It takes a special person to be a Bengals fan. I’m not saying this because I’m a Bengals fan and I think I’m special, it is because I am convinced it takes a different mentality to become and, most importantly, to stay a Bengals fan. I was born in Cincinnati but haven’t lived there in over 25 years. I realize there are many ex-patriot Bengals fans out there, but not that many that live in Pittsburgh. In fact, I may be the only one (I’ll put it this way, I have yet to find another in 12 years). I feel that gives me a unique perspective and I have reflected on it at CincyJungle multiple times (here and here)
Why are Bengals fans special? For better or worse, we suffer from some sort of post-traumatic stress that has yet to be classified in the DSM. I don’t mean to say we are crazy, at least no more crazy than any sports fan(atic); but we are a special kind of crazy. Our crazy is a result of cheering for team that gives us great hope one second only to crush those hopes the very next, yet nevertheless, we stay dysfunctionally loyal.
Always a Bridesmaid…
It starts with what I call “Bridesmaid syndrome.” The Bengals have had the fortune to play in what is arguably the toughest division in the AFC, and possibly football—the AFC Central/North. In 45 Super Bowls, our division has been represented 11 times and we have won 7. So, collectively, we get there often, and when we do, we usually win. It’s a division with deep, long time, rivalries—rivalries over past owners/coaches, state battles, geography, and simply a history of slugging it out. The only other division that is comparable to our’s in success and intensity of rivalries is the NFC East (10-8 in Super Bowls and a long tradition as well.).
In this division, the Bengals aren’t the worst, but we have never made a sustained run at being the best. The Bengals went from expansion team to contender very quickly in the 1970s, but no matter how good those teams were, the Steelers always were just a little bit better. The Bengals experienced their greatest success in the 1980s going to two Super Bowls, yet falling both times, ironically, to a former assistant coach.
For the first two decades, the Bengals were always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Fans suffered through watching our division rival, the Steelers, battle through the AFC Central and then win multiple Super Bowls. All the time we told ourselves, “Next time, it will be us.” And then, when we did make it to the big dance, we lost, but we reassured ourselves, “We will get their again, and next time we will win.” We had our ups and downs, but regardless, it was always realistic to say, “A playoff appearance and possibly a Super Bowl run is just a year or two away.”
And then the lost decade.
In 1990, the Reds won the World Series and the Bengals won the division. A year later, Paul Brown died and Mike Brown took over operations. Soon thereafter, Mike fired Sam Wyche, Anthony Munoz played in his last Pro-Bowl, and the Bengals slid into an abyss.
Honestly, my memory of the ‘90s Bengals is somewhat hazy, primarily because there wasn’t much to remember but also because it’s too traumatizing to recall. We had some good players, some great players (Dillon, Francis, and Pickens to name a few), but never any good teams. Sadly, it isn’t the good ones we remember as much as the busts, Klingler, Akili Smith, and Ki-jana Carter. What’s more disturbing is the endless trail of nameless and faceless starters that didn’t belong on an NFL roster. No plan to win, no reason to play here, no leadership. Nothing.
The lost decade was particularly cruel for Bengals fans like myself, who had grown up with in the 70s and had come to expect a basic level of competition from the team. I think it’s harder to cheer for a team that one expects to be good, but continually disappoints, than one that you don’t really have any expectations for at all. This is really the core problem of “Bengal-fan Syndrome.” We have been good in the past, and we are in a division with similar size cities with similar markets which routinely outperform us. Why not us?
The Marvin Lewis Era
One might call the 1990s a “rebuilding” phase for the Bengals, just as one might call the Ministry of Truth an objective source of information. There was nothing in the ‘90s that one would call a “rebuild,” the 1990s were a decade of destruction. The destruction of a team, a franchise, and an idea—the idea that the Bengals were an organization dedicated to winning the Super Bowl. This is what Marvin Lewis inherited.
It was not until 2003 that the Cincinnati Bengals began to rebuild; but just as “rebuilding” is misnomer for the 90s, it is also a misnomer for the 2000s. When I think of a team in a rebuilding year, I think of a team that has at least a plan for a team. What is required is to fit the parts to the scheme. Mike Brown had not only razed the house that his father built, he contaminated the soil with a decade of neglect. What was required was more than a rebuild, it was a resurrection.
Say what you will about Marvin Lewis, but he very quickly brought us back to bridesmaid status. I know that this isn’t good enough, but it is certainly better than what he was handed. Yes, it’s a particularly cruel version of our 70s status simply because the “spectre of the 90s” is still haunting us. Every good season (2005, 2010) brings hopes of an impending Super Bowl, the slightest downturn heralds the nightmare of the ‘90s. In some respects, Marvin Lewis has been a victim of his success, success which has unrealistically raised expectations (looking back on 2005, I see it more as a fluke which may have slowed the rebuilding of the team). This is the emotional roller coaster of being a Bengals fan and it’s hard to get fans of other sports franchises to understand—our wounds are deep.
Where to now?
As I indicated above. I live in Pittsburgh and have for about 12 years. It’s a nice city, people are friendly, food is good, drinks are cheap and the women are…well I’ll just leave it at that. In my neighborhood, I’m simply known as “Cincy” and have earned the respect of many a die hard Steeler fan for my football knowledge and unswerving loyalty to my team. Despite this, I often feel I am the rough equivalent of a unicorn--a Bengal fan living in a city where there such a creature only exists in legend. When I tell people I’m a Bengal fan, I get a lot of funny looks, perplexed faces, and the obligatory “Huh? (nervous laughter once they realize I’m not joking)...Why?” I always respond, “Well that’s where I’m from and they’re my team.” There’s usually an awkward pause (sometimes it takes yinzers a moment to register the fact that not everyone is from Pittsburgh), but most people get it. After all, that’s why they are Steelers fans, right?
Of course, I get my fair share of ribbing and I grow weary of having to explain the franchises failures, again, and again, and again. The question I get asked most frequently is “Don’t you get sick of cheering for a loser?” It’s a tough question to answer. On the one hand, the answer is obvious, “Yes, I wish the Bengals would win.” Of course, that’s not really the question they are asking. The question they are really asking is “Don’t you get sick of cheering for the Bengals?,” The implication is that being a Steelers fan is somehow better. I’ve reflected on this and yes, being a Steelers fan is “better” in the sense that it is easier. It’s easy to cheer for a team that is set up to win and where rebuilding efforts last a couple years, not decades. And yes, Steelers fans, God love them, have had it pretty easy for the past 40 years; but that’s what makes me crazy, a true fan(atic) if you will. I don’t cheer for the Bengals because it’s easy, I accept the adversity as part of the package—Bengals fans are like Job—Satan (in our case Mike Brown) keeps testing our faith but we never waiver.
As usual, I hope the Bengals do well this season, but it’s hard to be too optimistic. It’s hard to imagine how our offense will be any good this year. We have an offensive coordinator with limited NFL experience, a QB and #1 receiver with no NFL experience, our WRs are young and unproven, and our offensive line is experienced and unproven. Not a recipe for success. We can hope that our running game bails out the passing game and our defense bails out the offense, but that’s a lot bail money. If anything, I hope that this team becomes a team, not just a bunch of guys wearing orange and black. Not to make this piece a defense of Marvin Lewis, but I do think that Marvin's rebuild is getting closer to finished, I just don't want to see another Mike Brown operated wrecking ball before it's done.