In order to fully appreciate the 2009 season for the Cincinnati Bengals, one must remember back to the season before. Halfway through, the Bengals were still winless, had lost their starting quarterback to a bum elbow and were ranked dead last in offense. Bright spots were few and distant and there was not much to cheer about on Autumn Sundays around the Queen City.
After a thorough drubbing in Indianapolis, their record fell to 1-11-1 and the team stood in a bottomless pit of losing and ineptitude. From the outside, it appeared that the organization had slipped back into the miserable depths of the 90s and simply couldn't sustain itself enough to succeed.
And then something happened.
Following that game, Cincinnati showed a physical toughness that wasn't there before. Suddenly they looked competitive; they looked stronger. They won their last three games, but more importantly they saved a few key shreds of dignity that would carry over and prove instrumental to the success of the next season---Marvin Lewis began working toward his 2009 AP Coach-of-the-Year award in the locker room following that loss to the Colts.
The team's moves in Free Agency were sensible and approved by nearly everyone who had an opinion on the matter. Dallas castoffs Tank Johnson and Roy Williams returned to the Zimmer Gang where they blended seamlessly into the rotation. Each player would later suffer injuries, but both tried battling through them---Roy's damaged forearm proved too fragile and he was shelved after a few weeks. The standard of toughness was reinforced by bringing in surly vets like these two guys.
Another player the Bengals expected toughness and grit from was receiver Laveranues Coles, a smaller guy known for reliability and consistency. With the loss of T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the Seahawks, Cincinnati figured Coles would fill some of the void left by Housh; they were wrong. The only thing Coles proved to do well was give lots of effort on his blocks. From my angle, he ran unimpressive routes, showed little separation ability and dropped too many passes. His inability to produce contributed mightily to the passing struggles that ultimately doomed the Bengals. I don't blame the team for signing Coles---it made sense at the time---but it goes to show the dangers of relying on free agents to patch team needs.
The Draft was much better. Even though top pick Andre Smith failed to seriously contribute until late in the season, other picks like Rey Maualuga, Michael "Giraffe" Johnson, and Morgan Trent all had big roles on a top-5 defense. The inactivity of tight end Chase Coffman became a point of frustration for the fans who watched the passing game limp along without giving the rookie a shot. Eventually the team disclosed that Coffman had bone-spurs in his ankle. He had surgery to remove them and he was placed on IR without seeing any game action.
By May, the Bengals and their fans liked the team on paper. It appeared that instead of accumulating random talent and hoping for the best, the team had a blueprint in mind and crafted their men around it. Finally, an identity was forming. The Bengals would not be pretty but they would be rugged, and that proved good enough to play a 17th game this season.
The primary goal of the season became winning the Division. Marvin talked openly about doing that and allowing everything else to fall into place. With the front end of the schedule heavier on divisional games, it made sense to emphasize a team goal that, in theory, would provide a postseason appearance and a good start to the season to boost player morale early on. This concentration, this focal point of all the team's effort, may have actually become a drawback once the team did win the AFC North; after all, everything after that was just a bonus to them.
After the first week of the regular season, the city was already devastated. A weird deflection to Brandon Stokely on a desperation play at the tail end of the game prevented the Bengals from sealing up a tough win at home against the Broncos. The players and coaches put on a good game face afterward but they had to feel completely deflated after a freak occurrence like that. The fans were less professional about handling their emotions and already calling for Marvin’s job; the season had been rendered useless. One of the lessons learned this year from the Bengals’ season is how reactionary fans and the media are to every week's outcome.
I felt encouraged by what I saw in Week 1. I saw a team that looked limited but forceful. The defense was in control for 59:30 of that game. Cedric Benson didn't explode against Denver, but already one could detect the commitment to the ground attack as he wore down the Broncos defense by the fourth quarter. It was also the first example of Carson Palmer leading the offense down the field for a late go-ahead score. I liked the game plan prepared and it would have worked too had it not been for that pesky tip.
The next week had the Bengals traveling to the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field to take out their frustrations from the week before on an explosive but vulnerable Packers team. Maualuga demonstrated game-changing ability with sacks and forced fumbles and Antwan Odom devoured a second-string offensive tackle and collected five sacks on the day. Quan Cosby had two important punt-returns and the offense found rhythm in the second half. The team looked good; optimism returned.
Then came the unthinkable.
Throughout the country in Week 3, NFL talking heads began sniffing the Bengals and smelling something they liked. Not many were ready to pick them over the defending Super-Bowl champion Steelers at home, but most suspected that it would be a decent game nonetheless.
It didn't start out that way. From the opening the Bengals weren't sharp. The defense let interceptions bounce off of them and had a hard time tackling Willie Parker. The tame but ruinous madness of long-snapper Brad St. Louis had permanently set in causing a botched extra-point and forcing the Bengals to go for two later in the game.
It didn't look good, but miracles were afoot. The first instance of the Bengals good luck in that game happened when Limas Sweed dropped a sure touchdown. The next was when Jeff Reed missed a 52-yard field goal. Then came that legendary leap on fourth and 10 that Brian Leonard managed by a tremendous second-effort, followed by perhaps the best play-design all season with the two-point conversion to Leonard.
In a flash, another hopeless defeat by the annual bully turned into a gilded-edged classic of a tale about how the rough and tumble Bengals vanquished their divisional nemesis and turned the tide of the AFC North supremacy.