Super Bowl LII is Sunday. One of the usual suspects will participate. The other, to quote a former Bearcats head football coach, is a "progress in work."
The Patriots would be the former. They're in the grand finale for the eighth time in the last 18 years.
The Eagles' last trip to a Super Bowl was in 2005. Comparing any NFL franchise to the Patriots is a fool's game. But the Eagles are another story.
If you compare where the Bengals are right now to the Patriots, after the laughter subsides, the discussion is a quick one: Not even in the same conversation.
The Eagles? Let's look. A year ago, they were 7-9. Two years ago, the Eagles were also 7-9. Over the last two years, the Bengals were only a half-game worse. So how did the Eagles turn it around?
Their first move of consequence was naming front office 'lifer' Howie Roseman their vice president of football operations. Roseman had been with the Eagles since 2000.
The first roster decision was to take care of their own. After the 2015 season, they signed defensive end Vinny Curry to a five-year deal. Curry responded and became one of the anchors on the Eagles stout front four.
The Eagles identified a weakness at safety. The Rams Rodney McLeod was available so the Eagles signed him to a five-year, $37 million deal.
To shore up their offensive line, Philadelphia signed free agent guard Brandon Brooks to a five-year, $40 million dollar deal.
And it drafted strongly. Quarterback Carson Wentz was the Eagles first-round pick. They selected Isaac Seumalo in round three and he's now their starting left guard. Wentz struggled in 2016, so did the Eagles. But it set the team up for this year's championship run.
The Eagles loaded up in free agency on aging veterans, looking for one last chance at a Super Bowl ring. Wide receivers Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery, along with cornerback Patrick Robinson and running back LaGarrette Blount (who won two rings with the Patriots before signing with Philadelphia) all signed one-year deals. And without knowing how important he'd be, the Eagles brought quarterback Nick Foles back as well.
Then there were trades, smart trades, that the Eagle pulled off. They sent a third-round pick to the Ravens this past spring and got defensive end Timmy Jernigan. Jernigan played so well, the Eagles signed him to a four-year deal in the middle of this past season. They also got one of their starting cornerbacks in a trade with the Buffalo Bills. The Bills got receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick. The Eagles got Ronald Darby.
Eight games into the season, off to a 7-1 start, the Eagles completed a two-year turnaround by sending a fourth-round draft pick to the Dolphins and got running back Jay Ajayi in return.
Two 7-9 seasons and the following year, the Eagles are in the Super Bowl. The road map now exists for teams like the Bengals. Given the Bengals history, it's unlikely they'll follow it.
The Bengals have rarely signed an impact unrestricted free agent. When was the last time that happened? Adam Jones? OK, that was close to a decade ago. Sam Adams? Well, he did have an impact at several Tri-State buffet lines.
The Bengals have traditionally built their teams through the draft and waiting on the second wave (or third) of free agency. That's why they wind up with players like Kevin Minter or A.J. Hawk or BenJarvus Green-Ellis. They were all solid players but hardly impactful.
The Bengals drafts usually net some bargains. But look at how long it takes their first-round picks to have an impact. It took Dre Kirkpatrick more than two seasons to mature into what a first-round cornerback should be. He started just five games his first three seasons. Darqueze Dennard needed three seasons before figuring out the NFL. Tyler Eifert missed more than half of the games he's been eligible to play in, because of various injuries. And then, of course, there are Cedric Ogbuehi and John Ross.
Football is a game of impact. And if you believe what coaches say (be careful with that one), most NFL games come down to five or so plays where impactful plays are made. The Bengals are just a half-game behind the Eagles in that one. It's probably measured best in light years.
The object of this exercise isn't to "cap" on the Bengals. They're an easy target and there's been enough of it. The object is to show a clear path out of mediocrity to playing in the most meaningful game on sports' most celebrated day.
Sports team owners, by and large, are egomaniacs. Most have made their fortunes in things other than football. Bob Kraft went to work for a company owned by his father-in-law and the seized control of that company in a leveraged buyout. He also was part-owner in a Boston TV station.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, like Kraft, inherited a fortune and went to work in the family business, owning a movie theater chain. He went on to produce movies. I inadvertently wound up in one. Well, my voice did. Lurie, or someone, lifted a play-by-play I did of a monster truck race in the late '80s for ESPN. It was in the movie, produced by Lurie, "I Love You To Death." I wasn't compensated, by the way.
Mark Cuban, Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, the Buss family in Los Angeles are other examples of ego-driven business people. And in the socialist world of the NFL, where all revenue is divided equally, ego becomes the greatest motivation for winning. The aforementioned have it. Mike Brown may be the least egocentric person you'll ever meet.
Virtually every professional sports franchise has a general manager. The Cowboys don't. Neither do the Bengals. But, see the ego thing.
Chasing a championship takes talent. It takes brains, money and will. It takes the ego of an owner. The talent thing has never changed. The ego thing would be nice. But the money and the will aspects are new millennium musts. It also takes the realization that winning, in this day and age, requires a different paradigm than it did 30 years ago. If the Bengals can go to school on that, and what the Eagles have pulled off in the last 24 months, maybe the 2018 NFL season will be better than what it looks like right now. Maybe.
