It was the year 2000 on Planet Earth, in the United States, in Ohio and in Cincinnati. The entirety of Bengal Nation was filled with so much promise, if you can call it promise.
A new stadium. A beautiful new stadium named after one of the two greatest names in the National Football League's history. The Cincinnati Bengals would no longer be sharing Riverfront Stadium with the Reds; rather they would be in their own home. A home named after a man called Paul Brown whose porkpie hat and gruff presence seem woefully out of touch with the divas and the drama associated with today's NFL. The "Aughts" are a decade that most of us would like to forget, but in order to appreciate the current climate of Bengal Nation we must look back.
The 2000 season for the Cincinnati Bengals started with the selection of Peter Warrick, WR out of Florida State. I was excited. It had been a while since we had a dynamic playmaker at the receiver position. This was a good sign, a sign that things were getting better. To land a player like Warrick was a thing of beauty.
2000 Bengals draft class:
1-Peter Warrick, WR, Florida State
2-Mark Roman, DB, LSU
3-Ron Dugans, WR, Florida State
4-Curtis Keaton-RB, James Madison
5-Robert Bean-CB, Mississippi State
6-Neil Rackers-K, Illinois
7-Brad St. Louis-Tight End (but not really), Southwest Missouri State
In the year 2000, Bruce Coslet resigned after starting the season at 0-3. Dick Lebeau took over being named the Head Coach, going 4-9 to finish the season at 4-12. Corey Dillon cracked the NFL record books on October 22nd at home versus the Denver Broncos, setting a single-game rushing record by rushing for 278 yards that Sunday afternoon. Dillon finished the season with 1435 rushing yards, proving to (as usual) be the Bengals' only real legitimate player. He was also the only player to make the Pro Bowl.
Jump ahead to 2001.
2001 Bengals draft class:
1-Justin Smith-DE, Missouri
2-Chad Johnson-WR-Oregon State
3-Sean Brewer-TE, San Jose State
4-Rudi Johnson-RB, Auburn
5-Victor Levya-G, Arizona State
6-Riall Johnson-LB, Stanford
7-T. J. Houshmandzadeh-WR, Oregon State
The Bengals improved on the 2000 season by two wins, going 6-10 on the year. It was a win total that had not been met since the year I graduated high school, 1997. The defense ranked number 9 overall, its highest ranking since 1989. Peter Warrick was the team's leading reciever, Corey Dillon (again the team's lone Pro Bowler) was the leading scorer and rusher.
Decade record: 10-22
Cincinnati opened the 2002 season by drafting Levi Jones, which was decried by many a draft "expert." Forget the fact that he ended up being a very good left tackle for a few years, that apparently wasn't a consideration to Mel Kiper, Jr. when he lambasted the Bengals for taking Jones with the tenth overall pick.
Bengals 2002 draft class:
1-Levi Jones-OT, Arizona State
2-Lamont Thompson-FS, Washington State
3-Matt Schoebel-TE, TCU
4-Travis Dorsch-K, Purdue
6-Marquand Manuel-SS, Florida
7-Joey Evans-DE, North Carolina
We all know what happened in 2002. The Bengals finished the regular season with a 2-14 record, the worst in team history. Dick Lebeau was fired and sent packing only to land in Pittsburgh as their defensive coordinator where he has annually put a top defense on the field. Outscored 119-23 in the first four games (so much for that defense keeping pace from the previous season), new starter Gus Frerotte was benched in favor of 2001 starter Jon "Tiny Hands" Kitna. FB Lorenzo Neal was the lone Pro Bowler in 2002. Chad Johnson led the team in receiving yardage, Neil Rackers led in scoring. It was a dark time in Bengal Nation.
2003 arrived. The era of Marvin Lewis began. His first task was to send folk out West to shadow one Carson Palmer (who would become the namesake of my son years later). Bengaldom rejoiced with a six-win improvement over the previous year of horribleness.
