Bengals fans are a superstitious bunch. You sort of have to be, given the team's twenty-two year run of poor performance. Sure, they've had some tastes of success under Marvin Lewis with two division titles and a wild card appearance in his previous nine years as head coach, but there are streaks of futility that have yet to be broken. For those that are superstitious, these streaks can be traced back to the year 1991.
If you were born in the 1970s or early 1980s, you were privileged enough to witness the athletic freakishness of one Vincent "Bo" Jackson. After winning the Heisman Trophy in 1985 as a running back at the University of Auburn, Jackson began a baseball career with the Kansas City Royals. He chose the Royals after being drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986. They were a team that was then synonymous with horrendous football performances.
He made the MLB All-Star team in 1989 and was on his way to superstardom. I was personally able to witness Jackson's greatness at an All-Star workout and Angel Stadium that year. The buzz amongst the attendees at the workout was all about Jackson's showing in batting practice, as he was absolutely crushing the ball every time he touched it. It was also around this time that the famous "Bo Knows" ad campaign was launched.
During this time, the Bengals were enjoying a pretty nice run. They made the Super Bowl after the 1988 season and had another playoff appearance after the 1990 season. As the AFC Central division champions that year, the team hosted a playoff game against their division foe, the Houston Oilers and pummeled them by the score of 41-14 On January 6th, 1991. Cincinnati leaned on their great rushing attack comprised of James Brooks, Harold Green, Ickey Woods, and Eric Ball that game and throughout the year and it propelled them to the divisional round against the Raiders.
The Raiders had a good squad that year. Aside from Jackson, they also had Marcus Allen on offense, along with Tim Brown and WIllie Gault. Future Bengals quarterback, Jay Schroeder led the team to a 12-4 record that year, but he also leaned on a defense led by Hall of Fame defensive lineman, Howie Long and a cast of other quality players in Greg Townsend, Scott Davis and Bob Golic.
The Bengals were dominated throughout much of the game and ultimately lost, 20-10 at the Los Angeles Coliseum on January 13th, 1991. However, there was one play that occurred in the game that sealed the fate for the futures of both Jackson and the Bengals franchise. Instead of describing the injury, have a look at this clip, particularly at the 2:45 mark. You can enjoy the Chris Berman from twenty-two years ago:
The injury immediately derailed Jackson's football career and the Raiders were crushed the very next week in the AFC Championship game by the Buffalo Bills, 51-3. The Raiders franchise fell into a downward spiral, making the playoffs only two more times between the 1991-1999 seasons. The Raiders faithful pointed towards both the Jackson injury and Al Davis' poor treatment of Marcus Allen as instances that led to a curse of the silver and black.
Jackson's baseball career slowly eroded due to the hip injury as well. He bounced around to a few teams until 1994 when he finally retired. The bright star that was Jackson's career turned into a white dwarf and faded into oblivion. In case you're wondering how Jackson took the injury and what kind of a guy he is, take a look at this quote and excerpt from ESPN SportsCentury article on him, by Ron Flatter:
"God has his way of opening up our eyes to see reality," he said. "The way He opened my eyes is to allow me to have this hip injury. That is a rough way to go, but I had to accept the fact."
Keeping a promise he made to his mother before she died of cancer in 1992, Jackson went back to Auburn and graduated in December 1995 with a bachelor of science degree in family and child development.
One of professional sports' greatest careers was ground to a halt--all from a linebacker who struggled to crack the starting lineup for most of his five year career. The lone season where Kevin Walker was primarily used as a starter? The 1990 season, which included the two playoff games in 1991.
The Jackson injury was the first of two cataclysmic events that Bengals fans have to point to as leading to a twenty-two year curse. There is another major event that occurred in the summer of 1991 that also led to fans' belief in this curse, but we'll talk about that another time. It's a shame that the team is associated with this unfortunate event in sports history. Every team Aside from the staggering amount of player arrests in the mid-2000s, the one thing that the Bengals have been associated with is "being the team that ended Bo Jackson's career".
In case you're not connecting the dots here, the Cincinnati Bengals have not won a playoff game since this injury occurred. They also haven't had back-to-back winning seasons since the injury, though that streak began a decade before. The ultimate slap in the face to Bengals fans? Every single team in the NFL has one a playoff game since 1991, besides the orange and black. Even the expansion teams of Carolina, Jacksonville, Baltimore, Cleveland and Houston have won playoff games in that same timespan.
Curse? Certainly sounds that way, doesn't it?