undersized player who loved the game. He never played in the NFL; his journey took him through 10 years of college coaching (starting at Idaho State) and another 10 as an assistant in the NFL before he was hired by Brown to coach the Bengals. “I think it’s similar to the relationship you have with your father,” Lewis says of Brown.

Now, in their 11th year together, they are Super Bowl contenders again.

* * *

Paul Brown invented just about everything in football. Mike says his father had the gift of common sense -- there was nothing revolutionary about it. Paul Brown invented the playbook because he was a teacher first, and in class you take notes. So why shouldn’t you take notes when playing football? He invented the facemask because he kept seeing his quarterback, Otto Graham, having his face cut up.

Paul Brown invented the draw play because he once saw Graham and running back Marion Motley bump into each other – Motley ran the wrong way – and the defense opened wide, and Motley took the ball and ran for a huge gain. He invented the messenger system – with coaches calling plays from the sideline – because he thought quarterbacks had too much to worry about without having to think about the next play.

“My father would see things and maybe nobody saw quite as much in those days,” Mike Brown says quietly. He remembers a time when the Browns played in San Francisco against a Giants team with a wide-open passing attack. When Paul returned home, Mike said: ‘How did it go?” Paul Brown pulled out a notepad, scribbled down a few plays for Mike to see, and said: “Someday the NFL is going to spread out and play like this.” Paul had scribbled plays that teams would use 50 years later.

When you grow up with Paul Brown as a father, maybe your destiny is already written. Paul Brown did not want his son to go into football. There was no security in football. Heck Paul Brown was fired from the Cleveland Browns – the team NAMED for him. Mike went to law school, and he worked in a law firm, but he would say that he had no real choice. Frank Sinatra Jr. needed to sing. Michael Douglas needed to act. Pete Rose Jr. needed to play ball. And Mike Brown had to be in football.

The journey has rarely been easy. It has too rarely been successful. It has never been fun.

“I will tell you: I’m too old to think about words like fun,” Mike Brown says.

* * *

Marvin Lewis does the same thing after every game, win or lose. It is probably the same thing every NFL coach does. He looks over the stat sheet and reviews the game while it's fresh in his head. The thing that is striking about it, though, is how unemotional he feels. He runs through the routine. How did we do on third down? How much did we gain per play? What was the overall field position like? He will chart the penalties, while they are fresh in his mind, and he will go over every player in a general way.

Hours pass this way without him noticing. He admits that he doesn’t feel much of anything during this time. If the team lost, he’s numb but resolute. If the team won, he’s probably happy somewhere, but it’s an internal happiness nobody sees and he can’t even describe.

“Why don’t you seem happy?” his secretaries often ask him on Mondays after victories.

“I expect us to win,” he says, his stock line, but he admits that it’s something about himself that is hard to describe. Always, Marvin Lewis has been climbing. The next challenge. The next job. The next game. How was HE going to get to the NFL? He was a linebacker at Idaho State. He stayed on as a graduate assistant. He worked his way up and up, through six jobs, moving the family from place to place until he was defensive coordinator of the Ravens and built one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. Friends told him he was going to be the next NFL head coach and he believed them. But it didn’t happen. He kept getting interviewed and he kept getting rejected.

And then, in 2003, Mike Brown hired him to coach the Bengals. The Bengals had not had a winning record in 12 years. Brown had a public reputation for being stingy and uncompromising. He realized that building a winner would be a great challenge. He also realized that building a relationship with the owner and architect of the team might be an even greater challenge.

And there have been bumps. Disagreements. Near misses. But here they are, 11 years later, and the Bengals are on pace to make their third consecutive playoff appearance. And this might be their best team. “Who Dey!” billboards are around the city. Excitement builds for a real Super Bowl run.

And Lewis says that after games, he will go over the game for a long time. And on his way out, he will look into the stadium and see all the workers in the stands cleaning up. Then he will look down. And Mike Brown will be walking around the field.

One day, back in the 1950s, Mike Brown was watching the local news with his father in Cleveland. All of a sudden, there was a story about one of the Browns players getting arrested on some sort of drug charge. Quietly, without emotion, Paul Brown went to the phone and called the equipment manager.