Decade Record: 12-36
2003 Bengals draft class:
1-God of Golden Arms Carson Palmer-QB, USC
2-Eric Steinbach-G, Iowa
3-"The Squirrel" Kelley Washington-WR, Tennessee
4-Dennis Weathersby-CB, Oregon State
4-Jeremi Johnson-FB, Western Kentucky
5-Khalid Abdullah-LB, Mars Hill
6-Langston Moore-DT, South Carolina
7-Scott Kooistra-OT, North Carolina State
7-Elton Patterson-DT, Central Florida
The beginning of hope. The hiring of a top coaching candidate in defensive genius Marvin Lewis brought a hopeful atmosphere to Cincinnati for the first time in eons. Carson Palmer was drafted and signed. On time, nay, before the draft even. The Bengals start playing pretty good football. Jon Kitna is named the Comeback Player of the Year for the entire NFL. Chad Johnson not only leads the team in receiving yardage, but leads the entire AFC. He and Big Willie Anderson are sent to the Pro Bowl. The defeat of a 9-0 Kansas City Chiefs game after a Chad Johnson guarantee in the prime time lit Paul Brown Stadium. A non-losing season with a final record of 8-8 after the debacle of 2-14 the previous year. It also took until the final weekend of the regular season for the Bengals to be delcared ineligible for the playoffs. Quite a turnaround was 2003.
Decade Record: 20-44
Under heavy criticism, Marvin Lewis named Carson Palmer the undisputed starter prior to the start of the 2004 season. The Bengals also debuted their current uniforms, which I love. That isn't relevant to anything really, but I love the current unis. I wouldn't mind seeing the alternate orange get switched out for a throwback uni in the next few years, though.
2004 Bengals draft class:
1-Chris Perry-RB, Michigan (we're all still shaking our head over this one. I mean, really...Steven Jackson.)
2-Keiwan Ratliff-CB, Florida
2-Madieu Williams-S, Maryland
3-Caleb Miller-LB, Arkansas
3-Landon Johnson-LB, Purdue
4-Matthias Askew-DT, Michigan State
4-Stacy Andrews-OT, Mississippi
5-Maurice Mann-WR, Nevada
6-Greg Brooks, DB, Southern Mississippi
7-Casey Bramlet-QB, Wyoming
Maybe Marvin Lewis does know what he's doing after all. After many railed on the head coach for pulling Jon Kitna for an unproven 2nd year QB who hadn't played so much as a single snap in his rookie year, Carson Palmer responded by posting nearly 3,000 passing yards, a 96.9 passer rating in his last six games (he was sidelined by a knee injury in Game 13) and a career-defining (to that point) epic 4th quarter comeback in Baltimore which earned him AFC Player of the Week honors. The season ended with some hope once again after the franchise's second consecutive 8-8 non losing season and a boatload of talent.
Decade Record: 28-56
2005 was the season of the highest highs and the lowest lows that many of us have ever experienced as Bengals fans.
2005 Bengals draft class (a.k.a. the Snake-Bitten Six with one who's pretty good now):
1-David Pollack-DE, Georgia
2-Odell Thurman-LB, Georgia
3-Chris Henry-WR, West Virginia
4-Eric Ghiaciuc-C, Central Michigan
5-Adam Kieft-OT, Central Michigan
6-Tab Perry-WR, UCLA
7-Jonathan Fanene-DE, Utah
What can we say about 2005 that hasn't already been said? Our Bengals became the darlings of the league for the first time in my active memory. I am likely to still have the ESPN The Magazine with Carson Palmer on the cover somewhere in my belongings here in NE Ohio. The Carson Palmer-led and Bob Bratkowki-called offense was nearly unstoppable. Chris Perry nearly broke a couple of team records backing up Rudi Johnson and coming in as the third down back. The defense wasn't going to stop you, but they'd sure take the ball away with Deltha O'Neal being one of four Pro Bowlers due to his ten interceptions. The Richie Braham-anchored offensive line would tell you where Rudi Johnson was going to run before the snap and still open holes for Rudi to gain four yards a carry. Everything was just freaking terrific. The Bengals made the playoffs! The Bengals made the playoffs! Like a kid in a candy store I ran over to Dick's Sporting Goods while visiting family in Southern Ohio and bought my AFC North Champions hat.
