There's a chilling moment in the movie classic, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," every time a human who doesn't realize he's fallen asleep opens his eyes and doesn't realize his mind and will are no longer his own.
In Cincinnati, they call that being "Bengal-ized."
Two winning seasons in the last 20 will do that to a lot of people. It finally did to head coach Marvin Lewis.
Lewis arrived in town nine seasons ago as one of the most-promising prospects in the business, fresh off a much-decorated stint as the architect of a Baltimore defense that ranks among the best ever. He was brimming with ideas, ambitious and just cocky enough to think he'd convince owner Mike Brown to change his ways and upgrade the NFL's last real mom-and-pop operation instead of running it all the way into the ground. He turned out to be dead wrong.
That was apparent Tuesday, right after Brown held a news conference to announce his latest bad idea, part of a parade of bad ideas stretching back — nearly unbroken — back to 1991, when he took over the family business from his father, Paul.
Brown had just ruled out any possibility of trading franchise quarterback Carson Palmer, who's under contract for another four years but already on the record saying he will retire rather than play another down in Cincinnati. Because Palmer would be worth plenty in a normal year — and even more in the post-lockout swap meet the NFL is running at the moment — someone asked Brown why not trade him for draft picks, rather than let Palmer stew back home in California for a whole season and get nothing in return.
"Carson signed a contract. He made a commitment. He gave his word," Brown replied. "We relied on his word. We relied on his commitment. We expected him to perform here. He's going to walk away from his commitment. We aren't going to reward him for doing it."
That's either arrogant, principled — and remember: Brown has a history of refusing to buckle on trade demands — or just plain dumb. But while everybody else in the room and around the league scratched their heads trying to figure out exactly which, Lewis just stared straight ahead blankly and mumbled something about "going forward" without Palmer and with Andy Dalton, the hardly ready-for-prime-time QB from TCU that the Bengals drafted when Palmer hatched his retirement scheme back in January.
For all the times Lewis clashed with Brown in the past, there doesn't appear to be much fight left in him. It's always sad to see a guy reduced to a shell of his former self, but that's what working for Brown will do. The tightfisted owner apparently thinks so highly of his own counsel that he hasn't bothered to hire a general manager. He's so stubborn and so often besieged by players desperate to flee Cincinnati that Brown once tried — and failed — to get a loyalty clause written into new contracts. What he's never tried, though, is spending enough money to hire real football people and put together an organization that people who aren't family members actually want to work for.
So while the Palmer standoff is a maneuver Boomer Esiason, Corey Dillon and Chad Ochocinco all employed in the past with little success, what's even more troubling about this one is that Palmer was as loyal as Bengals come. He arrived at what was arguably the franchise's low point over the last two decades and produced the only two winning seasons over that span, and both playoff appearances. He took a beating behind bad 'O' lines and so-so running games without complaint. He led by example. He picked up the tab to fly teammates to his offseason home for extra training sessions. Palmer even said when he signed that last contract that he planned to retire in Cincinnati.
But another miserable go-round in 2010 — the Bengals went 4-12, including a franchise-record 10 straight losses to finish the season — convinced Palmer he'd seen enough. He didn't want to be "Bengal-ized," especially with the window of opportunity on his own career closing fast. He's 31, too old to outlast Brown. But he's still productive enough to lead a team with a real shot at winning; forfeiting a year is a gamble he seems willing to take.Comment on this story
Why Lewis isn't following him out the door might be a bigger mystery. He threatened to do just that more than once if Brown didn't beef up the scouting staff, build a covered practice field and provide the resources every other team in the league takes for granted. Lewis got none of it, and not much more say in personnel decisions, and signed up for another tour of duty, anyway.
Brown has done things the same way for 20 mostly miserable years, and he isn't going to change now. He likes other teams' problem players because they come cheap and as a result, some portion of the Bengals roster usually reads like the cast of "Boys' Town." In a league where revenue is shared and the draft weighted to practically ensure parity, Brown has defied long odds by finishing on the wrong side of the ledger all but twice in 20 years.
Given that performance, we're tempted to say Brown has been "Bengal-ized," too. Unfortunately for Cincinnati's fans, he might be the only one left in the organization who is a long way from giving up.