|After a strong draft and solid season, Mike Brown's riding high except at the box office. (Getty Images)|
CINCINNATI -- The Bengals were giving away tickets this week, but not because they're generous. Believe me, it wasn't that.
They gave away tickets to Sunday's finale against Baltimore -- among the most important regular-season games in franchise history -- because they couldn't sell them. Because people around here didn't want to go. The announced attendance at Paul Brown Stadium this season has hovered around 42,000, less than two-thirds capacity, but that's tickets sold, not fannies in seats. Thousands of paying customers have been staying away each week, and not to watch it on television. Every game but one has been blacked out locally, the exception being Pittsburgh's visit Nov. 13, when Steelers fans filled the place.
This week, with a playoff spot at stake, the Bengals tried to keep Baltimore's fans away by offering a giveaway promotion to season-ticket holders: Buy one, get one free. And it worked, I guess. A sellout for Sunday has beeen announced.
In other towns, though, I imagine they're laughing at us in Cincinnati.
In other towns, they don't know. They can't. In other towns, they don't have Mike Brown playing puppet-master to their NFL team, their city, their reputation, their heart.
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And Mike Brown is a lousy puppet-master. Give him one of those fancy marionettes with strings, and he'd accidentally choke the damn thing. As a businessman he's a success in a ruthless, impossible-to-fail way -- threatening to leave years ago and bullying Cincinnati into a stadium deal that the Wall Street Journal called "one of the worst professional sports deals ever struck by a local government."
But as a football man, he's incompetent and tone-deaf, a pitiable combination that means Brown has no idea how bad he is at his job -- or why Bengals fans are staying away. So let me put this into terms that all of you will understand, even the puppet-master himself:
Fans are staying away because of Mike Brown.
This is your fault, Mike.
This is not Cincinnati's fault. Bengals fans are not bad fans. Get that straight right now. They lack neither passion nor loyalty. This is a franchise that, until last season, sold out 57 consecutive home games. That's a streak of nearly eight years. Any idea how many playoff games the Bengals won in those eight years?
Then again, since Mike Brown assumed control of the Bengals in 1991, the Bengals haven't won a single playoff game -- not one -- in 20 years. They've had a parade of clowns and cretins on the field, harmless narcissists like Corey Dillon and Chad
Johnson Ochocinco and Terrell Owens, and real-life criminals like Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson and (the late) Chris Henry. They had a franchise quarterback, Carson Palmer, who enabled the idiots in his huddle for years before finally becoming decisive and tough last summer -- when he decided he'd had enough and quit.
These were our heroes in Cincinnati. This was all we had. We had Ochocinco and Dillon and Palmer and Pacman and Tank and Cedric Benson and T.O. This is who Cincinnati was asked to support, and for eight years this town supported them.
Don't you dare question the loyalty of a Bengals fan.
These fans, this whole town, is in a terrible spot right now. On the one hand, they've already decided Mike Brown doesn't deserve our love. That's not the kind of decision you make lightly, but it's the decision that has been made around here. For years Brown has filled the front office with relatives and in-laws, as if marrying into the Brown family makes you a football expert, while installing himself as general manager. But as owner he has refused to give his team the resources to win -- the scouting department is a joke, and the Bengals are the northern-most franchise without an indoor practice facility -- and at some point over the last year his unrelenting incompetence finally broke his fans.
They're gone, and they might not be coming back. Not without major changes, starting with this one: Someone else running the football operations. As long as Mike Brown is hiring coaches, running the draft, wooing free agents, treating his team like a toy -- picture a 4-year-old pounding away on his plastic piano -- fans around here aren't coming back. They have more pride than that.
So this hurts, this special season. The Bengals got rid of most of the prima donnas, mainly because they were too expensive -- Brown doesn't make football decisions; he makes money decisions, and if the football part of it happens to work out, so be it -- and replaced them with cheap rookie talent. Who knew second-round pick Andy Dalton and even first-rounder A.J. Green would be this good, this fast? Or that a defense of mostly unrecognizable names would come together so quickly? Or that kicker Mike Nugent, after failing at four franchises, would become Pro Bowl-caliber in Cincinnati?
Mike Brown didn't know any of that, so stop right there. This is the guy who hired Dave Shula and drafted Akili Smith and signed injured receiver Antonio Bryant for $28 million -- and believe me, I could go on -- so don't look at the Bengals' 9-6 record this season and decide that Mike Brown became football-savvy overnight. He didn't. There's a saying: Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while. That's Brown, and those are the 2011 Bengals.
And for that, fans are supposed to forget? No. They haven't forgotten, because they can't forget. Because this is a mirage, and people here know it. For too many years, Bengals fans have made like Charlie Brown and sprinted passionately toward the football ... only to have Lucy jerk it away at the last minute. That's Brown, and those are Bengals fans from 1991-2010.
And enough is enough. Bengals fans have made a principled stand, but not against the 53 players on roster. They have made their stand against Mike Brown, who used this area's passion for football against it, getting a stadium deal that hasn't enriched the area but has helped cripple it. Public schools and law enforcement departments are laying off people left and right, in part because they aren't getting the tax money they need. Why? The biggest reason -- seriously, the very biggest reason -- is because the Bengals are getting that tax money instead.
So don't expect fans to come back to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. Not unless they're coming for free. Bengals fans want this team to win, yes, but they want this owner to lose. And since they can't have it both ways, they'll root for the Bengals from afar.
Mike Brown has already abused their hearts and raided their wallets. He has been a one-man plague of locusts -- and Bengals fans have nothing left to give.