Dougherty: Mom-and-pop Packers, Bengals go opposite directions
The Green Bay Packers and Cincinnati Bengals had plenty in common from the 1960s through the early 1990s.
Both were stingy mom-and-pop shops who for a time won because they were run by coaching legends. Vince Lombardi turned the Packers into a dynasty in the 1960s, while Paul Brown built the Bengals from scratch in 1968 and went to the playoffs three times in six years in the early 1970s.
Both then fell on hard times after those legends quit coaching them.
From 1968 through ’91, the Packers’ .421 winning percentage was better than only three NFL teams, and those were expansion franchises New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. In those 24 years, the Packers qualified for the playoffs only twice.
The Bengals had a couple highlight years (two Super Bowls) after Brown kicked himself upstairs to the GM job in 1976, but those were flashes in the pan. In the 16 years from ‘76 through ’91, they won less than half their games (.488 winning percentage) and had almost twice as many seasons with double-digit losses (seven) as playoff appearances (four).
This weekend the teams meet for only the sixth time since Brett Favre’s legend was born against the Bengals at Lambeau Field in Week 3 of the 1992 season. At that point, they still were the sorry, stingy mom-and-pop shops they’d been since Lombardi and Brown quit coaching them.
But since that day, one has gone on a 25-year run as one of the league’s exemplary franchises, while the other has mostly continued muddling along.
Since 1992 the Packers have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage (.636). They’ve won two Super Bowls, played in seven NFC Championship games and missed the playoffs only six times.
Over that same span, the Bengals’ have the No. 27 winning percentage (.427). They had an 11-year run (from 1992-2002) when they were 52-124 and never topped .500 or made the playoffs, and they still haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991.
The Packers, despite their small-town roots story, have grown out of the stingy mom-and-pop shop they were in 1991. The Bengals, on the other hand, aren’t that different from back then.
“The Packers are in a good situation where they have this unique (organizational) structure to spend (money),” said one NFL executive this week. “(But Bengals owner) Mike Brown is known as a frugal guy, and that’s going to always limit how much spending (he does).”
Let’s start with an obvious point. Quarterback play is a big factor behind the franchises’ performance the last 25 years. Favre is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Aaron Rodgers will be five years after he retires. Those are uncommon riches at the NFL’s make-or-break position.
“We’re not talking just good quarterbacks, we’re talking about two of the best in the all-time history of the NFL,” another front-office executive for an NFL team said.
But that doesn’t explain everything because the Bengals weren’t quarterback-bereft through the years. Going back to before ’91, they had a borderline Hall of Famer in Ken Anderson but still had a three-season stretch in his prime (1978-80) when they won only 16 games total. His career record was 91-81.
And since ’92, they’ve had two multiple Pro Bowl quarterbacks in Boomer Esiason (two) and Carson Palmer (three). Yet they nevertheless combined for a sub-.500 record (108-112) and saw the Bengals as so hopeless that they demanded and eventually were granted trades at the age of 31.
So the way the organizations are run matters. And the difference is that Bob Harlan, the Packers’ former president and CEO, pushed his organization into today’s NFL by spending money and turning over all football decisions to a hand-picked general manager, Ron Wolf, with no interference from the administrative side of the organization. That’s how the Packers have operated since.
The Bengals, on the other hand, still are run by one of Paul Brown’s sons, Mike, who took over in 1991. And he has failed to evolve like the Packers or his fellow NFL franchises owned by families whose primary source of income is their team – the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers, Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys.
Brown, 82, has changed in recent years. In 2009 he ceded control of almost all personnel decisions to a scout (Duke Tobin) and more recently has given over the day-to-day administration of the team to his daughter, Katie Blackburn.
The Bengals have been in the playoffs six of the last eight seasons.
But the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in that time. Brown still is the team president and remains very much his father’s son when it comes to spending money on football operations and disdaining marketing.
One longtime NFL executive said both Browns were notorious for objecting to any league expenditure that took money out of their pockets. Mike Brown, for instance, was adamantly against the league upgrading from film to videotape for scouting purposes.
“I’m just amazed at his reluctance to spend money and get up to date with the National Football League,” said the executive, who spoke fondly of Brown personally. “… Paul (Brown) was as tight as he could be. Mike’s the same way.”
One of the stark differences in these two small-market franchises is their value. Just last week, Forbes came out with its annual NFL franchise valuations, and the Packers, who play in the league’s smallest city, rank No. 13 (estimated $2.55 billion), whereas the Bengals are No. 30 ($1.8 billion).
Just as telling is the directory of their football staffs.
The Packers have 23 coaches and 16 scouts. Scouting is the lifeblood of an NFL team, and their college scouting staff alone consists of eight men.
The Bengals have expanded their football staff in recent years and have 19 coaches. But Brown’s 11-person scouting staff includes three members of the Brown family (Brown himself; his brother, Pete; and son, Paul), an analytics consultant and an administrative assistant. No one is identified as a college scout. To save money the Bengals always have involved their coaching staff in college scouting more than any other team in the league.
The Packers’ staff of football operations, trainers and video staff account for another 28 people, including a full-time nutritionist and three analytics specialists. The Bengals’ have 13 total (one analytics specialist and no nutritionist).
The Packers also have an indoor practice facility, the Don Hutson Center, on which they spent $4.7 million to build in 1994. When that facility becomes outdated, they’re planning to build a new one on property they purchased next to Lambeau Field.
The Bengals still don’t have an indoor facility and have to bus to the University of Cincinnati’s bubble when they want to practice inside. They’re the northern-most team in the league without an indoor practice field.
Even with the Bengals’ staff upgrades in recent years, there’s still a huge difference in the way these organizations are run today.
The Packers put their money into football and their rainy day fund. In the last decade, they’ve spent $367 million upgrading Lambeau Field, $65 million and counting on the Titletown District and $23 million on the Johnsonville Tailgate Village. All of those are with an eye on growing revenue. They have $349 million in their reserve fund.
The Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000, and in 2015 underwent $20 million in upgrades, of which the Bengals reportedly paid $6 million, with Hamilton County picking up the rest. They simply aren’t all-in financially like the most of the NFL.
“The question is, is (Brown) a forward thinker in the capacity of seeing the long-term strategic plan and vision of where we’re headed?” one NFL executive said. “He doesn’t buy into all this marketing stuff.”
The bottom line? The Packers have and deploy all the resources they could hope for to lure top scouting, coaching and playing talent to Green Bay. And Harlan’s decision to give total say on football matters to his general manager has made all the difference. This is a mom-and-pop shop no more.
No doubt, they and their fans will be in for an awakening when Rodgers retires. Their run at quarterback since 1992 has been stunning and landing a third one of that quality will take a miracle. But they at least will have hope of staying relevant.
The Bengals, on the other hand, haven’t kept pace. Yes, things have improved since Brown has loosened his hold on the team. But as long as he’s ultimately in charge, the Bengals will be a mom-and-pop shop.
“For him to bring in a high-powered general manager and turn it over to him and pay him big money and say clean this up for me, Mike won’t do it,” one of the league executives said. “I know he won’t.”