|Bengals owner has soft spot for troublemakers|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 28 August 2008 09:29|
``CHRIS HENRY AGAIN?'' the black-and-orange message flashed along a busy interstate. ``ARE YOU SERIOUS?''
Yes, the receiver who had repeatedly embarrassed the Cincinnati Bengals was back with the team. Owner Mike Brown was giving Henry what amounted to a sixth chance, even though the head coach didn't want him and a local judge had deemed him a ``one-man crime wave.''
No matter. He was back. And after players and fans thought about it, they realized they shouldn't have been so surprised.
``The head coaches don't run the teams in the National Football League,'' quarterback Carson Palmer said. ``The organizations run the teams.''
This one is run by an owner who holds tightly to control, but is exceedingly generous with second chances. And, as his decision on Henry shows, he's not about to change.
Giving wayward players extra chances is one of the hallmarks of Brown's tenure as the team owner, president and de facto general manager.
The 73-year-old Brown has turned down interview requests since he gave Henry a two-year contract on Aug. 19. He speaks to reporters rarely now, but it wasn't always that way. Until the last few years, he was readily accessible during practices, and loved to share stories about the days when his father was coaching the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s and '60s or, later, the expansion Bengals.
Back then, a player getting into trouble was considered a boys-will-be-boys moment. Rough-edged players were part of the league's attraction. Brown laughed as he told stories of their exploits.
``In the old days, if guys got into a fight, it was, 'Who won?''' Brown said, during a 2007 interview. ``Now it's, 'Who's in jail?' It's just different.''
He acknowledges that the game and society have changed - player arrests are no longer a laughing matter - but he still has a soft spot for troublemakers. When the Bengals had 10 players arrested in a 14-month span beginning in April 2006, Brown stuck to his stance that the public perception was bad, but the players were not. At the team's annual luncheon before the start of training camp last month, he discussed his philosophy in the most open way yet.
``I guess the world is divided up between redeemers and non-redeemers,'' Brown said, during an interview with a few reporters. ``I happen to be a redeemer. I think people can be made better and right. If that's a fault, so be it. These guys misstepped, they made mistakes, they paid prices for it that have been verging on ruinous, but that doesn't mean I dislike them personally.''
Less than a month later, Chris Henry was back. And the billboards and the talk shows were buzzing with disbelief.
Fans couldn't understand why Brown would take back a player who was suspended for three games in 2006, the first half of the season in 2007 and the first four games of the upcoming season because of his unrelenting run of problems. Even Henry sounded a bit surprised, noting when he arrived in town that the Bengals were the only ones who had offered a contract.
The fans like a story of redemption as much as Brown. Last year, outfielder Josh Hamilton got a standing ovation on opening day with the Cincinnati Reds, the culmination of his comeback from crack cocaine addiction, eight trips to rehab and a ban from baseball.
It was during his ban from the game that Hamilton finally bottomed out, took responsibility for his life and became committed to reforming it. He got another chance only after he showed over time that he had changed. Henry has demonstrated no such commitment to change, but Brown took him back anyway.
The decision also shocked fans in part because it undercut head coach Marvin Lewis, who had said publicly and emphatically that he had no interest in bringing Henry back. It was a reminder that Brown is still in charge and unwilling to change, even if it creates a rift with the head coach.
That's one of the threads to the team's long run of frustration. Since Brown took over after his father's death in 1991, the Bengals have had four head coaches but only one winning record (2005). A franchise-worst 2-14 finish in 2002 and thousands of empty seats in Paul Brown Stadium prompted Mike Brown to go outside the organization - a bold move for the family-run front office - and bring in Lewis.
The new coach had more sway than his predecessors at the outset. He got more of a free hand to pick his staff, persuaded Brown to let the team fly to West Coast games a day earlier than in the past, and put a lot of money into upgrading the weight room. Lewis made himself the team's spokesman on all important matters.
When the Bengals went 8-8 in Lewis' first season, the head coach choked up while thanking Brown for the opportunity. When they made the playoffs in 2005, fans thought that times had changed. In the last two years, they've been forced to think again. The Bengals have finished 8-8 and 7-9, and Brown has re-emerged as a controlling figure.
Lewis has lobbied for a covered practice field for bad weather, but hasn't gotten one. Last year, the Bengals had to practice in cold, rainy weather, which made some players sick leading up to games, according to Palmer.
While Lewis took an increasingly tougher line on player misconduct, Brown wavered. By taking Henry back over Lewis' strong objections, he reminded everyone that he would run the team the way he saw fit, not the way others prefer.
``They're going to make decisions that they think are best,'' Palmer said, referring to the Brown family, ``and Marvin and the players and all the coaches do the best with what we've got.''
They've got an owner with a soft spot and a strong will.