Mike Brown doesn’t look much different than he did a year ago. He will be 87 years old on Aug. 10. He says his hearing is failing. “I’m an old man,” he says. “Please speak loudly.”
But if the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals doesn’t look much different, he is seen differently. Last July, Brown was perceived as an out-of-touch penny-pincher heading a floundering franchise. Now, as the Bengals open training camp Wednesday, he owns the American Football Conference champions with a franchise quarterback and a blindingly bright future.
“I always think we’re gonna have a good year,” Brown said Monday at the team’s annual pre-training camp luncheon when asked about 2022 expectations. “That’s my inner thought and I don’t like to share them publicly. Maybe people will say, ‘How could you have thought that? That was stupid.’ Better not to say anything. You write what you want to write and I’ll think what I want to think and it’ll play out.”
Here’s what I think: The Bengals are in position for a rare return Super Bowl trip. Since 1995, the 2018 New England Patriots are the only Super Bowl loser one season to return the next. But with quarterback Joe Burrow, wideout Ja’Marr Chase, running back Joe Mixon and an improving defense, Cincinnati has the ingredients for a repeat run.
As such, Brown’s Bengals are the current kings of the Queen City. The Reds are a mess. Cincinnati and Xavier basketball have both slipped. While a box office hit with an impressive new stadium, FC Cincinnati has struggled in MLS. University of Cincinnati football is a wonderful success story, but the Bearcats aren’t the Bengals.
Brown reports season ticket sales have jumped from the franchise’s low point for 2021 to sold out for 2022. Now the owner is reportedly open to selling the naming rights for Paul Brown Stadium, named for his late father. Don’t be surprised if that happens before the Sept. 11 opener against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It’ll help us do such things as build the indoor facility, help us perhaps handle the (salary) cap a little bit,” Brown said Monday. “We’re a small-market team. We need the revenue streams we can obtain.”
NFL axiom: If you have good players, you have to pay those players. Or someone else will. And Jessie Bates and Joe Burrow are on the Bengals’ to-do list.
Bates, the team’s star safety, is threatening to hold out for a new contract. Head coach Zac Taylor said Monday he expects Bates will play this season, “but he’s on his timeline.”
“We spent two years trying to extend him and we weren’t able to get there,” Brown said. “I regret that we didn’t, but we’ll have another chance at the end of the season. Maybe it’ll happen then.”
Burrow is in the third year of his four-year rookie deal, with a team option for the fifth. No one believes the Bengals will wait that long. “It’s right down the track, we see the train coming,” Brown said Monday.
Ah, but the Cardinals just signed quarterback Kyler Murray to a five-year, $230.5 million extension, with $160 million in guarantees, just after the Browns signed quarterback Deshaun Watson to a five-year, fully guaranteed $235 million deal.
“I like what Mahomes said,” Brown said of the Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “He wasn’t bothered by those big quarterback contracts that came after his because he had enough to set him up for a lifetime anyway.”
Brown did say this of Burrow, “He’s everything you would wish for.”
Besides, those champagne problems are for down the road. As Duke Tobin, the team’s player personnel director, said Wednesday, while “we’re aware that we have decisions and contracts that are coming up as our team matures” the focus is on 2022 and returning to the Super Bowl.
“We want to be competitive every year,” Tobin said. “Are we trying to maximize this year? Absolutely.”
Strike while the iron, and Mike Brown, are hot.