CINCINNATI — The first two episodes of HBO's Hard Knocks showed the rest of the country what Cincinnati Bengals fans have known for a long time: No one challenges how the Brown family runs its forlorn franchise.
Owner Mike Brown agreed to let the cable network feature his team in this year's training-camp series, hoping it would boost the Bengals' image. So far, the lasting images have come from two brief, behind-closed-door moments that illustrate how things work.
Whether it's picking the players or signing the draft picks, the family calls the shots.
The first glimpse came from a staff meeting after two tight ends got hurt. The camera shows Brown sitting at the front of the room, watched by coaches and other team officials. Brown starts the meeting with a surprise.
"This is a wild thought," Brown says, then suggests they move defensive end Chris Harrington to tight end.
Coach Marvin Lewis physically recoils at the suggestion, his mouth dropping open for a telltale second. He wearily rubs his left hand across the top of his head, but says nothing.
Brown asks for a response from the assistant coaches, who are caught off-guard. They say that Harrington moves a little stiffly, but has good hands and is fast. That's exactly what Brown wants to hear.
"He can run pretty well," Brown says. "By tight end standards, he can run really well."
Brown decides to try his experiment.
"Probably what it means is we'll go with two fullbacks at the end and three tight ends instead of four," Brown says. "It just is a little different way of getting lined up, but I think that's where this takes us."
The camera pulls away. End of discussion.
The vignette lasted only a minute out of the initial one-hour show, but reinforced perceptions of how the organization is run. When the owner offers his "wild thought," everyone speaks carefully — or not at all — so as not to contradict the boss.
Brown took complete control of the team when his father, Paul, died before the 1991 season. Since then, it has only one winning season in 18 years, one of the worst runs of futility in NFL history. Brown functions as the team's de facto general manager, hiring the coaches and making the roster decisions. He also demands loyalty.
No surprise, then, that he got the response he wanted.
Like the four previous Hard Knocks series featuring other teams, this one has tried to show players in unguarded moments as they compete for jobs. There have been several eye-catching moments.
When players reported for dorm assignments at Georgetown College in Kentucky, one newcomer was flabbergasted that there was a rental charge for televisions — $93 for a 26-inch screen, $122 for a 32-incher, $183 for 42 inches.
The cameras also showed director of football operations Jim Lippincott knocking on fullback J.D. Runnels' door at 5:30 a.m., waking him to tell him he's been released.
"The only reason we always cut players here is ability, no other reason," Lippincott tells the half-asleep player.
"Wow," Runnels says.
No player has gotten more screen time than receiver Chad Ochocinco, and it hasn't all been laudatory. During one practice, quarterback Carson Palmer scolds him for not going all-out, telling the receiver, "You can't take plays off. You feel me?"
Later, during a coaches' evaluation meeting, receivers coach Mike Sheppard says, "85 (Ochocinco) has some plays that he takes off."
The show has avoided mentioning the team's futility since Brown took control. It didn't show the banner that disgruntled fans had flown over the team's scrimmage. It said: "101-187-1 ... HIRE A GM!" — a reference to the team's record since 1991.
The show also has taken an arm's-length approach to one of the biggest stories of Cincinnati's camp: Andre Smith's contract impasse, which provided the other telling closed-door moment.
The Bengals expected the sixth overall pick to start at right tackle, but he remains unsigned with two pre-season games left. In the opening episode, HBO showed the Bengals giving someone else his bed at training camp and had a brief interview with Katie Blackburn — Brown's daughter and the team's executive vice president — saying the team had made a generous offer.
In the closing minute of Wednesday night's episode, Blackburn was shown on a phone call with agent Alvin Keels, who wants Smith to get more than the player taken after him. Seventh pick Darrius Heyward-Bey got a five-year deal with $23.5 million guaranteed from the Raiders.
"If you guys are still stuck on that Darrius Heyward-Bey deal, I'm just unfortunately not at a spot where I see a deal getting done," Blackburn says.
"We want to be paid our spot," Keels responds. "We want to be paid a little bit more than No. 7."
The show ends after Blackburn tells the agent, "We're not prepared to do that."
Carson Palmer's status for Thursday's pre-season game against the Rams is unclear.
While his teammates practiced in full pads Sunday, Palmer, nursing a mildly sprained left ankle, threw lightly on the side. Palmer, who has said the ankle is tender when he pivots and pushes, threw from about 30 yards standing still. When he did drop back a few times, he did it lightly.
■ Chad Ochocinco won't have to kick extra points anymore. The Bengals signed rookie kicker Sam Swank from Wake Forest on Sunday, giving them another option while Shayne Graham recovers from a groin injury.
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