One of my favorite TV shows is Mad Men. It deals with how Dick Whitman--the son of a prostitute, so desperate to get out of his hellish hometown that he volunteers to serve in the Korean War--ends up becoming the man known as Don Draper, a successful Manhattan ad exec who has a smoking hot wife (google January Jones, you'll thank me later) and a string of equally-hot mistresses. Throughout the series, we've seen how identity is fluid, how just acting like something can transform you into actually being that something.
Football is no different. Every team and player has an identity, a personality, equally influenced by their own actions and the media's perception of them. Peyton Manning was the QB who couldn't win a playoff game, until he did, and then he was the QB who couldn't win a Super Bowl, until he did. Nothing about his core personality changed during that time (though he surely became more experienced), he didn't suddenly develop a "clutch" gene, nor did he sacrifice toddlers in exchange for an enchanted Hooded Grey Sweatshirt of Win. He was what he was until he pulled off the act of being something else.
After their time in the wilderness, the Bengals were ready for a new identity. We've seen this particular arc hundreds of times before: a new coach, a new QB, a hapless franchise, hope sold in the form of tickets and jerseys of someone who has yet to play a real snap in the NFL. But, instead of ending up in the desert alongside the likes of Ryan Leaf and Akili Smith, the plan actually seemed to be working. We were suddenly a team on the rise, a sexy underdog pick that the experts flaunted. And then 2005 happened.
It was a perfect storm, but in a good way. Carson came into his own, that version of the o-line reached its shining peak, we were insanely lucky with turnovers, we played the woeful NFC North, and we got a lot out of what looked to be a stellar draft class. When we won the second game against the Steelers, we vaulted to #1 of the power rankings, and somehow climbed atop Football Outsiders' DVOA statistics. (I can remember the shock in the FO comments following that week's rankings, with the implication that we'd somehow stymied the very concept of mathematics.)
The playoff tragedy came about. And the arrests. And some crazy fluke-ish incidents (our casualty-heavy Browns game, the phantom roughing the passer against the Bucs, missing the FG against Denver). And after reaching its zenith after that second Steelers game in '05, our identity has been backsliding ever since, from Among The Best to Still Promising to Prison-Stripe Tigers to...well, after the arrests, we didn't really do anything interesting, did we? What else was there for the media to talk about? How else did we distinguish ourselves? The only thing that made us stand out from the muddled AFC lower-middle-class was Chris Henry's tendency to alert any bitches in the area that he was, indeed, himself.
But that faded with time, and we became practically invisible. Maybe some of our schizophrenia started to become more noticeable. A pragmatic, back-to-basics coach gifted with an elite passing attack? An offensive coordinator that flirted with the no-huddle, and yet wanted to control the clock with an SEC-plain running game? Building a defense from the outside-in, starting with cornerbacks rather than the defensive line?
The last few years have sucked, but we've added pieces of a new identity. Smarter, more physical, less selfish. And now, as the 2009 season is moments away from impact, the Bengals have a chance to redefine themselves. Unfortunately, there are only so many roles to go around. Some elite team will fall from grace, and some previously-miserable franchise will have an inexplicable resurgence. A quarterback will "choke" at a key moment, whether it's his own fault or, more likely, the fault of his o-line, his WR's hands, or moronic playcalling, and he'll be thought of as cursed, or afflicted with some deep psychological hang-up that prevents both himself and those around him from winning. Some discarded QB will defy the odds and proudly lead his new team to deep-in-the-playoffs glory (we've had Brees, Warner...surely not Favre?). We have the power to reach out and grab one of these roles for ourselves. You can already see the experts casting us in them, seeing which fit their idea of us best. Are we suddenly about to become a defensive team? Maybe the o-line will gel, and we'll once again be known for our passing attack? Will our legion of running backs trample the competition?
Right now, the only thing stopping us from being a wild card team is us. The only thing stopping us from being division champions is us. Sure, there'll be things we can't entirely control--injuries, how our rivals do--but those things can be overcome with effort and/or luck. And we're about due for some luck, aren't we?
We're a blank slate. Dick Whitman found himself next to a dead man, and he saw an opportunity to change his life forever, to remake himself using nothing but his own will. In football, we should expect nothing less.