Same As It Ever Was


Since the draft was next on my list of Marvin Lewis-era flashbacks, I suppose it’s only appropriate that a back-and-forth has broken out between Cincy Jungle and WDR over who’s to blame for Chris Henry and Odell Thurman. My view is that this debate constitutes a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. Odell and Henry are just two examples of a poor Bengals draft strategy that pre-dated Lewis’ arrival and hasn’t changed much since.

Lewis-era headcases like Odell and Henry are pikers compared to Carl Pickens, Corey Dillon and Tremain Mack. And the Bengals’ recent bad luck with injuries — from Chris Perry to Adam Keift to David Pollack to Kenny Irons — is just the latest chapter in a sad-sack saga stretching back through the likes of CB Charles Fisher and RB Ki-Jana Carter. SSDCDY: Same shit, different coach, different year.

With the notable exception of QB Carson Palmer, the Lewis drafts have been of a piece with those during the Dick LeBeau, Bruce Coslet and Dave Shula regimes: a mixture of character questions, injury disasters and outright bums, sprinkled with the occasional good pick that can probably be ascribed to accident more than anything else.

Again excepting Palmer, Lewis’ drafts have done nothing for the team offensively. At WR, RB and TE, every attempt to build through the draft to date has failed. And while they did manage to upgrade the offensive line once via the draft, that upgrade, G Eric Steinbach, is in Cleveland now.

On defense, in five drafts, Lewis has managed to find one average DT (Domata Peko), one average utility defensive lineman (Johnathan Fanene), one above-average situational pass rusher (DE Robert Geathers) and a couple corners — Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall — on whom the jury remains out. All the other defensive picks have been either one-year wonders or no-year junk, though to be fair something may still come of Ahmad Brooks, Marvin White and Chinedum Ndukwe, and of course draft class No. 6 may be laden with defensive Pro Bowlers. Based on history, however, that seems unlikely.

The usual reaction to all of this is to point fingers at owner Mike Brown. According to all accounts, Brown is a constant meddler in the draft room, and was the prime mover behind such decisions as declining all of New Orleans’ draft picks to select Akili Smith, and the selections of bad-character guys like Odell and Henry. Well, I suppose that’s his right. After all, he’s the owner and if he wants to pick Joe Blow Wife-Beater or Billy Bob One-Year Wonder because of their gaudy college stats, that’s his prerogative. But more to the point, it’s the prerogative of 31 other NFL teams as well, many of whom also take collegiate boneheads, and all of whom have some level of bad luck with injuries to draft picks.

Whether you like Brown’s draft strategy or not, it isn’t substantially different from the philosophy that most teams use. Don’t believe me? Then why did we read uncounted articles after the last draft about how teams are still taking character risks? How come the High Commissioner has issued new threats to begin penalizing teams by taking away draft picks if their players misbehave? How come the Bengals are being soundly thumped in this year’s Turd Watch?

Here at last, the real question: If the Bengals are just doing what everyone else does, why doesn’t doing what everyone else does ever work in Cincinnati? The Bengals pick Corey Dillon and Chad Johnson and end up with headaches. The Patriots trade for Dillon and sign Randy Moss and go to Super Bowls. Why there…but not here?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. Yes, some of it has to do with the actions of disruptive players, especially when they disrupt their way into a suspension. And yes, some of it has to do with the front office, in which the Bengals are run as a family business and there’s no accountability at the top. But specific to the Lewis era, I believe the biggest problem is that Lewis wasn’t ruthless enough in purging the locker room in his first two years.

It was an understandable mistake. At the time, it seemed reasonable to keep the core of the offense, where nearly all the team’s talent was concentrated, together while throughly fumigating a crummy defense. But that decision also left a big chunk of the “Bungles” intact, the team equivalent of putting talent over character. What did it get Lewis, and us? Well, it got Dillon throwing his pads into the stands and vowing never to play in Cincy again. It got Ocho Puncho in the locker room, and Jon Kitna (allegedly) leaking the story to the media. It got surly Levi “trade me” Jones. And most recently, it got Ocho Bozo and T.J. Home-mandzadeh.

This is all hindsight, of course, but nothing good was going to come from anything less than a thorough housecleaning. At least nothing good long-term. We saw that in the playoff game against Pittsburgh, when adversity hit the locker room — and shattered it. The reason why teams like the Pats can take troublemakers and win with them is that they concentrated on building a solid locker room first. The Bengals concentrated on keeping Ocho Rock ’em-Sock ’em-Roboto happy.

The Bengals are, it seems, beginning to learn this lesson, in this sixth year of the Age of Marvin. The approach, finally, of the post-Bungles era has gained speed. Justin Smith was let go. The WR-heavy draft suggests the team is looking to a future without T.J. and/or Chad. Stacy Andrews has Willie Anderson’s roster spot under siege. Even the departure of most of the 2003 and 2004 draft classes, the most likely to have been infected with lingering “Bungledom,” bodes well in the long run, says I. Short-term — meaning this year — it means Bengals fans probably aren’t going to be cheering in February 2009. 2010…that may be a different story.