“Box up his stuff,” Mike heard his father say. “And send it to him.”

“It was over that quickly,” Mike says with wonder in his voice. “There was no hearing.”

In this way, among others, the son is not like the father. There have been countless criticisms of Mike Brown through the years. He’s cheap. He’s unfeeling. He cares only about making a profit. He won’t hire a real GM. He doesn’t understand the game well enough. Whenever someone puts together a Worst Owners in Sports list, Mike Brown will be perched at, or near, the top.

“He’s probably the least understood guy that I know,” says NBC’s Cris Collinsworth, who played for Brown’s Bengals in the 1980s. “He keeps such a low profile … I wish he would get out there more. He really has a good sense of humor, he’s a funny guy, he really knows the game. And he genuinely cares about a lot of things that have nothing to do with the profit margin.

“But he will not fight back. It frustrates me a little bit because I know who he is as a person, and I know people get him wrong all the time. But he would never argue. He will just stoically take it and move on.”

One of the greatest criticisms of Brown is that, after so many years of losing, he and Lewis built their first Bengals’ teams around a cadre of bad people. There were 35 player arrests between 2000 and 2011, most in the NFL, so many it almost seemed like the Bengals were courting troubled players. Brown admits that there’s some truth to that.

“Once upon a time, we drafted with character as a big part of the judgment,” he says. “And then we played a team – without naming that team – and they used to knock our socks off. They were playing with guys who we thought were, in some ways, I won’t say reprehensible but they were certainly, in our minds, questionable. Of course, that might not have been fair. After all, they were beating us pretty good.

“But, well, we said: ‘If they’re beating us doing that, we better do it too.’ We tried that for a while. I think we had an unfortunate run of mishaps with guys that went off the track. … They were only a very small part of the overall, but they were the biggest part of our image. And it hurt us.”

He pauses. Brown doesn’t like to talk about the other reason he drafted troubled players. “That’s a perfect example of Mike,” Collinsworth says. “People would say that he doesn’t care what kind of person he brings to Cincinnati. But he cares a lot. He really has a little bit of a soft side. He wants to see guys turn their life around.”

Brown uneasily admits this is probably true. “I went to my father once,” he says. “We had a player named Stanley Wilson. I said to my father, ‘I’d like to see if we can get this guy right. He’s a good guy; he just has a drug addiction. If we can get him straightened out, why shouldn’t we?

“He just looked at me and shook his head. He said, ‘If you want to do it, OK.’ But he shook his head. I could tell he didn’t think it was worth the time. I did it, and it didn’t work out OK. Stanley did some good things for us, and I always liked him, but his life ended up in a shambles. [Editor’s note: Wilson is in prison for burglary]. And it hurt the team. You would have thought I would have learned from that but I kept at that kind of thing for maybe too long.”

Marvin Lewis was a big reason the Bengals shifted. Lewis also would like to help trouble players, but he understands the realities of the business. He needs players who are willing to be coached, players who can be good teammates, players who will show up on Sundays.

“Mike has changed,” Lewis says. “He has changed realizing that if we bring in a player who has some kind of issue, and the issue crops up, we don’t have a player. That chair is still empty.”

* * *

Marvin Lewis says this is the sort of team he envisioned from the start. These Bengals are not flashy. They are not top five in the NFL in either offense or defense. But they are solid everywhere. They are sound everywhere. They have played eight games decided by a touchdown or less. They have won five of them.

Are they good enough to win in the playoffs? That’s a hard one. A lot depends on young quarterback Andy Dalton. A lot depends on whether they can get the ball to receiver A.J. Green, one of the league’s great threats. A lot depends on whether the defense – which has given up a lot of yards this year – can keep teams out of the end zone.

Lewis is 0-4 in playoff games as a coach. When you ask him if this team is different, he shrugs. “We're growing,” he says.

“One thing I have to say, Mike has made me more patient. I don’t worry about nearly as much as I used to do. Just keep working and moving forward. The rest will come.“

Lewis laughs and admits that Mike Brown’s idiosyncrasies – and Brown would be the first to admit that he has plenty of those – have made Lewis a better football coach. Lewis has listened to Brown tell story after story about how his father used to coach in the 1950s.

