Browns fans saw a new and improved team today.
The team they saw was led by a smart defensive coordinator who had been long overlooked and finally got his chance at the top job.
Browns fans, at long last, saw some promise from a team where years of inept drafting has been replaced by common sense and reliance on the advice of scouts.
Unfortunately, that team is the Cincinnati Bengals, a squad that shows how to revive a stagnant franchise by replacing its leadership.
The Bengals, as atrocious as their front office has been over the last several decades, are a team which is finally on the rise. Their ascendance can be traced to the one documented smart decision by Mike Brown and crew: Hiring Marvin Lewis.
As the Lewis era enters its third year, Cincinnati's club is doing a lot of things right. Browns fans can hope that the Browns learn from their performance, as well as the team's historical mistakes, and are headed in a similar direction.
When was the last time the Browns looked southward to see how things should be done? My guess is "never". But with Marvin Lewis in charge things have changed.
Three are three lessons that I would like to see the Browns learn from Cincinnati's rise.
One instructive lesson can be found in how the Bengals dealt with a promising rookie quarterback.
Marvin Lewis put Carson Palmer on the sidelines his entire rookie year, a decision which was easier because of the performance of a solid, if unspectacular, veteran quarterback. While the competitive Jon Kitna led the Bengal to some success and wanted to start the succeeding year, Lewis decided early in 2004 to take his lumps and name Palmer the starter.
By the second half of that year, the youngster was lighting up the scoreboard and wound up with nearly 3,000 yards through the air. Today, Carson Palmer exhibited confidence and patience, playing within both the system and himself to lead the Bengals to an easy win.
Lewis' plan for Carson Palmer and the Bengals offense is a stark contrast to the Browns approach with their previous young signal callers. Both Tim Couch and Luke McCown were promising passers who had to make big jumps to the NFL, and both were rushed into the lineup long before they were ready.
Another lesson I hope the Browns will take away from watching the Bengals improvement has to do with on-field conduct.
Lewis has been able to take a team of players who have a tendency to trash talk, and has been aggressive about getting them to focus on the game on the field. I've seen him get in the faces of players like Chad Johnson and made them get their personalities out of the way of team success.
Did Chad Johnson give the Browns any bulletin board material this week? Not at all. No Pepto-Bismol this year. The Bengals have been focused on the game, and nothing but, ever since Lewis put a countdown clock into their locker room this June. That's the influence of a good coach who has the ears of his team.
While Rudi Johnson's "discipline" of not starting lasted about two minutes into the first quarter, I have overall been impressed by the way Lewis conducts himself, and the way he pushes his team to conduct itself. Marvin Lewis and Romeo Crennel have different personalities, but I hope that Crennel infuses the team with his straight shooting approach the same way that the Bengals seem to increasingly be a reflection of Lewis.
While Lewis has improved the Cincinnati football product on the field, his most important influence has perhaps been on draft day.
Several years ago, the Bengals scouting department was a joke in NFL circles. With scouting costs cut to the bone by Mike Brown, the Bengals were afflicted with on high-first round draft bust after another.
While the expansion-era Browns certainly haven't had problems with their scouting budget, they did have a problem with those scouts being ignored and being managed poorly. The Butch Davis / Pete Garcia era was one where Davis overruled advice and Garcia struggled to shift from college to pro scouting.
The problems have often been demonstrated by the team's ill-advised choice of DT Gerard Warren in 2001. But another episode in 2003 might show why the Bengals are on the rise and the Browns are, once again, rebuilding.
In 2003, the Browns had an obvious need for both youth and talent on their offensive line. That need was clear at all line positions except, perhaps, center where the Browns had drafted Melvin Fowler out of Maryland the year before. As the team's draft choice rolled near, Eric Steinbach, the huge offensive lineman who could play either guard or tackle remained available.
So, the Browns fooled all the experts by going in another direction with their well-crafted secret plan. They drafted another center, of course.
While Butch Davis' choice of Notre Dame's Jeff Faine resulted in rampant head-scratching among analysts including Bernie's Insiders, the Bengals were able to pick up Steinbach in the second round. He was a steal.
The Browns tried to beat the system. They looked for ways to out-wit the consensus of draft experts and reach for draft choices like Faine and Chaun Thompson, while the Bengals made choices straight out of Football 101.
Guess which approach worked?
Lewis' common-sense approach to drafting is now being applied to the team's defense. David Pollack and Odell Thurman look to be an excellent couple of draft picks, and Marvin Lewis is already putting Thurman into a middle linebacker role like the one he built for Ray Lewis in Baltimore. By the time the Browns visit Cincinnati, both should (barring injuries) be a major part of the Bengals defense.
The Bengals are a couple of years from the beginning of their rebuilding plan. Based on what we all saw on Sunday, that plan is working.
The Browns are on their group of executives since the team's return three years ago. As with the previous two, Browns fans have a lot of hope in their eventual success.
While we wait for Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel to get the job done, it helps to look at previous successes. For one of the few times in NFL history, it is the Bengals – and not the Browns – who are showing how it's done.