The Cleveland Browns have a much better all-time record than the Cincinnati Bengals and more historical success, but none recently. The championships for the Browns all came more than 50 years ago and the team has just three winning seasons since 1989, while the Bengals are looking for a fifth consecutive season over .500.
Although 40 wins in four seasons resulted in zero postseason wins, the Bengals are hoping that 2015 is the year that it changes. At 7-0 they'll almost definitely get that chance in the playoffs while no other team in the AFC North has a winning record.
Meanwhile, the Browns are floundering again at 2-6 with the No. 25 scoring offense and No. 26 defense. But 10 years ago it was the Bengals trying to shake a 14-year streak without trip to the playoffs or a winning record. They managed to do so and are now among the NFL's elite thanks to patience, something the Browns could learn from.
Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin explained the virtues of building slowly and fostering talent within the organization to Paul Dehner of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
"We've always believed it's a team," Tobin said. "You are building more than a collection of individuals. We haven't seen, league-wide, a collection of individuals ever win out over a team-type atmosphere. We want to spend to our cap and our money to our guys that we know have done it for us and done it the right way and I think we know what to expect from. It resonates in the locker room when guys get rewarded for their work here."
While the Browns have a few talented players that have earned extensions with the team, the urgency to turn the team from a perennial loser into a contender without going through the process has left the team stuck in neutral.
Differing approaches in free agency
The Bengals added defensive end Michael Johnson in the offseason on a four-year, $20 million contract, but that's about as big as investments get for Cincinnati on players from other teams. The Browns didn't goo too crazy in the offseason, signing Josh McCown to a three-year, $14 million deal and cornerback Tramon Williams to a three-year, $21 million contract, but the roster is riddled with big free agent additions.
Browns draft picks Joe Haden, Joe Thomas and Alex Mack are the three players on the team with the highest average salary per season, but the next seven are all free agent acquisitions. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger signed a five-year, $40.5 million deal in 2013, but has just 0.5 sacks in 2015 after 11 in 2014, while Donte Whitner has been disappointing in 2015 after signing a four-year, $28 million deal last year.
The top six contracts on the Bengals in terms of average salary are for players who have spent their entire career with the team. Johnson and Reggie Nelson are the only players on the Bengals making $5 million or more per year who played for other teams, and even Nelson received his extension two years after he was traded from the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Despite being on the doorstep of a Super Bowl run, the Bengals resisted the urge to throw money at big-name free agents who could presumably take them over the top, instead relying on the development of their own talent.
The Bengals just plain drafted better
It's easier to rely on the development of your own players if you're bringing in guys who show potential and are worth developing. Ray Farmer has only been in Cleveland since 2013 and wasn't named general manager until 2014, so it's not entirely his fault, but the lack of talent on the team has plenty to do with poor drafting.
First-round whiffs like Phil Taylor, Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden set the team back, and the addition of Barkevious Mingo, Justin Gilbert and Johnny Manziel since Farmer took over haven't looked much better.
The Bengals' draft history has been far from perfect and featured misses like Dre Kirkpatrick, Devon Still and Margus Hunt in the last few years, but generally have done well in the first round, landing players like A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. Mid-round gems like Geno Atkins and Clint Boling really set the team over the top, though.
Staying the course pays off
Nothing stunts a rebuild like deciding to start another rebuild. While the Bengals have drawn criticism for the decision to stick with Marvin Lewis year in and year out without championships to show for it, the Browns have shuffled through seven different coaches since Lewis was hired by the Bengals in 2003.
Lewis has survived the Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur and Rob Chudzinski eras, and will coach against the Mike Pettine-led Browns on Thursday. While Lewis still doesn't have a playoff victory in his tenure with the Bengals, he has been there six times and the Browns haven't been once during that run.
That patience may eventually run dry if Lewis can't turn a successful regular season team into one that will contend for a Super Bowl, but his 47-23-1 record since 2011 is certainly preferable to the 22-50 mark of the Browns who have continued to put strain on rebuilds and have lacked long-term continuity for about 50 years.
"How do we fix it? We continue to do exactly what we have done," Farmer said at a press conference on Tuesday. "Work hard, put in the effort the time and the energy, unearth better players, unearth better opportunities for our guys and try to grow it as we see fit."
Farmer is right. That is the formula to fix it, but if "continuing to do exactly" the same also includes sacrificing draft value to trade up for bad picks, or spending on big-name free agents who don't help, then some tweaks need to be made.
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It may be too early to close the book on Manziel, who will make his fourth career start on Thursday. And it may be too early to make a judgement on Farmer or Pettine, but the Bengals are certainly the better team and have been for a while. Considering the team's talent and upside, the Browns aren't likely to catch them any time soon either.
That's a testament to the patience of the Bengals who built a team the right way and are now reaping the rewards.
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