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A Theme


“I call them themes. They (fans and customers) like to talk about different themes when things don’t go well.” — Bengals president Mike Brown, 1/1/08

Theme: 3. A written exercise on a given subject, esp. a school essay. — The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1993

Oh! The theme I’ve been waiting for all my life. Listen to this sentence: “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time”. Poetry. Sheer poetry, Ralph! An A+! — Miss Shields, A Christmas Story, 1983

Mike Brown granted a rare media interview Monday, which generated a predictable (negative) fan reaction on blogs, internet forums and talk radio. Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist and longtime Brown scourge Paul Daugherty singled out the “themes” comment as “[A] dismissive, condescending, arrogant and altogether idiotic thing to say.” Upon review, Brown must have agreed, since the comment has been excised from the official transcript of the interview on bengals.com.

Daugherty doesn’t think the interview provides any new insight on Brown or the Bengals, a view shared by my friend kirk over at cincyjungle.com. I have to disagree. Maybe I’m just slow, and am only now coming to some revelation that hit them long ago, but to me, Brown’s comments (especially the “themes” crack) finally laid bare the bedrock of his thinking about the role of an NFL front office.

Fans and the media, you see, have a set of themes on file. Stock pieces that, like some journalistic version of Mad Libs, only need to have a few lines filled in: the name of the team, the general manager, the coach, and adjectives denoting good or bad performance, as the case may be. When the Bengals do poorly, the theme is What the Bengals Need to Do on Their Offseason Vacation, and typically begins with an invocation to the deity to provide a general manager to lead the team out of its years of desert wanderings.

By contrast, when teams do well, a different theme is pulled from the files. For example, the theme in Baltimore this year will be Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome is a Genius.

Brown, I believe, would argue that these themes are bad themes. That they confuse correlation with causation. How much is Phil Savage responsible for the Cleveland Browns’ poor season? Six months ago, he was the toast of general manager-dom, praised for savvy moves like his 11th hour theft of DT Shaun Rogers from the Bengals. Now, he may be toast. As Brown would no doubt say, the themes are already being written.

Viewed in this light, Brown’s seemingly circular comment about the relationship of a general manager to winning makes perfect sense. “The answer to the general manager problem is the same answer that we have to have for all these criticisms,” Brown said. “We have to win. When we manage to do that, we won’t hear so much about this kind of talk.”

Mike Brown believes that poor records generate calls for a GM, while good records generate praise for team management, whether warranted or not. Again: correlation versus causation.

The question I would like to hear Mike Brown answer is this: how much impact do you believe any NFL front office has on wins and losses?

Based on his comments Monday, I strongly suspect Brown’s answer would be along the lines of, “not very much.” Or at least, “not as much as everyone thinks.”

To use the formulation of bengals.com’s Geoff Hobson, unless I’m misreading the thing completely, Brown views the connection between the front office and the product on the field as akin to the relationship between television advertising and product sales. Does running a TV ad campaign for your brand of widgets increase sales? Madison Avenue ad agencies will tell you they have ways to measure that impact, but in the end even they will concede that advertising is just part of the equation. A lot goes on between the time someone sees a commercial and the time a product is plucked off a store shelf. Did the commercial cause that? The packaging? The price? A coupon?

In similar vein, there’s a wide waste of space between what the front office does and how the team ultimately performs. Any number of things that are completely outside the control of even the best general manager, from injuries to bad penalty calls to the weather and more, can occur. To lay a failure to win at the feet of the GM, Brown would likely argue, can be like blaming your ad campaign for not moving the sales needle after the delivery truck broke down and the product never made it to the store.

I don’t think this argument can be completely dismissed as the creation of a person looking to rationalize away nearly two decades of poor performance. Let’s face it, the list of NFL executives, and even coaches, who have gone from one organization to another and enjoyed the same level of success is mighty thin. The reason Bill Parcells is so highly thought-of is that he’s exactly that rare bird: one of the few guys who has built playoff-caliber teams for multiple organizations. The idea that reflexive calls for a GM in Cincinnati after a poor season, or the touting of New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli as the answer to virtually every bad team’s woes, is the result of sloppy, thematic thinking has a solid foundation.

Now, before I get a boatload of email blasting me as a Brown apologist, let me add this: Brown’s thinking — if indeed my take at all represents it — is also a theme. Call it Why I’m Not Responsible for What I Don’t Do On My Summer Vacation.

No one will argue that success in the NFL, at any level, is automatically transferable across organizations. Look at the number of free agents who get big-bucks contracts from a new team and then fail to fulfill expectations. But that said, it’s also indisputable that there are organizations that consistently produce at a high level: Dallas, New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh all spring to mind. Clearly, something more than just dumb luck is going on in these towns. And Brown’s refusal to look at the way they structure their organizations, and make adjustments accordingly, calls into question his entire theme. Maybe the front office really doesn’t have that much to do with a team’s success. But you’ll never know until you try. And from his comments, I conclude Mike Brown has no intention of trying.