Monday, November 01, 1999

Losses pile up, as do profits for Bengals


Inept team won't improve if fans continue to pay

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Cincinnati Bengals exist to stroke your ego. Where there is despair, they bring hope. Where there is suffering, they bring solace.

        No matter how bleak things might appear — say, you've lost your job, your wife, your dog and your remote control — the Bengals can always be counted on for encouraging comparisons and comic relief.

        Looked at a certain way, the Bengals are more of a public service than a football franchise. What other organization is so committed to convincing other people they don't have it so bad; that incompetence is a relative concept; that even rock-bottom has a sub-basement?

        “We went out there and we stunk up the field today,” defensive end John Copeland said Sunday. “There's no one to blame but us.”

        Only an irrelevant last-second touchdown prevented Sunday's 41-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars from being the most lopsided in franchise history. Yet the defeat was otherwise no different from most Bengals drubbings: pathetic, perfunctory and profitable. A total of 49,138 tickets were distributed, and the ones that weren't given away were sold at a cost between $34 and $46 per seat.

        If Mike Brown is not laughing all the way to the bank, it could be because he's afraid hoisting his wallet could cause him a hernia.

Bad product, big profits
        Herein lies the core problem of the franchise. No matter how lousy their product, the Bengals remain an enormously lucrative business. Brown can pay the bulk of his operating expenses out of the National Football League's evenly shared television revenues, and he can extort a lavish new stadium because of the scarcity of franchises.

        He doesn't have to win in order to make millions, and the millions he makes insulate him from the performance pressures that could be applied to owners and executives in virtually any other industry. No matter how loudly they complain, Bengals fans who continue to buy tickets only serve to solidify Brown's intractable position.

        Until they're willing to boycott the team in large numbers — or invoke emminent domain — Bengals fans pretty much deserve what they get.

        This does not mean Mike Brown is without merit. When the Bengals went to Super Bowls XVI and XXIII, Brown was running the organization day-to-day, with his famous father largely a figurehead. Yet the Bengals' owner/general manager has been slow to adapt to players' increasing freedom of movement, has drafted without distinction despite the benefit of early selections, and has invited criticism with a front office operation replete with relatives.

        If Brown should fire head coach Bruce Coslet for the Bengals' 1-7 start — and there was considerable speculation on that subject Sunday — it will be the team's third coaching change in a decade that includes 103 losses. Given the general manager's performance during that period, firing Coslet would amount to shameless scapegoating.

        Still, something has to be done. The Bengals can not continue to stagger around like so many sailors on nickel-beer night without some serious consequences. Eventually, Hamilton County's attendance guarantees for Paul Brown Stadium will expire. Eventually, NFL television revenue may plateau. Eventually, Mike Brown is going to have to show some progress if he is going to continue to show a huge profit.

From bad to worse
        Bad as they've been, the Bengals managed to regress Sunday. Rookie quarterback Akili Smith passed for 67 yards, was intercepted twice for 39 and sacked for 21. The Bengals' defense tackled as if the Jaguars had been coated with Teflon, and failed to force a punt until the third quarter. It was 27-0 at the half, when the Ben-Gals cheerleaders changed out of their Halloween costumes into their standard uniforms. The players, sadly, continued their masquerade until the final gun.

        “When you're feeling like I'm feeling, I think it's better not to say anything,” Coslet said. “Why should I stand up here and say the same old stuff? I'm as tired and sick of it as you are and our fans are.”

        With that, Coslet left his postgame press conference without taking a single question. Where the Bengals are concerned, good answers are always in short supply.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE