August 2012

Destination: New Orleans

Sure they made the playoffs last year, but the team was 9-7 during the regular season.

And it was an unimpressive 9-7.

The team was outscored by the opposition during the regular season, did not have a winning record in its division, only had one regular season victory against a foe that finished with a winning record, and didn’t qualify for the postseason until the final game of the year.

Sound familiar?

That team was the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.

The Bengals also made the playoffs with a 9-7 record last year and while they are not listed among the preseason favorites to go this year’s Super Bowl, Cincinnati is widely considered to be an up-and-coming team.  Pete Prisco of picks the Bengals to win the AFC North and advance to the AFC Championship game and ESPN’s Bill Polian also picks the Bengals to win the division.

“I think there are some people that realize that there is a lot of talent in this room,” said seven-year veteran Andrew Whitworth.  “That’s fun.  That’s going to make it exciting and it means there are expectations.  That’s the environment that you love to play in.”

The highest expectations for the Bengals are inside of their own locker room.  The players are wearing t-shirts that include the letters “DNO.”  As’s Albert Breer uncovered when he recently visited training camp, those letters stand for Destination:  New Orleans – the sight of this year’s Super Bowl.

“That is nothing new,” said Andrew Hawkins.  “The goal is to be world champs and you have to set your goals high and work toward that goal.  I remember coming into camp last year.  On my first day here, the very first thing that Coach Lewis talked about was going to the Super Bowl.  That’s always the goal.”

Is it a realistic goal?

The Bengals certainly have a talented young nucleus with a quarterback to build around in Andy Dalton, but perhaps just as importantly, the team also has a roster filled with hard-working, no-nonsense pros.

“I don’t think that there are certain guys that are leaders – there are a ton of leaders in this locker room,” said Whitworth.

“We don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” said BenJarvus Green-Ellis who played in the Super Bowl last year with New England.  “Right now we’re just worried about having a good practice and making sure that we’re dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s.  You don’t win a Super Bowl in February – you win it right now on the practice field doing the things that you’re supposed to be doing.”

The Bengals face a more difficult schedule this year, but it’s worth pointing out that Baltimore and Pittsburgh face even more challenging schedules.  The opponents are the same for all three teams with the exception of the following matchups:

Cincinnati:  Miami (home), at Jacksonville

Baltimore:  New England (home), at Houston

Pittsburgh:  New York Jets (home), at Tennessee

Advantage:  Bengals.

After getting their hopes up in previous seasons only to see Cincinnati stumble, I get the sense that many Bengals fans are reluctant to fully buy-in.  They’ll dip a toe into the water, but won’t dive in head first.

I’m not saying that the Bengals are going to the Super Bowl this year, but there’s nothing wrong with joining the players and coaches in making New Orleans the destination.

“I think every team, every year starts out with the goal to go to the Super Bowl,” said Whitworth.  “We want to go to New Orleans and we want to win it.  I’ve had the luxury of winning a state and a national championship in New Orleans so it would be sweet to win a Super Bowl there too.”

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Veteran Bengals Don’t Miss Training Camp Grind

Nate Clements, Terence Newman, and Donald Lee remember the old days.

Notice that I didn’t say “the good old days.”

Nate Clements

When the NFL owners and players agreed to a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement last year, it included major limitations on training camp.  There are no true two-a-days anymore (one session must be an instructional walk-through), and the total time spent on the field is limited to four hours per day.

“The young guys don’t have a clue,” said Lee.  “They complain about the heat and how tired they are and how sore they are.  This is like heaven to me because when I first came in, we had two-a-days in full pads with conditioning after every practice.  A lot of times, I would go to practice sort of fearing for my life, not knowing how I was going to make it through.”

“When I was at Ohio State we had three-a-days,” said Clements.  “I survived it, but I was 18 or 19 then.  I think that prepared me for the NFL as far as training camp goes.”

The practice restrictions don’t end at the conclusion of training camp.  During the regular season, teams are limited to a total of 14 padded practices in an effort to increase player safety.

“It’s alarming how many injuries are happening now,” said Newman.  “Guys are bigger, stronger, and faster, so they had to do something to help decrease concussions and ligament injuries.”

While all three players applaud the efforts to lessen the physical demands of practice, each has fond memories of his first NFL training camp.

Nate Clements (2001 Buffalo Bills):

“In my first training camp, I was bright-eyed and wet behind the ears.  I was trying to grasp everything around me.  I was just excited to get out there.  Now I want to be efficient – no wasted steps and no wasted reps.  Now it’s all about dialing-in on the little things and being productive.”

Donald Lee (2003 Miami Dolphins):

“I can remember that it was very hot down in South Miami.  I got to be around a great group of veterans like Zach Thomas, Jason Taylor, Ricky Williams, and Junior Seau.  I didn’t realize how tough it would be to compete at this level.”

Terence Newman (2003 Dallas Cowboys):

“Bill Parcells designated me as his water boy.  That was actually pretty funny.  He had a good way of humbling me, but he also gave me fist bumps when I brought him water so it was actually pretty cool.  It was light-years tougher then.  There was no rule limiting two-a-days, and you could put pads on as much as you wanted to.  It was tough-nosed – especially under Parcells.  He wanted a battle-hardened team.”

With a combined 29 years of NFL experience, Clements, Lee, and Newman have seen it all.  The question is – when they look around the Bengals locker room, do they see a team that passes the eyeball test of a contender?

“The eyeball test is the easiest test,” said Newman.  “You can look around and say, ‘That guy is huge or that guy looks fast.’  The test that’s more important is when you get out on the field you see guys running and jumping.  That’s the eyeball test that I liked when I got here.”

“This team reminds me a lot of when I first got to Green Bay,” said Lee who won a Super Bowl ring with the Packers in 2010.  “We have the guys here where we can really compete for a championship this year.  But we can’t shoot ourselves in the foot.  We have to make sure that we’re mentally strong, and make sure that we don’t hold ourselves back.  This team is young and guys are working hard.  I feel like we’re going to be really good this year.”

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Brown Savors A Life In Football

Actor/writer/director Rob Reiner has a great line about following his father – Hollywood and Broadway legend Carl Reiner – into the family business:

“I want to thank my dad for not being a proctologist,” said Rob.

It’s hard to imagine Mike Brown using the same line, but I’m sure that he feels the same way.

Professional football has been the Brown’s family business since 1946 when Paul Brown was hired to coach the Cleveland franchise in the AAFC.

“This whole life is what matters to me,” Mike told me.  “I like the players, I like the practices, I like the coaches, I like the fans, I like the whole show.  It’s a big circus.  Every day is different and thank God for that.”

The Bengals president has been attending NFL training camps since he was 10 years old and he savors the start of another season.

“I’m excited for the same old reasons – there’s nothing new with me,” said Brown.  “I’ve been doing this for 44 years here with the Bengals and I did it before I was here.  I look forward to seeing the players up and at it.  They’re all fascinating to me to watch and we’ll see how the team comes together.  That’s the essence of what I do, so it interests me and I’m excited about it as always.”

After the Bengals went 9-7 and made the playoffs with a rookie quarterback last year, Brown was named NFL Executive of the Year by Pro Football Talk and Peter King of Sports Illustrated.  With a young nucleus led by four Pro Bowlers under the under the age of 25 (Andy Dalton, Geno Atkins, Jermaine Gresham, and A.J. Green), the Bengals appear to be building a team that can contend with Pittsburgh and Baltimore for supremacy in the AFC North.

“We think our future is bright,” said Brown.  “It’s not easy in this league.  Every team thinks that its future is bright at this time of the year, but we’re ready to go with them.  I think they’ll get better and improve and I look forward to seeing how we can do.”

The next big step for the Bengals is to win a playoff game for the first time since 1990.  Until that happens, Brown knows that his critics will remain vocal.

