Exclusive Q&A: Bengals owner Mike Brown knows team will be judged by playoff wins
CINCINNATI — As the patriarch of one of the few remaining family-owned teams whose sole business focus is football, Mike Brown is considered part of the "old wave" of NFL owners. But while being the son of legendary NFL innovator Paul Brown has helped shape his view of the league, Brown isn’t living in the past. His Cincinnati Bengals are 8-1 and rolling toward a fifth consecutive playoff appearance.
Brown tackled a slew of topics in an exclusive interview Tuesday with FOXSports.com, addressing the aftermath of a 10-6 loss to Houston Texans that knocked Cincinnati from the ranks of undefeated teams, quarterback Andy Dalton’s development, how the Bengals are run and NFL-related topics about what direction he believes the league is headed.
MARVEZ: Despite your loss to Houston, the Bengals are 8-1. What is it that has separated this team from other ones in recent seasons?
BROWN: It is our best start. We’re pleased with it. We have overall played well. We’re a solid team. We have been able to avoid big mistakes, the ones we got (Monday night) when the old ways revisited us. We didn’t play well enough to win. Whatever it is, we know we don’t have a permanent hold on it every week. It’s week to week and we hope we can play at the high level we did early in the year. It isn’t going to be the way we want it every time out.
MARVEZ: You went into this season knowing this team had struggled in the playoffs the past couple of years but you kept things largely intact personnel-wise. What was the thinking behind that?
BROWN: We were a good team. We had been to the playoffs the past four years and five out of the last six. Yes, we haven’t done well in the playoffs. Some of that was because we were just forming up around Andy. That was part of it. He was still learning. Some of it was injury. For example, last year we went over to Indianapolis and I think had one starting wideout. We were missing all kinds of pieces. Some of that, I give credit to the teams we played. They played better than we did. We need to do better ourselves if we can get to that point again this year. I’m not worried about it right now. I’m worried about just playing well enough to get back there.
MARVEZ: You mentioned Andy Dalton. What is it that you’re seeing in his career that’s allowing him to blossom into one of the league’s better quarterbacks?
BROWN: He has a good mindset. He focuses on his responsibilities. He addresses them. He is serious about them and works hard at it. When he makes a mistake, it registers. He knows about that for the future and tries to avoid it. He usually does. He’s dependable. If I were to pick one word for him, that’s what it would be.
MARVEZ: As you mentioned, the Bengals have made the playoffs five of the past six seasons. In some ways, that has made you a model franchise and people want to know how you’ve obtained that success. At what point do you think this organization turned a corner to where you’re fielding a consistent winner year after year?
BROWN: I know what the record says. I don’t have a feeling that we’ve turned the corner. We’re still trying to. It is every day a challenge for all of us here and it’s got to stay that way. That’s got to be the mindset. We are pretty good, but we haven’t proven that we’re better than that yet. We all want to and have to work to get the opportunity to do so. And then we’ll see. But right now we’re working to get that opportunity. It isn’t gift-wrapped. You’ve got to go out and earn it. We have just short of half of the season to play. A lot of stuff is going to happen. We’re aware of that, too.
MARVEZ: As you prepare for Sunday night’s road game against Arizona, What gives you confidence that the Texans loss is just a bump in the road and that your team is ready to take that next step?
BROWN: When you lose a game, it shakes your confidence, especially when you don’t play as well as you think you should have played. The day after the loss, we’ve got to put it behind us and focus on the next game. Arizona is good. They’re playing right now probably as well as anyone — maybe New England and Arizona. They’re ranked No. 1 offensively and No. 3 defensively. We have a real challenge in front of us.
MARVEZ: Speaking of the Cardinals, your former quarterback is playing there. Did you think you would be matching up with Carson Palmer four years after you traded him?
BROWN: That’s what I told him at the time. We sat here in the office on a couple of occasions and argued about what the future should be for him and us. He was arguing otherwise whether he really believed it or not I rather doubt. But my argument then with him was, ‘You’re a top quarterback and you’ve got real productive years in front of you.’ He would say to me, ‘Oh, no. I’m all beat up. I’ll be lucky to play another year or two,’ which I didn’t take to heart.
