There's no doubt about it, 2011 was a hell of a year to be a Bengals fan.
Coming into the season, the team was pegged to be the worst in the league, by some accounts even approaching historical levels of awfulness. Carson Palmer was in retirement limbo and the Bengals were forced to rely on an unproven second round pick quarterback by the name Andy Dalton. The team had also just lost arguably their best defender in Jonathan Joseph during the strike-shortened offseason and were entering week one with a tepid 1-3 preseason mark.
Optimism was not running high in Cincinnati.
By the time October 18th, 2011 rolled around, however, the Bengals were sporting a surprising 4-2 record and rookie Andy Dalton was already making people forget all about Carson Palmer, who was still at home sitting on his couch. True to his word, Palmer remained retired in spite of the Bengals' hot start and Mike Brown was only too happy to keep the disgruntled veteran out of the league, setting an example for future would-be players hoping to strong-arm their way out of Cincinnati.
That is until the Raiders came calling with an offer too good to pass up. Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell had just broken his collarbone and then-head coach Hue Jackson was determined to keep their own strong 4-2 start going by any means necessary, so he set the ball rolling on a trade that eventually netted the Bengals a first- and second-round pick in return for Palmer.
At the time, Jackson hailed it as "the greatest trade in football," a phrase that later came back to haunt him after the Raiders failed to make the playoffs in Palmer's two years at the team's helm.
As Michael Silver of Yahoo Sports points out, however, the move was neither entirely on Jackson's shoulders nor was it the colossal failure that most people try to make it out to be. According to Silver, the trade was ultimately approved of by Mark Davis, Al Davis' son, not Hue Jackson. Jackson was the one who inquired about Palmer's availability, but Davis and CEO Amy Trask were the ones who pulled the trigger. Additionally, Palmer's stint in Oakland, regardless of the eventual outcome, was a marked improvement from the alternative of allowing Kyle Boller to take the reigns. Statistically speaking, Palmer provided the Raiders with two successful seasons that were marred by a constant revolving door of injuries and inept defensive play. Quoting a source relayed by Silver, "Carson Palmer wasn't the reason the Raiders lost 12 games; he was the reason they won four and competed in some of the others."
So why does Hue Jackson receive so much undue grief about the trade? The answer is five simple words.
"The greatest trade in football."
Of all the things that went wrong during the Carson Palmer era in Oakland, that sentence is the thing that sticks out the most to Jackson, who was abruptly fired following the 2011 season.
"In hindsight, calling it 'the greatest trade in football' wasn't the best idea," says Jackson, now the Bengals' running backs coach and special assistant to head coach Marvin Lewis. "I shouldn't have said it... I know why I said it – to let our players know that we're not done, that we've got a quarterback and we've got a chance. But if you say things like that and you don't win, it's going to come back to bite you in the butt."
And bite him in the butt it most certainly did. The fans in Oakland already had mixed feelings about the cost of the trade and Jackson's words were like salt in the wound. Yet, even through it all, Jackson still maintains that the trade itself wasn't the problem. The real downfall was his handling of it in the media. Given the chance to repeat it all, Jackson would do it all again, and for some pretty compelling reasons.
"'I lived in the city, in Jack London Square," Jackson says. "The community and city deserved and wanted a winner. Everywhere I'd go – the grocery store, the gas station, the barber shop – the people wanted to win so badly. They could taste it. The people deserved the opportunity. And to say I [wanted Palmer] because I was trying to save my job, that's wrong. I wanted to win for the city, for the players, for everybody, and I didn't want injuries to derail that opportunity. We were honestly trying to win for the right reasons. That weighed on me. I wanted to give people the happiness they deserved."
Clearly, things didn't work out that way for Jackson or the Raiders, but at the time--coming off a 4-2 start--the trade seemed like a viable and attractive solution. And you can't fault the guy for wanting to bring back some relevancy to a Raiders organization that hadn't so much as sniffed the postseason since 2002.
Unfortunately for Jackson, it won't be his motivations for bringing in Palmer that will ultimately be remembered, but rather the fateful choice of words he used to describe the trade. Now with Cincinnati, Jackson hopes to move on but also vows to learn from his mistakes.
"People still don't realize how close that team was to making the playoffs, how close that organization was to getting over the hump," Jackson says. "Are there some things I've learned, that I wish I could say better or take back? Yes. But I knew where my heart was coming from. It was a trade that impacted a team and gave it a chance to win. We didn't win. By definition, it failed. But it failed because we didn't close the deal at 7-4. It didn't fail because we gave up the draft picks."