“I think everyone is bothered by criticism, but I was brought up to believe that everyone has a right to say their piece,” Brown recently told Fox 19’s Joe Danneman.  “Nothing says that I have to shut up – I can speak up if I feel sufficiently compelled so I’m not crying about it.  The fact that people feel emotional about it or want to jump in – that’s good.  I want them to be involved, that’s the first step, even if they don’t approve of what you’re doing.”

One of Brown’s critics has been Reds announcer – and Bengals fan – Marty Brennaman.  But the Hall of Fame broadcaster reconsidered his opinion after the two of them met for lunch.

“It was sensational,” said Brennaman.  “That’s the only way that I can put it, and that’s not a suck-up comment.  I was bowled over by his storytelling ability – the stories he told about his dad, and the stories he told about former great players in the National Football League that he’s rubbed elbows with over all the years.  In fact, I told his daughter Katie in the middle of the lunch that he ought to write a book, and he said, ‘I have no interest in writing a book.’

“I’m a Cincinnati Bengals fan and I’m no different from anybody else.  Now maybe I have a public forum that other guys don’t have, but I want them to win.  When they had that long run of futility, I got a little PO’d, and I’ve been very outspoken about him.  I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that after having lunch with him – and we will do it again in the future – that I take a slightly different look at Mike Brown.”

After a lifetime in football, the Bengals president knows that fans won’t be fully satisfied until the team wins a Super Bowl.  He feels the same way.

“I would like to do that in my lifetime and that’s a big goal for me,” Brown told Fox 19.  “You can put that at the top of my agenda.

“People are entitled to see me however they wish to see me.  I’m pleased with the fact that we’ve done better here recently, and we want to do even better.  Our goal is what you would think it is – we want to be the top dog. “

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Big East Looks To Change Perception

“By any objective criteria that you choose, the Big East has been, is today, and will continue to be one of the top conferences in the nation.”

Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli made that remark while addressing reporters at the start of the league’s annual media day on Tuesday.  I’ve known Nick for nearly 20 years and told him afterward that I thought he did a good job of making the case to the league’s critics that the Big East isn’t dead yet.

“I hope the tone was a little more positive than that,” said Carparelli with a smile.  “Hopefully, that statement is obvious.  I think the intent was to cause everybody to take a deep breath on some issues because there’s a lot more work to be done, but on other issues, maybe the perception is not the reality.  It’s our job to change that and today was the start.”

“The perception has been false out there,” said UC head coach Butch Jones.  “All you have to do is look at the facts.  Since the modern day BCS era, we are the all-time winningest conference in terms of bowl records.  We’re 7-7 in BCS bowl games.  If you look at the product on the field and our body of work, I think it speaks for itself.”

In the last year, Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia have decided to leave the Big East, and TCU reversed plans to join.  That forced the Big East to reinvent itself as a coast-to-coast league with the addition of Temple this year, Boise State, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, San Diego State, and SMU in 2013, and Navy (and perhaps another school) in 2015.  That will allow the Big East to split into divisions and begin holding a league championship game next year at the home venue of the highest-ranked division winner.

“We’ve always been different and we’ve made it work to this point,” said Carparelli.  “Realignment is not new to the Big East and I think you could argue that with every realignment that we’ve gone through, in some way or another we’ve been better.”

The Big East’s future stability will largely be determined by its next television contract.  On September 1st, the league will enter an exclusive 60-day window to negotiate with their current media partner ESPN.  If ESPN and the Big East cannot reach a deal, Comcast/NBC and Fox figure to have interest.

“It’s all about inventory and quality of inventory,” said Carparelli.  “The fact that we can play games in four time zones at any time of day gives our television partners a lot more options to capitalize on their investment in us.”

The total dollar amount of a new TV deal will obviously be important to the league’s future, but the Big East is also looking for a partner that will showcase its product.

“Everybody knows the financial challenges that athletic departments have, but at the same time, if this league is going to grow, we need a television partner who is going to embrace us and give us great exposure at the right times and brand us in the right way,” said Carparelli.