It worked out the way it did. I have an odd feeling for Carson Palmer. I like Carson Palmer personally. I did when he was here. I regret it broke apart the way it did. I don’t want him to beat us any more than he wants us to beat him. I’m sure that will be in the back of his mind. But other than that, I wish him well. I think he is a great passer. He really is. He’s a special passer, very accurate. I look at him play and I see the player that we had when he was here. When he’s on and playing the way he can play, he is a big-time winning quarterback.
MARVEZ: The person who facilitated Carson’s trade to Oakland in 2011 from a Raiders standpoint is now your offensive coordinator. Do you anticipate Hue Jackson getting head-coaching feelers from other teams after the season like some of your other assistants in recent years?
BROWN: Hue is a very qualified coach. We think the world of Hue. You’re right — we’ve had (Jay) Gruden and (Mike) Zimmer leave, and I’m sure after this year Hue will be a candidate. It is a compliment to Marvin and maybe some others here as well. I like to see it when they achieve. It’s flattering when that happens. It works against our best interest because we have to regroup and reestablish ourselves but it’s also heartwarming to see your people achieve their ambitions.
MARVEZ: How good has it felt for you that you’ve had the same coach for so long in Marvin Lewis?
BROWN: Over the years, we grew together really. At first, it wasn’t easy for us. He saw the world differently and he wasn’t so sure about me. Maybe in some ways I wasn’t so sure either. But time passed and we grew to respect each other. I am genuinely fond of him. We talk every day. We don’t wrangle. I know he’s going to have views that aren’t mine from time to time. When I can, I want to go along with him. He and I have a good working relationship. It’s been 13 years now. By NFL standards, that’s a long tour together.
MARVEZ: How healthy is it to have push-back when making decisions as a franchise?
BROWN: I like to think our people do that. I encourage them to say what’s on their mind. I ask them. I’ll even challenge them. I want them to present their thoughts. But it’s hard when you’re in this seat to judge that. Others can judge that how they will.
MARVEZ: That leads to this question — you’re the same Mike Brown I’ve known for 20 years through thick and thin. Through some of the losing, has it ever been hard to stay with your convictions of what you think it takes to build a winning team?
BROWN: The problem hasn’t been staying with my convictions. The problem is that my convictions always didn’t work (laughs). Currently, we’re doing all right. People give me a pass now where before they didn’t. Yet I’m the same one that was sitting here when it was going the other way. You tell me: Am I responsible for that? Well, I guess. Am I responsible for this? I’d rather wonder about that because it’s proven that I can do it both ways. I don’t have any real true for-sure answers.
MARVEZ: About 20 years ago, there were real questions about whether the Bengals were going to stay in Cincinnati. Los Angeles was bandied about in the media as a potential landing spot. That city is now looking like it will host an NFL team again between St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego. What are some of the things that you want to learn before deciding what proposal the Bengals will support among NFL owners?
BROWN: That’s a tough one. I don’t know that I want to get into a public discussion of it. I have thoughts that are still forming. I want to hear what others think. Some of the thoughts I have are not consistent. They’re conflicting. We have one or two holes for three pegs. The math doesn’t work. How do you sort that out? It isn’t an easy task.
MARVEZ: How big is the Los Angeles decision in shaping the NFL’s future?
BROWN: It’s of great significance. Yet while we’re focused on that as an issue there are other issues that are in my mind every bit as important, maybe more so. I give it high standing. I think there are other things in the league that are going to impact the NFL in the future in a large way.
MARVEZ: Are there any renovations planned in the future for Paul Brown Stadium?
BROWN: The thing I would tell you is that you look at our stadium and we do try to do things to keep it up. We work with (Hamilton County). It isn’t always easy because where does the money come from? That’s an issue. But I like our stadium. For our community, this is a stadium that makes sense. It’s the right size. It really is quite beautiful. It isn’t flashy. You might want a roof if you’re going to do other things. But if you’re just talking about football, I’m not sure that you really need one. Around here, they bark about the price. But the price of this stadium was $300 million to $350 million. Today, that wouldn’t buy you the end-zone grandstands. Our people got a good deal. They don’t know it, but they did. It also sparked the development of the whole area along the (Ohio River), which I think has been a good thing for Cincinnati. I’m proud of the role we played in that. Oddly, we are the only stadium of our vintage where there is a community with a large population of critics wanting to denounce the financing of the stadium, which was decided 20 years ago. They still want to fight it. I guess that’s just the way Cincinnati can be.
MARVEZ: One issue that keeps coming up is the Bengals’ lack of a bubble for indoor practices. Is there anything new on that front?
BROWN: I don’t know where we would build it. We don’t have the room right nearby. That creates an issue. The (University of Cincinnati) has been generous. They’ve allowed us to use theirs. We do that about three or four times a year. I know this is what has taken place around the league. There’s a lot of stuff that is at the cutting-edge of the league that makes me wonder about the cutting edge. Yes, these things can be nice or interesting or maybe they even work. But is it a proper allocation of resources? You can make an argument that maybe not."
MARVEZ: What is a technological advancement in the NFL that you have enjoyed and/or helped this team?
BROWN: The artificial fields have helped, but I think they need to be improved. For some reason, there has been a momentary stop in the evolution of the fields. It just seems to me that at some point we should be able to devise an artificial field that is more practical and safer and better in every way than a natural field. Right now, they are better in some ways but not all ways. I date back to when if somebody said you’re going to play on a plastic field it would have been laughable. That’s what we’ve done for many years. But I think it needs to find a way to get improved.
The communication (systems) during a game are quite extraordinary. I think it has made the game better, not in all ways but most ways. I find that impressive. The television technology we have is extraordinary. We can look at college players, other games. All I have to do is twirl around in my seat, press a couple of buttons and I can look at whatever I want to look at. Does it mean that in some ways the game is better? I don’t know. When everybody is doing it, whatever advantage there is in doing it is shared by everyone, which keeps you equal. You haven’t advanced in front of everyone else. You’ve just kept up. I wonder about all that while I admire it. I think we have invested a lot and done something better. Now we’re all five steps ahead of where we were still running in the race even. There is an effort in the league to spend whether it’s on statistical analysis, satellite measurements of (player) movement on the field … All that and more is now being delved into by NFL and college teams. I’m not sure that it is any more the best use of resources than some of the things we’ve gotten into in the past.
The nature of the game is to try and improve in any way possible. I think that is sort of the American Way with things. I admire it for that reason. It doesn’t always mean that the improvement makes economic sense or makes the game better but we all keep trying. People in the game should want that.
MARVEZ: What do you think your dad would think of today’s NFL?
BROWN: He’s been gone approaching 25 years. He schooled me closely. I probably have internalized his views and think of them as my own. I don’t know any better. A lot of what I think is probably how he would have felt. But would his views have evolved had he had lived? I’m sure they would have. That’s hard to predict.
But out of deference to him, I still vote ‘no’ on instant replay. People think I’m a little daft, but he wasn’t altogether wrong on that. Again, it’s a certain kind of improvement but there are negatives to it. He thought the negatives are real and there are. There’s delay in the game. There’s inconsistency in justice in which plays get reviewed. And they aren’t always right even when they do review them. Yet today, people think of it as part of the game. Most of them are sitting at home watching on TV where it can be quite easy to take in. If you’re at the stadium, I’m not so sure about that sitting in your seat. Yes, it’s on the scoreboard at least when teams deign to put it up there. But it falls into that list of improvements that is partial yet it is considered now as essential. Everyone not only accepts it; they believe it is necessary and part of the football world we live in.
But I sit here watching on occasion Ivy League games where they don’t do it. Whatever you want to say about Ivy League football, when you watch their games, they’re quicker. They move, and maybe they’re not so dead-wrong as you would think on this issue.