Then it all came crashing down. As a side note, I have perhaps never been prouder of my non-football watching (when she can help it) wife than when she called me to ask why Kitna was in the game and not Palmer (I was at my parents' house watching with my Dad who is the reason I am a Bengals fan). Willie Cunningham called the Indianapolis Colts' front office while on air to warn Peyton Manning about the impending doom of Kimo the Assassin. Chad Johnson flipped the frick out during halftime. Profootballtalk.com became relevent because of Chad Johnson. Due to the devastation of losing Palmer and whatever else happened at halftime, the Bengals ended up losing at home in the first round of the playoffs. We went into the offseason having no idea what to expect from Carson Palmer's mangled knee and whether or not he would be the same player in 2006 as he was in 2004 and 2005. What a horrible ending to a wonderful football season for the team and the fans it ended up being.
One other thing, this draft absolutely devastated the Bengals for three years from 2006-2008. David Pollack, Odell Thurman, Chris Henry (RIP) and Tab Perry all showed tremendous promise in the 2005 season and are all out of football.
Decade Record: 39-61
Carson Palmer stepped back onto the field in the third preseason game of the 2006 football season, not missing a regular season game after devastating damage to the three main ligaments in his left knee to end his 2005 season. You may have also heard that a few Bengals had some tough times with the law during this timeframe.
2006 Bengals draft class:
1-Jonathan Joseph-CB, South Carolina
2-Andrew Whitworth-OT, LSU
3-Frostee Rucker, DE, USC
4-Domata Peko-DT, Michigan State
5-A.J. Nicholson-LB, Florida State
6-Reggie McNeal-WR/QB, Texas A&M
7-Ethan Kilmer-Penn State
7-Bennie Brazell-WR, LSU
Week 2 of the 2006 season was absolutely devastating. In the second week of the season, playing at home, three impact players for the Bengals were lost forever. Longtime Center and anchor of the offensive line Rich Braham went down to injury and never returned, leaving Eric "Grocery Cart" Ghiaciuc in his place. David Pollack led with his helmet in an effort to tackle Cleveland running back Reuben Droughns and broke his neck never to return. Tab Perry was also lost to injury, leaving a void at kick returner that only recently has garnered a competent replacement in 2009 draftee Bernard Scott.
Carson Palmer came back from an absolutely devastating injury to become the first Bengals quarterback to pass for over four thousand yards in a season. Chad Johnson led the NFL in receiving yards and set and NFL record as he became the first receiver in history to lead his conference in receiving yards for four straight seasons. Things were still going well, better than we could have hoped after watching Palmer writhe on the turf mere months in the past. Hope was again renewed in Bengal Nation.
The Bengals were 8-5 going into their final three games. For the last three weeks of the season they were in a "win and in" scenario; all they had to do was win one game and they would return to the postseason for the second consecutive year. No Bengals team in history had accomplished that feat. They instead choked it all away due to a bad Brad St. Louis snap, a shanked Shayne Graham kick and the sight of the back of Santonio Holmes' jersey as he streaked to the end zone in overtime in week 17. For the second straight year the Pittsburgh Steelers ended the Bengals' season. The Bengals finished 8-8 once again.
Decade Record: 48-69
2007 happened after that, I suppose.
Bengals 2007 draft class:
1-Leon Hall-CB, Michigan
2-Kenny Irons-RB, Auburn (yes, yes. I know. I think I still have a hole in the drywall of my living room over that one too.)
3-Forfeited due to the selection of Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft. Sigh.
4-Marvin White-S, TCU
5-Jeff Rowe-QB, UNLV (Other than Leon Hall and Chinedum Ndukwe, this really wasn't a good draft in any fashion)
6-Dan Santucci-G, Notre Dame
7-Chinedum Ndukwe-S, Notre Dame
Second verse, same as the first. EVERYBODY! To be perfectly honest, there isn't much I remember about the 2007 Cincinnati Bengals season. I know that Robert Geathers looked like an absolute monster in Week 1 against the Ravens, absolutely terrorizing Steve McNair (RIP).
Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson both had personal-best and club record-setting years in 2007. Kenny Watson was the club's leading rusher with 763 yards on 178 attempts. The team ended up with a 7-9 record, the first losing record under five years of Marvin Lewis' coaching. Defensive Coordinator Chuck Bresnahan was released from the team after the defense ranked 24th in the league and gave up 385 points. All in all 2007 wasn't a terribly disappointing year I suppose, as 7-9 is in no way terrible compared to some of the records throughout the 1990's and the early part of the decade. 2007 as a season for the Bengals just ended up being supremely forgettable.
