There was some optimism heading into the regular season finale last year, with Carson Palmer and the Cincinnati Bengals heading into Baltimore. At the time Cincinnati was 4-11 but an explosion from Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell revitalized Palmer, helping the Bengals win two of their final three games including the eventual elimination of the San Diego Chargers.
Then it all unwound. Or maybe it was just a delayed explosion that was bound to rock the city.
Mike Brown’s press conference announcing Marvin Lewis’ two-year contract was a horrifying reminder that the family was still running the team. Remember at the time, Cincinnati came off a four-win season during a year that Bengals fans fully intended to make postseason plans well before the 2010 regular season even started. The final four games that year was blacked out locally because fans were through, tired of building false-hope for a team that offers no reward for the sweat and tears sacrificed. Though many would agree that Lewis’ return was beneficial, using his masterful vision to make a bad team at least competitive, the press conference that announced it was something to behold.
We wrote following that press conference on January 5:
Tuesday's press conference announcing Lewis' two-year contract was a way for the Bengals to bring fans back into the fold, imploring patience by committing to the ideas of what fans believe will make this franchise successful in the future -- and that first step is becoming a team that's built like other NFL teams. There's no way that the Bengals could possibly think that fans would dive head first into a zombie state of fanatics. Yet, for fans to expect black and white solutions from an owner that keeps you at arm's length, you're not getting them.
Did they win you? No. Mike Brown sat beside Marvin Lewis, in which Dave Lapham said they looked "like they have just consumed a crap sandwich", losing you, the fans at the exact moment that the franchise President could have won you for a second-wind, a new start.
Not three weeks later, ESPN NFL Insider Chris Mortensen reported that Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer demanded a trade or else he’ll retire. The end result was that the franchise quarterback turned mediocre interception machine had no intention to play another game at Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals.
Once the NFL’s lockout was resolved and Mike Brown appeared at an annual luncheon with the press (aka, the Cincinnati Enquirer, local radio stations and national media), where he deflected questions regarding Palmer, to which we wrote on July 28:
Why is it that Mike Brown's approach to Carson Palmer feels like a high school drama? Boy breaks up with girl and girl exacts her deliciously evil revenge. Alright so maybe that's not just high school; everyday life tends to deal with those things too. Yet it's applied here with such hardcore loyalty to principles that the Bengals have accumulated a winning percentage of .361 dating back to 1991.
At some point during the Palmer drama, Cincinnati selected Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. Though Mike Brown reportedly wanted Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett, he deferred to Jay Gruden and Marvin Lewis, who were set with Dalton. That was a round after Cincinnati selected eventual Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green.
Though fans were ready to move on, gearing up for a patient rebuilding season, Cincinnati’s linebackers dropped with an assortment of injuries, starting with Keith Rivers attending training camp with a reconstructed wrist, Roddrick Muckelroy suffering an Achilles injury and Dontay Moch breaking a bone in his foot. In response the team signed Thomas Howard, who could be argued as Cincinnati’s defensive MVP, and Manny Lawson.
Though everyone cautions that the preseason is often a meaningless exhibition of backups and third stringers, it didn’t help that the Bengals were dominated against the Lions and Jets, eventually finishing the preseason 1-3. Fans were quickly alarmed, compounded by the eventual forearm contusion that Dalton suffered in the first half against the Browns during Cincinnati’s regular season opener. And before Cincinnati’s A.J. Green hauled in a 41-yard touchdown reception by Bruce Gradkowski on a hurry-up play that caught the Browns defense by surprise, the quick preview into the season looked like it could drag out into another impatient rebuilding season.
Eventually the Bengals began the season 1-2, following consecutive losses to the Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers – who would become surprising playoff teams in their own right. Following the revitalizing 23-20 win over the Buffalo Bills, the Bengals would go on to complete a five-game winning streak, capped by Cincinnati’s a 24-17 win over the Tennessee Titans; in hindsight, Cincinnati’s most important win of the season.
Additionally Mike Brown rested his laurels and traded Carson Palmer to Oakland for the Raiders first round selection in 2012 and a conditional second round pick in 2013.
After winning six of their first eight, the Bengals would go on to finish the season by losing five of their final eight, with every loss against playoff bound teams. In the end the football gods eventually smiled upon Bengal fans, who watched teams like the New York Jets, the Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos danced to the Bengals chorography that put Cincinnati back into the playoffs.
The Cincinnati Bengals have truly come full-circle, largely believed to be the worst team in the NFL during the preseason to being one of 12 teams that made the playoffs this year. Though the moment is bittersweet due to Cincinnati’s most recent loss to the Baltimore Ravens, remember this moment as the second time in three seasons that the Bengals made the playoffs. No matter what they’ve done in the regular season, none of that matters now. Everyone in the post season is winless, yet undefeated. And the Cincinnati Bengals will play one more week than anyone else expected.