The Cincinnati Bengals are one of the most downtrodden franchises in the National Football League is not news. Their inglorious path over their 43 seasons of existence, however, is a fascinating combination of bad choices and plain bad luck. What began as the brainchild of one of football’s most ingenious figures ever, Paul Brown, has devolved over the years into what we now know as “The Bungles.”
Long before Paul Brown passed away, leaving his son Mike at the helm for what is now entering a third decade of ineptitude, the Bengals suffered from a combination of poor choices and brutal misfortune. It began in 1969, just the Bengals’ second season of existence.
Greg Cook was the perfect quarterback for the Bengals. Strong-armed, accurate, and nimble, he was the prototype for what Bill Walsh was looking for in his revolutionary new offensive style that featured a precision short-passing game rather than the styles of the day, the aerial assaults of Sid Gilman and Al Davis, or the bruising running attacks featured by Green Bay and Cleveland. What’s more, Cook was Ohio-born and a graduate of the University of Cincinnati. Think of Lebron James in pads sans all the media hype of our culture. Bill Walsh, years later told the NFL Network that Cook was the “best quarterback he ever coached.” That would include a couple of fair signal-callers named Montana and Young. Cook was a star waiting to happen.
The Bengals started 3-0 in 1969 and were facing the Kansas City Chiefs, one of the AFL’s powerhouses in week 4 when Cook took a hard tackle out-of-bounds during a scramble. Later, Cook would say he heard a “pop” in his shoulder. That sound was Cook’s rotator cuff tearing, the same injury that has crippled Chad Pennington and nearly robbed Drew Brees of a career. Unlike Pennington and Brees, however, Cook didn’t have the benefit of MRI’s and high-tech orthopedic medicine. He continued to play in pain throughout the season. Despite the injury, Cook averaged an amazing 17 yards per completion, still a rookie record. The shoulder weakened during the off-season and Cook had surgery. Way before Frank Jobe and James Andrews revolutionized the practice, Cook’s right shoulder was reduced to hamburger and the Bengals lost an almost sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback.
It wasn’t bad luck that bit the Bengals in 1976, when Paul Brown decided to step down as head coach. It was Brown’s ego. Brown named defensive coordinator and long-time friend Bill “Tiger” Johnson as his successor when he announced his retirement, passing over the architect of the Bengals offense, Bill Walsh. Walsh recalled later that Brown had even refused to recommend him for other head coaching positions in the league because he “didn’t think Walsh would make a head coach.” For all the genius credited to Paul Brown, this decision stands as one of the all-time worst. Not only would Walsh have a Hall of Fame career in San Francisco, but his 49′ers would defeat the Bengals in each of the franchise’s Super Bowl appearances.
Still, the Bengals fielded a formidable squad under Johnson in 1976 and 1977. Cincinnati went a combined 21-7 in the regular season those two years. Included in those seven losses, however, were 4 defeats at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were in the midst of establishing themselves as the “team of the 70s.” If not for being in the same division as the Steelers, what might the Bengals have accomplished? Division titles? Super Bowls? Would perennial pro-bowlers like Ken Anderson, Isaac Curtis, and Ken Riley have their busts in Canton by now? We’ll never know, but those Bengal squads were among the most talented in the history of the franchise and have no titles to show for it.
The Bengals struggled in the late ’70s under poor coaching and an oft-injured Ken Anderson. Buoyed by strong drafts, however, (especially Anthony Munoz) the Bengals won the AFC in 1981 and went to Detroit to take on Walsh’s 49′ers in the first Super Bowl for either franchise. The Niners jumped out early to a 20-0 lead, but the Bengals regrouped at halftime and cut the lead to 20-7. Midway through the third quarter, the Bengals held the ball 1st and 10 at the Niner’s three yard-line. With massive Pete Johnson in the backfield, it was an afterthought that the Bengals would score and swing momentum totally to their side for the final quarter. Johnson predictably got the ball on first down and was stopped a few tantalizing inches from the goal. It looked certain now the Bengals would draw within one score.
Except on 2nd down, David Verser, a wide receiver, missed an Anderson audible… and his block causing Johnson to be tackled in the backfield for a loss. On third down, offensive coordinator Lindy Infante fooled the Niners with a play action to Johnson. Anderson hit running back Charles Alexander with a pass in the flat where, out of nowhere, 49′er linebacker Dan Bunz wrapped up Alexander and brought him down shy of the goal line. Later, Alexander would confess that his pattern was designed to take him into the end zone, but he broke it off too soon giving Bunz the opportunity to tackle him short. Everyone in Pontiac knew Pete Johnson would get the ball on 4th down, including Hacksaw Reynolds and Ronnie Lott who plugged the whole, stopping Johnson and taking the ball over on downs. The Bengals would eventually fall 26-21.
The 49′ers would benefit from the Bengals in 1985. That’s when Paul Brown decided to forego drafting Jerry Rice to fill the team’s need at WR. Rice was highly regarded by many teams, but his 40 time had been suspect. So Brown went with Miami All-American, Eddie Brown instead. Brown had a good career in Cincinnati, going to the Super Bowl and a couple of Pro Bowls. But he wasn’t Jerry Rice.
Just before Paul Brown’s death, the 49′ers would deal the Bengals another heartbreak, this time with a last-minute 20-16 win in Super Bowl XXIII. Prior to that game, the Bengals valuable “power back” Stanley Wilson relapsed into a cocaine-induced stupor at the team hotel. Not only did Wilson’s subsequent absence deal a blow to team morale, but it robbed the Bengals of a valuable “straight ahead” runner who could have been a factor in a game that saw “cutback” runners James Brooks and Ickey Woods struggle the entire game on the Joe Robbie Stadium turf. Wilson’s absence wasn’t the only piece of bad luck for the Bengals though.
In the first quarter, Pro-Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie broke his leg in one of the most gruesome replays outside of Joe Theisman. Still, the game was the Bengals for the taking when Joe Montana hit Bengal cornerback Lewis Billups between the numbers when he misread a pass to the end zone in the 4th quarter. Had Billups held on, it would have been difficult to imagine the 49′ers winning. Instead, Billups dropped the sure interception and the Niners scored on that drive.
After Paul Brown’s death, his son Mike Brown took over the team. Unlike his father, who had a keen eye for talent, building the Bengals success on finding hidden gems like Ken Anderson, Krumrie, Bruce Reimers, and Bruce Kozerski, Mike Brown showed a penchant for not only failing to prosper in the late rounds, but botching “can’t miss” slots in the first round. During the 1990s when Mike Brown was the final arbiter of Bengal drafts, the Bengals spent their top picks on David Klingler, John Copeland, Dan Wilkinson, Kijana Carter, Reinard Wilson, and Akili Smith. Not only were those picks a waste of money, a disaster in itself under the salary cap system, but each failure represented another later pick the Bengals would have to use to compensate for missing at that position.
Brown finally hit it right in 2003, drafting Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer of USC with the overall number one pick. The team had its first franchise quarterback since Boomer Esiason. As expected, Palmer led the team to a division title and a playoff berth in 2005, his first full season under center. Facing the rival Steelers in the first round of the playoffs, Palmer’s knee was shredded on the first play of the game as former Bengal, Kimo von Oelhoeffen plowed into Palmer’s straight left leg. The Bengals couldn’t maintain their offense under backup Jon Kitna and the Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl.
The 2005 draft would mark the epitome of the confluence of bad choices and bad luck for the Bengals. First round pick, David Pollack, from Georgia would have a promising career cut short by a nearly catastrophic neck injury. Second round pick Odell Thurman, also of UGA, would devolve into a life of meth addiction, ending his career that seemed destined for stardom. And third round pick, Chris Henry, would leave mouths agape with his acrobatic skills on the field, only to run afoul of the law off the field and face suspension. In 2009, his life seemingly turned in a positive direction, Henry was killed after falling out of his girlfriend’s truck during a domestic altercation.
The drafts of 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2005 were total wastes for the Bengals as not one multi-year starter came from those choices. With that history, and the rotten luck, it’s no wonder the Bengals have foundered as a franchise. The drafts have been promising in recent years, with solid defensive picks like Leon Hall, Keith Rivers, and Rey Maualuga. But the Bengals face the likely retirement of Carson Palmer and breaking in a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton of TCU.
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