Now some random thoughts ...
I like the Eagles' chances Sunday. I think they present the exact kind of defense that should give Tom Brady trouble: A front four that can generate pure pass rush and good cover in the secondary. But, as a wise man told me last week, "how many times do you have to hear the song before you know the lyrics?"
Patriots 28 Eagles 17...
I've had USA Today's Nate Davis on my 700 WLW radio show several times. Good guest, good insight. Davis has a story out this week about 12 teams that have never won a Super Bowl and which have a chance to end that streak in 2018. You'll have to scroll down, a lot, to find the Bengals...
The Cleveland Cavaliers are a hot mess right now. Kevin Love is out for the next 6-8 weeks with a broken hand. So too is the offense that goes away with him. But the Cavs were in trouble even with Love. Defensively, they're simply not very good. Cleveland is 27th out of 30 in the league in allowing opponents points in the paint. They're 27th in blocked shots. They're 22nd in steals.
Cleveland now has another dilemma. Lebron James is apparently thinking about life past this summer, when he'll become a free agent. And he's apparently considering joining the one team that fans in Cleveland consider the "evil empire."
With the trade deadline approaching, the Cavs are in a quandary. They have Brooklyn's first-round pick in this year's draft (acquired in the trade that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston). It remains their best bargaining chip. But do they trade that in the hope of getting better this season and giving James the chance at another trophy? Or do the Cavs hang onto it, hoping that pick will bring help next season, convincing James that the future would be bright if he stayed in Cleveland?...
The Reds are banking on the kids. After signing free agent relief pitcher David Hernandez, Reds GM Dick Williams said the club was done acquiring talent for the upcoming season. So acquiring two relief pitchers (Hernandez and Jared Hughes) was the extent of trying to upgrade the club for 2018. Not much of a prediction here that the fan base won't be happy.
The Reds are coming off back-to-back seasons where they lost 94 games in each. Four of their projected starting pitchers (Homer Bailey, Luis Castillo, Sal Romano and Brandon Finnegan) won a combined 15 games in 2017.
Another projected starter, Anthony DeSclafani, missed all of 2017 and a majority of 2016 with various maladies.
And while the Reds offense was competitive with the rest of the division and defensively the team was sound, it finished 24 games out of first place and only Philadelphia, Detroit and San Francisco won fewer games than the Reds.
The Reds are now entering their fifth season since making the playoffs. While that's not as long a gap as the Bengals had between 1990 and 2005, their span between playoff appearances, the Reds are marching down the same road as the Bengals.
An entire generation of Cincinnatians grew up without experiencing a Bengals winning season. Interest in the team fell off a cliff. Owner Bob Castellini's gamble had better pay off...
Some Major League Baseball teams were a little slow getting religion on this thing. But this is a good thing...
The UC Bearcats left another wakeup call, late in their win over Houston Wednesday night. They've done that a few too many times this season. But the scoring on this UC team is so diverse now, and their defense is even more solid than in recent years, they're getting away with it. But they won't, come March...
Fifty-three years ago today, in 1965, in a studio in North Carolina, James Brown recorded a song that would be on his signature hits. This song:
Great story behind this song. Brown was doing all of his recording at King Records here in Cincinnati. He was on the road, touring, and loved the way his band played this song in rehearsal and on stage. He loved it so much so that he wanted to record it immediately.
Brown called his personal engineer at King, the late Ron Lenhoff, and said he wanted to record the song immediately. He asked Lenhoff to drive to Charlotte, where Brown and his band were performing.
Ron's son related that story to me a few years ago. He traveled with his dad, overnight, and got to the Arthur Smith Studio early the next morning. By later that same day, Lenhoff had recorded the song and he and his son were back on their way to Cincinnati, audio tapes in hand.
When arriving back in Cincinnati, as he was beginning to master the song for record pressing, Lenhoff got a surprise visitor in the studio. According to the late Cincinnati rock and roll legend, Shad O'Shea, King Records owner Syd Nathan walked into the studio and listened to Brown's recording. O'Shea told me (and it was confirmed by Lenhoff's son) that Nathan thought the song was too slow, with not enough energy. Nathan wanted the song recorded again, at a faster pace.
Remember, this was in the era of no cell phones. To get ahold of Brown on the road, you'd have to first find what town he was performing in and then track down where Brown was staying. The latter was not an easy thing to do.
Lenhoff was in a quandary. The label owner wanted a song, the singer thought he had a hit and without Brown back in the studio, Lenhoff had neither. So the engineer improvised.
Reel-to-reel audio tape was dragged over a playback "head" on a tape machine by a capstan. Thinking fast on his feet, Lenhoff wrapped a piece of Scotch tape over the capstan, allowing Brown's recording to play at a faster pace, not much, just enough to satisfy his boss and create a mega hit.
This song wound up hitting No. 1 on the Rhythm and Blues charts and No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. All because a very good engineer improvised.