The Bengals last appeared in the Hall of Fame game way back in 1988, when they topped the then-Los Angeles Rams 14-7. In their only other appearance, in 1975, they lost 17-9 to the Washington Redskins (who, for you football trivia buffs out there, are an undefeated 5-0 in Hall of Fame games).
Both those appearances marked the start of championship seasons for Cincinnati. The 1975 Bengals, led by Pro Bowlers QB Ken Anderson and WR Issac Curtis, racked up an 11-3 record before falling 31-28 to Oakland in the division championship game. In 1988, of course, the AFC Champion Bengals were famously slain by the last-minute heroics of QB Joe Montana, who led the San Francisco 49ers to a heartbreaking 20-16 victory in Super Bowl XXIII.
Well, they say that the third time's the charm, right?
Unfortunately for title-hungry fans like yours truly, preseason games don't offer a whole lot of insight into how most teams are going to perform. Much of the games are played by guys who won't even be on the roster come September. Per a comment today by Rod Woodson, who is at the Bengals' Georgetown training camp as part of the NFL's minority coaching program, the "older guys" will only play a series, so it's not likely that we'll see the first teams out there for more than a dozen or so snaps, if that.
And even when they are out there, it's not really the first team. Teams don't usually do much, if any, game planning for most preseason games, and all the schemes are "vanilla." Basically, you're looking at a glorified scrimmage, so what there is to glean from these contests is largely individual in nature: how talented are our guys versus their guys?
That said, I'm not in the "preseason is meaningless" camp. Over the years, I've found that two rules hold true about what you see in preseason games and the implications for the upcoming regular season.
Rule No. 1: If something looks like it's working in the preseason, that does not necessarily mean it will work during the regular season. It probably will, but don't bet the farm on it. A corollary of this rule is that, if something appears to be working especially well, then it almost surely will work in the regular season too, but not quite at the same level.
Rule No. 2: If something isn't working in the preseason, it isn't going to work in the regular season, either. If the o-line can't block or the receivers can't catch or the linebackers can't tackle in preseason, they aren't going to suddenly start doing it in the regular season.
In short, preseason is good for pointing out problem areas, but iffy at determining strengths. And the Bengals have traditionally been inclined toward whistling past the proverbial graveyard where preseason problems are concerned, while hyping perceived strengths. This year, the team has taken a more aggressive, "win now" approach, and if weaknesses become apparent moving through preseason, it will be interesting to see if they move just as quickly to try and shore spots up -- or if they revert to form.