The comparison, Jeff Blake said, isn’t a comparison.
Whatever bad things might be said about the Arizona Cardinals franchise doesn’t hold up to what he went through in Cincinnati when he played there during the late 1990s, when the practice facility was a “blue tin box” and players worried about “jocks and socks.”
“Compared to what’s it’s like here (in Arizona) now? Night and day,” the Cardinals quarterback said. The two franchises considered the laughingstocks of the NFL meet Sunday at Sun Devil Stadium.
Over the past 10 seasons, no non-expansion NFL teams have been as poor as the Cardinals (a .371 winning percentage) and the Bengals (a .299 winning percentage).
But both organizations made significant strides in the offseason. The Cardinals promoted Rod Graves to vice president of football operations and took a different approach in negotiating contracts and contract extensions.
The Bengals made even more sweeping changes, starting with the hiring of coach Marvin Lewis. The belief exists that both are on the way from no longer being a punch line.
“We have to deal with perceptions more than anyone else does,” Graves said. “But we can get our jobs done.”
The Cardinals are just 2-5, although, said tackle L.J. Shelton, “I think we are going in the right direction.”
Winning over the players is a major part of the battle. Whatever they might say publicly, the players know the reputations of these particular franchises.
“The players have to trust you and not the circumstances,” McGinnis said. “Let them know what you are doing is about now, that they won’t be held
accountable for any past sins five, 10, 15, 20 years ago.”
Lewis was the first coach hired by the Bengals without organizational ties since Forrest Gregg in 1980. More importantly, owner Mike Brown was ready to let Lewis run the show.
“We are inclined to be very strongly guided by his wishes in a number of areas,” Brown said when Lewis was hired.
Since that day, Brown has been virtually invisible.
Lewis fired a strength coach of more than 20 seasons whom the players hated. He dumped nine assistants, including many of Brown’s favorite ex-players. He added scouts to what had been the league’s smallest staff, and he changed 22 of the 53 players from the end of 2002.
It has been clear the coach wields the power.
“I don’t know if that was the case in the past but it certainly wasn’t perceived to be the case in the past by the guys in the locker room,” quarterback Jon Kitna said. That, Blake said, is why the Bengals — who are 3-4 — will be an AFC power within the next couple of seasons.
“You bring in a guy from the outside who says ‘Hey, this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be,’ ” Blake said. “ ‘Do it this way or fire me now.’ That’s the mentality you have to have.”
Kitna said Lewis had been insistent on avoiding negativity. Lewis said the perception problem was worse than the real problems.
“I think the biggest thing is coming from the outside in, I realized how good we had things here,” Lewis said. “Maybe because the outside attitude wasn’t that, our players kind of fell into that.”
But Blake recalled little things in Cincinnati, like not getting a per diem for food on road trips or a tiny weight room. Players thought those things hindered their chance to win on Sundays.
Even Kitna said the smaller improvements this season — staying in a hotel the night before home games, snacks after meetings in the hotel — meant a lot.
“I just try to do things the way I know,” Lewis said. Graves is following the same blueprint, taking his time to construct what he believes is the right way to run an organization. Blake, with his knowledge of badly run outfits, said he thought Graves is doing a “heck of a job.” Shelton, perhaps a bit more jaded in five seasons with the team, thinks a playoff berth is necessary before proclaiming organizational health.
But a couple of wins — like the two in a row the Bengals have reeled off — couldn’t hurt.
“There is a confident feeling in the building for the first time since I've been here,” Kitna said.