Another critical issue that has to be resolved is landing a bowl deal for the Big East champion beginning in 2014 when a 4-team national championship playoff begins.  For the next two years the league champ is still guaranteed a spot in a prestigious BCS bowl, but with no deal in place beyond that, the Big East is considering a variety of options including starting a new bowl game for its champion.

“We are barely three months into a process that won’t go into effect until 2 ½ years from now,” said Carparelli.  “It is premature to evaluate our position in the 2014 postseason today when major details of the new format have not been decided.

“Let’s see how these things play out and evaluate it when it’s done and I’m confident that we’re going to be in great shape.”

Admittedly, it was Nick Carparelli’s job on Tuesday to put a positive spin on the state of the Big East.  It’s a job that would get much easier if the wild game of “conference musical chairs” slows down.

“I think change is constant in intercollegiate athletics, but you go through peaks and valleys and I really get the sense that nationally with the new postseason system taking shape, with most conferences having TV contracts that they’re pleased with, I really sense that we’re at a point in time where people are going to pause a little bit before they start shaking things up again,” said Carparelli.  “I know that we’re not going anywhere.  We lost some schools, but we gained three times as many as we lost and those schools feel pretty good about being here.”

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Bearcats Hungry For Another Big East Title

The UC football team has won or shared the Big East title in three of the last four seasons, but when it comes to gorging themselves on lobster, the Bearcats have some work to do.

On Monday night at annual lobster-fest that kicks off Big East media days, the Cincinnati trio of Maalik Bomar, Austen Bujnoch, and Walter Stewart combined to eat five lobsters while a pair of Syracuse players ate seven and a half apiece.

“I had two lobsters and Bujnoch had three,” said Bomar.  “They ran out on us so we didn’t really get to attack it the way that we wanted to.”

“I wish I could have had more,” said Bujnoch with a grin.  “They cut us off – I was probably going to eat six or seven, but I only got to eat three.”

“I’m actually allergic to shellfish but I still had a good time,” said Stewart.  “They had excellent barbeque and it was still a great experience just seeing all that seafood.  I never knew that I would see something like that so I definitely appreciated it.”

Of course, what the Bearcats are really hungry for is another Big East championship.

In the league’s annual preseason media poll released on Tuesday, the ‘Cats were picked to finish fourth behind Louisvlle, USF, and Rutgers.  It’s worth noting that UC has finished higher than its preseason rank in six of seven seasons since joining the league and was picked for 5th, 3rd, and 5th in its championship seasons.

“We want to use that as fuel,” said Bomar.  “That’s the bottom line.”

“At UC, we’ve built a legacy so we always expect the best,” said Bujnoch.  “If we don’t finish first, it’s a disappointment each year.  We expect to be up there.”

The three players chosen to “Represent the C” at the event in Newport, RI were picked by head coach Butch Jones for their leadership roles on this year’s team – particularly Stewart who is listed among the leading preseason candidates for Big East Defensive Player of the Year.

“Make no mistake about it – he is the face of our program right now,” said Coach Jones.  “He owns the football team.  His leadership skills are dynamic, he’s held everyone accountable including himself, and I think he’s really worked himself into have a great senior year.”

“With this being my senior year, I just wanted to step up,” said Stewart.  “A lot of guys in leadership roles are gone and I take a lot of pride in being a Bearcat and trying to help lead my team to victory.”

Preseason camp opens next week at Camp Higher Ground in West Harrison, Indiana.

“I’m excited to get out there and bond with the team,” said Bujnoch.  “We have a lot of work to do and camp is where teams are born.”

“We’ve been training hard all summer with the weight room and conditioning,” said Bomar.  “It’s time to attack the field and prepare for this season.”

“I can’t wait,” said Stewart.  “Especially after all of the workouts.  Eventually you get to a point where your body starts telling you, ‘Alright, it’s time to get going.’  I’m really excited to get going in camp and we have big expectations this year.”

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