Decade Record: 55-78
2008 was supposed to be a bounce-back year. It ended up being anything but.
2008 Bengals draft class:
1-Keith Rivers-LB, USC
2-Jerome Simpson-WR, Coastal Carolina
3-Pat Sims-DT, Auburn
3-Andre Caldwell-WR, Florida
4-Anthony Collins-OT, Kansas
5-Jason Shirley-DT, Fresno State
6-Corey Lynch-S, Appalachian State (also hero in the state of Ohio after sealing Appy State's victory over Michigan the previous year with a blocked punt)
6-Matt Sherry-TE, Villanova
7-Angelo Craig-DE, Cincinnati
7-Mario Urrutia-WR, Lousiville
2008 was a terrible choice to be my first year as a DirecTV Sunday Ticket subscriber. The team started 0-8 on the season. Oh. And. Eight. The offensive line allowed Carson Palmer's nose to be bloodied in the preseason, foreshadowing things to come when Stacy Andrews was beaten like a drum and Palmer's elbow bounced off the rusher's helmet, eventually taking him out for the season after only playing four games. Ryan Fitzpatrick (whom I was excited to have on board, full disclosure) proved to be a very poor replacement in the Bengals' scheme. After an amazing display of mediocrity ended in a tie with the Philadelphia Eagles (hey Donovan McNabb, it's called "sudden death" overtime for a reason there, buddy), the Bengals coasted to a 4-11-1 record at the end of the season due to overall poor play. The only bright-ish spot on the team was first year coordinator Mike Zimmer's defense. The corners Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph were starting to come into their own and several "scrap heap" pickups like Dhani Jones were showing good leadership and making solid plays. The team closed out its season on three straight wins over Washington, Cleveland and Kansas City.
Some thought this was a good sign, an omen of good things to come. The rest of us referred to this phenomenon as the "Dead Cat Bounce," where the team plays itself out of contention only to turn it on at tne end of the year. This keeps tickets sales higher than if the season ended in ruin and Mike Brown's pockets stay lined for another year. Yes, I was there last year. I'm not proud of myself for sinking to that level of desperation in looking for any answer or anywhere to place the blame for my choice of following a team that opened the season with eight straight losses, but hey. It was a rough year and I don't think any of you will disagree.
I won't mention Chad Ochocinco's antics. He knows how stupid he was being last year and he has no bones about apologizing for his behavior.
Decade Record: 59-89-1
So what did we expect in 2009? I'm fairly certain none of us expected what we've watched each Sunday, that's for certain.
Bengals 2009 draft class:
1-Andre Smith-OT, Alabama
2-Rey Maualuga-LB, USC
3-Michael Johnson-DE, Georgia Tech
3-Chase Coffman-TE, Missouri
4-Jonathan Luigs-C, Arkansas
5-Kevin Huber-P, Cincinnati
6-Morgan Trent-CB, Michigan
6-Bernard Scott-RB, Abilene Christian
7-Fui Vakapuna-FB, Brigham Young
7-Clinton McDonald-DT, Memphis
The Bengals are in the playoffs. As we close the decade, our boys are once again in the playoffs. For the second time in the Aughts, there is a meaningful game in January that will include our Cincinnati Bengals. Mike Zimmer. Carson Palmer. Cedric Benson. Chad Ochocinco. Andre Caldwell. Clark Harris. Jonathan Joseph. Leon Hall. Good free agent signings. A very, very good draft.
What's going on here? This can't be the team I've followed and watched screw up my entire life, can it?
Folks, as poorly as the decade began (and it began very, very poorly), it's ending just that well. Enjoy our team's ride to the playoffs and no matter what happens realize that the Cincinnati Bengals appear to finally be built to stay relevant for a while.
A solid running game and a punishing defense is the formula to keep a team in contention for a while. We did it the other way in 2005.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Three hours later my decade recap is done. I'm going to bed. I'll see you all later on tomorrow/today. Be careful and be safe, Happy New Year's!
A Pragmatic Bengals Fan