I once coined the phrase, Age of Helplessism, to reflect the Bengals 55-137 record from 1991-2002. There was no other way to describe it. Fans were helpless and it seemed that the front office was too. We had Jay Schroeder, David Klingler, Jeff Blake, Akili Smith, Scott Mitchell and Gus Frerotte at quarterback. In 1993, Jeff Query was the leading receiver (56 receptions, 654 receiving yards). In 1992, Harold Green had a great season, by Bengals running back standards pre-Corey Dillon. Green never rushed for more than 661 yards after that. Don't get me wrong, I liked Green. But it was really sad that Green was the one positive until Corey Dillon.
When it's all said and done, Dillon will likely make the hall of fame. He's over 700 rushing yards away from 12,000 -- ranked 14th all-time. His 82 career rushing touchdowns ranks 16th all-time. He's already won one Super Bowl and with another, he may be a shoe-in.
But one fact remained during the Age of Helplessism -- Dillon couldn't lead the team to a winning record. Sadly, with Dillon, it wasn't about his play; rather his attitude. He was anything but team oriented. When the coaches needed him on the field, Dillon would walk off barking at the head coach. During contract negotiations, Dillon would rip the team before signing a contract because no other team wanted his attitude at the time. With a probable hall of fame running back, one thing remained constant -- we were still in the Age of Helplessism.
The head coach that replaced the beloved Sam Wyche, went 19-52 through four and a half seasons. Mike Shula hasn't coached since. Bruce Coslet was a head coach for nine seasons (four with the Jets, three full and two partials with the Bengals). He had one winning record (7-2) after replacing Shula during the 1996 season. With the Bengals, Coslet went 21-39 including seasons of 3-13 (1998) and 4-12 (1999). Dick LeBeau's great defensive mind has kept Pittsburgh in the high ranks of defensive powerhouses. As a head coach with the Bengals, he went 12-33 -- including 2-14 in 2002.
During LeBeau's tenure, in 2001, the Bengals scoring defense ranked 14th. Oddly, the 2006 Bengals ranked 17th. You have to go all the way back to 1990 when the scoring defense ranked in the teens.
THE TURNING POINT
It was the Bengals first primetime game in some time. The Falcons hosted the Bengals during Sunday Night Football on September 22, 2002. The Bengals offense started with an interception followed by back-to-back three-and-outs. After the fourth possession and third punt with 10 minutes left in the first half, Frerotte was pulled after attempting seven passes and completed none.
Enter, Jon Kitna. After going three-and-out, Kitna led the offense on his second possession, 14 plays, 53 yards to a field goal in the closing seconds of the first half. The team was already down 20-3 and Cincinnati wasn't known for comebacks. After half-time, the Bengals offense went interception, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, punt, then kneel down (the merciful end to finish the game). The Bengals lost 30-3.
The Bengals were embarrassed in the game, ridiculed in the broadcast and ripped in the papers Monday morning.
This was, in a sense, a turning point. But there was still a push needed to get Mike Brown to change his ways and follow his father's footsteps. Even former players wrote an op-ed piece in the Enquirer to get their point across to the owner.
Solomon Wilcots said, "In a day when players can now choose for whom and where they will play, this little tiff deserves no further explanation. As for me, I owe you a debt of gratitude. But your debt to Bengals fans has yet to be paid."
Mike Martin ripped Brown for poor choices. "Putting Mr. Klingler in that offense, at the time, was like putting a square peg into a round hole. You wanted a run-and-shoot quarterback to be a drop-back passer - bad fit. Another major mistake was the hiring of Dave Shula as head coach... The draft selection of defensive end John Copeland over All Pro left tackle Willie Roaf was another poor choice. Again, I question whether this was a gut feeling or merely persuasion... I don't want to sound redundant, but there has been at least 12 years of consistently poor decision-making by the GM or someone within your front office."
Louis Breeden suggested to Brown a change in the coaching staff. "As much as I like Dick LeBeau - and he was by far the best position coach I ever had, and I consider him a friend - you need to get rid of the whole staff. That's not easy for me to say. I think running backs coach Jim Anderson has the ability to be a head coach in this league. I played with Tim Krumrie and Ken Anderson. They are great guys. But, as a staff, they are not getting it done. The team desperately needs new faces and new leadership on the coaching staff."
Dave Lapham spoke about accountability -- a lost concept during the "Age". "Accountability and taking responsibility for poor performances are foreign concepts in your organization. There is a lack of confidence and trust that splinters the players, coaches, front office and support personnel. Lackluster effort can no longer be tolerated or - worse yet - rewarded. Going through the motions must be unacceptable - even punished."
It got to a point that fans stopped caring and most home games were only available via the radio.
Lucky for us, either Brown changed his ways or he accidentally hired someone that had passion and cared for success. But word has it, it wasn't even Mike Brown that wanted Marvin Lewis; it was daughter Katie Blackburn. Mike Brown wanted Mike Mularkey.
The Age of Helplessism died when Marvin Lewis was hired and when Carson Palmer was drafted. In 2003, a kid that only returned kicks, became the feature running back. Rudi Johnson has broken several team records and is quickly joining the ranks of great Bengals running backs. Chad Johnson's career took off in 2003 and T.J. Houshmandzadeh went from career punt returner, to the league's best #2 receiver in 2004.
Not a bad way to enter a new age of growth, success and pride. I'll take that any day knowing what life as a fan was like.