Fandom is one thing. Prolonged fandom of an unsuccessful team is quite another. As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, it's a lesson of milestones.
Growing up through the worst of it, I was sheltered by mindless excitement and the shadowy haze of an 11-year old. Still, some things resonated with me. Things such as futility and three-win seasons. Things such as Neil O'Donnell.
There was a certain comfort in those years, similar to the comfort we find during our daily routines. I would get excited for each game, prepare myself for a loss, put on my Boomer Esiason jersey, watch a loss, pout, come to terms with it, then go play outside. No Bengals fan through the 90s handled losses better than me. And in truth, there was some joy in the weekly failure. Well let's say it was some joy in having no joy. It speaks volumes when preaching such nonsense and expecting my brethren fans to understand it.
Then came 2003, my first delicious taste of NFL success. An developing carnivore after his first taste of blood, the hunger demanded more. Looking back, the season of change embodies mediocrity - 8-8, Jon Kitna, no playoffs - but in the moment, it was exhilarating. Even black licorice tastes sweet if candy has never cooled your virgin taste buds. A very dangerous thing entered into my Bengals fandom that year: Hope. I began developing greater expectations, like competing for division titles and going to games expecting wins. That feeling has only strengthened, sometimes hiding underneath the surface, stowed away by the misery of defeat. Yet it still exists.
And that's where I stand now--a conflicted mess.
Part of me is addicted to the joy of winning and knows that success is possible. The other part has witnessed this team annually fail in scenarios where failing didn't seem possible (extra points) with compartmental doorways leading to defeat. These two objectives rarely live in harmony. As soon as the season begins, they rent separate villages in neighboring states. They take turns dominating my outlook, typically depending the team's latest performance.
Hopeful after 2003, pessimistic (historically realistic) after 2004, hopeful after 2005...
This season is no different. In fact, due to the unpredictability of youth, it's a shade worse, entering the season with what Bengals fans commonly refer to as "cautious optimism". Here's what I wrote in March.
Hope is a dangerous thing, but with a team this young, promising, and undeniably on the rise, of course the fans are all in (and ready to have their hearts mercilessly broken).
The entire fanbase echoed those words as they teetered in the middle, waiting to be daisied towards blissful hopefulness or mind-numbing despair.
A 44-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens is worse than despair; rather a Chuck Norris punch to the stomach. Later we're revived with three consecutive wins. 3-1. Deep breath. Hope.Then four straight losses during four winnable games, including one to the then winless Cleveland Browns. We suck. Season's over. Postseason? Where's Jim Mora?
Out of nowhere, the Bengals didn't just beat the Super Bowl Champion Giants; they generated some many highlights that forced analysts to ask what's wrong with New York. Yea, Cincinnati. We did that. Andy Dalton played, perhaps, the best game of his professional career. A.J. Green prophesying prior to the game that the Giants secondary had holes, then taking the field and promptly exploiting said holes like the oracular, mystical creature he is. The defense forced turnovers like it a bad Prince remake, partying like it was 2005. Everything about the game was just oh, so wonderful.
Now what? What do we feel? Hope? Was this nothing more than a meaningless moment of happiness during otherwise pure misery, or have we returned to the teetering point of cautious optimism?
Successful fanbases rarely deal with such powerful disdain that can taint even the most promising of wins. At some points they feel hopeful and at others they do not, but the shift from one outlook to the other isn't so abrupt (Dallas might be an exception). Bengals fans rightfully carrying this type of bi-polar mentality, in the same way the wife rightfully kicks her no-good-cheating husband out of the house, even with the slightest clue of infidelity. They have years and years worth of evidence to support them. The best season of my life ended with the Pro Bowl franchise quarterback carted off the field in agony, never to play at the same level again. Why shouldn't I be so quick to embrace hopelessness?
But, like the cuckolded wife, we see the strides they made and take them back every time. Every damn time. We always will.