“I’m sure Marvin is sick to death of hearing me talk about how we used to do things,” Brown says.

Actually, Lewis says no, he’s not. Maybe at one point he didn’t listen as much. But he says that he learns from Brown all the time. And he also says that he understand Brown much better than he did.

“Mike has nothing else to do,” Lewis says. “Here’s an example. He has this sheet that on one side has the roster on the other side has the depth chart. His depth chart. He will change that thing four or five times a day. He still has players at different positions because he won’t give in even when we don’t have that guy playing that position anymore.

“He works on that roster all the time. The day after the draft, he’s already cut the football team. Before the draft, he’s already penciling in the draft picks. And when you start working here, he passes that thing out in a meeting and you freak out. But now, it happens, I tell coaches, ‘Don’t worry about it. Mike doesn’t have anything to do, and this gives him something to do. This will all play out in time.’”

They have developed their own language. For instance: While the criticism of Brown being cheap and all about money tends to be overplayed – just one example: he named the stadium “Paul Brown Stadium,” rather than collecting the millions he could have made with naming rights – he is unquestionably frugal. There’s a classic story among local sportswriters: In 1992, when the Bengals were 25 years old, a reporter asked Brown if there would be a silver anniversary celebration.

“There’s coffee in the back,” Brown said. “Help yourself.”

This thriftiness threw Lewis at first in the same way it probably threw every Bengals coach. Now, though, Lewis knows that if he wants to do something extra – he wanted his team to go to Atlanta to train for a few days – he needs to present a thorough and thoughtful case. But if he DOES do that, Brown will listen.

“I can’t go in there and say, ‘We need to do this tomorrow,” Lewis says. “He has to get his arms around it. If you go in there, guns blazing, he will just fold his arms and say, ‘No.’ But if you give him a chance, he will say something like, ‘I have looked at this and I don’t think we need to do it. But if you think about it and feel like we should, then we’ll do it.’”

That’s a big step in trust. The reverse it true as well. Brown is a huge believer in developing young players -- more than Lewis or perhaps any other coach. In part, this is because the Bengals are not going to go to the top of the market and sign free agents. But, the value of young, energetic players is ingrained in Brown from his youngest days. Lewis says. “That has led to the success of this football team – his patience with young players.”

And Lewis says that, as their relationship has developed, Brown has found new somewhat more subtle ways to make his point about those young players. “He will say, ‘I know you can’t do this, but I really wish that we could get this guy on the field. I don’t know how you can do it but if we could’ … And it won’t just be the one time he says it. He’ll say it for five weeks. And that’s the beauty of it.”

* * *

Marvin Lewis was an assistant coach when the Baltimore Ravens finally won the Super Bowl for longtime Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell. He says winning a Super Bowl for Mike Brown would be even bigger. “This is all he has,” Lewis says. “He’s all football 24-7, 365 days a year. Winning a championship here, for him, would be the biggest thing.”

Brown says he would like that. He’s 78 years old now, and he’s as deeply in love with football as he was when he left the law. He is probably the biggest football junkie among all the owners. He watches every game all weekend and throughout the week. “And he will get into every one those games,” Lewis says. “He asks me what I think, and I always tell him, I don’t have energy left to worry about any other team. My son (Marcus) is a coach at the University of Cincinnati, and I don’t have enough energy to think about them. But Mike gets into those games.”

Brown knows his record better than anyone. He tends to be unaware of most of the criticism that is levied toward him – “I’m so old, I just ignore it – I wouldn’t know a Twitter from a bumblebee,” he says – but he certainly knows the general tone of things. The Bengals have not won a playoff game since 1990. They had a long stretch of dreadful seasons in a row before the recent success. Sure, he would like to break through, win a playoff game, go to the Super Bowl, win the Super Bowl. He’d like that a lot.

“I know my track record,” he says quietly. “It is what it is. I wish it had a few more bright spots on it. But I can’t do anything to right the record. I have the record I have. So, yeah, I’d like to see the record have a star on it somewhere.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski