CINCINNATI – Mike Brown remembers walking into his father’s office full of confidence. This was back in the 1980’s when he was just starting to take over some of the day-to-day operations from his dad, Hall of Fame coach and Bengals team founder Paul Brown.
Mike Brown liked Stanley Wilson. He wanted the best for Stanley Wilson. And, yes, Mike Brown believed Stanley Wilson could help the Bengals win. Paul Brown might not have agreed with his son but neither was he going to stop Mike from doing what he felt was right.
Stanley Wilson’s repeated falls from grace are well known around these parts. The NFL suspended Wilson twice because of his drug problems, specifically his addiction to cocaine. Everyone remembers the story of how running backs coach Jim Anderson found Stanley Wilson in a drug-induced stupor at the team hotel the night before the Bengals were to play San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII.
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“Stanley Wilson was my great cause and I tried like blazes to get him right,” said Mike Brown Tuesday afternoon as he spoke with reporters at the Bengals’ annual pre-training camp media luncheon. “This was my first experience dealing with someone who had what I would call an addiction. I found out that there is such a thing as addiction.”
Over the years the Bengals developed the reputation of a renegade team, a franchise that took chances on players with questionable pasts and questionable character. The Oakland Raiders got away with those sorts of gambles mainly because they won. The Bengals didn’t do a lot of winning after that Super Bowl appearance. Justified or not, the reputation stuck with the franchise.
Mike Brown doesn’t think it’s justified. No one in the organization does. It’s one of the reasons the Bengals are again being featured on HBO’s acclaimed “Hard Knocks” series this year. The NFL Films crew will document training camp this year as it did in 2009 when the Bengals were putting a start to a season that would culminate in an AFC North division title.
The organization believes this year’s team has the potential to do great things. It also believes it has great people that don’t deserve to be labeled with that past reputation.
“We have made a conscience effort to draft and bring in guys that we think are well-behaving people, good people and, I think, with (Andy) Dalton and (A.J.) Green as examples, with (Andrew) Whitworth as an example, we have lots of others that this is how we want to be perceived,” said Brown. “Over the years we dug ourselves into a hole, and I’m probably the one who did it. We would bring in guys and work with them. Sometimes they came around, sometimes they didn’t. Yet, I think we did the right thing. Certainly it was good for them. We gave them opportunity when some of them didn’t have opportunity and a lot of them proved that they deserved that opportunity.”
These Bengals, as with every other NFL team and the majority of society, are not angels. Nor are they (or the majority of us) devils. Their transgressions are, however, highly public.
Cornerback Adam Jones is facing an Aug. 19 hearing on an assault charge and has a sordid history of legal troubles from before he joined the Bengals in 2010 and since. Right tackle Andre Smith was charged with attempting to carry a loaded firearm into the Atlanta airport in January. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga was cited for misdemeanor assault in February 2012 at a downtown bar, although the charge was later dropped following mediation.
Brown says he has shifted his philosophy on players over the years, particularly the recent past.
“The old rationale was ‘Let us step in here. We can help. We can make it better for this guy and, who knows, maybe he’ll make us a better team.’ Well, that had repercussions,” said Brown. “In later years I’ve gone back to the way my dad did it. If you crossed a line on him, your can is out the door before you could count to 10. Boom. What we’re doing now, and what we’ve been doing for a few years, is try to sign on guys who are solid people. We may have to worry about things and we may have to worry about how they play but we’re not going to have to worry so much about how they are off the field.”
Head coach Marvin Lewis told Clark Judge of CBS Sports this spring: “I think Mike’s changed in the fact that he realizes we’re not going to save them all.”
Some of Brown’s gambles on players have worked out over the years. Many pro athletes come from childhoods that were disadvantaged in one way or another. The lifestyle change of going from a college player to someone getting paid hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars to play a sport for a living is not as easy of a transition as some of us might believe.
It catches up to some players. It catches up to some organizations.
The Bengals are in the process of trying to change their image.
“It takes time,” said Brown. “It takes time to get a unit of guys that are solid people and it takes longer than that to make the public see you in that light. We’re still dealing with a reputation that is well dated but we have to deal with it.”