While Bengals fans are getting tired of seeing their team unable to win a playoff game, just making it to the postseason feels glorious when you look back at the franchise before Carson Palmer arrived.
When Palmer was made the No. 1 overall pick in 2003, he was drafted into a franchise that had gone more than a decade without making it to the postseason. Heck, between 1991-2002, Cincinnati had just one season in which they finished with a .500 record (8-8 in 1996). The other 11 seasons were mostly comprised of teams winning 3 to 5 games per season and finishing among the league's worst on an annual basis.
It was a dark time, one of the darkest any NFL franchise has ever endured. That didn't phase Palmer though. As he told Paul Dehner Jr. of the Cincinnati Enquirer, youthful bliss helped Palmer see the light immediately when few in Cincinnati could.
"When I was coming out, I remember all of the negativity (surrounding the franchise), but I also remember being so young and naive and thinking, 'Oh, that's fine. I'll change that. I'll turn that around.' Not having any NFL experience, I think it's pretty natural for most guys to feel that when you go into that situation."
While the Bengals wouldn't taste a winning season until Palmer's third year in the league, two straight 8-8 campaigns had the Bengals on the upswing heading into the 2005 season. It helped spark a 4-0 start in 2005 and eventually an AFC North crown en route to an 11-5 finish.
It was a special year, and Palmer remembers well the moment those Bengals felt like something special was coming. It was the Week 13 contest at Pittsburgh, a game in which Palmer and the offense sliced through the vaunted Steelers defense on the way to a 38-31 win and control of the division.
"The game in Pittsburgh, where T.J. made an amazing catch where he caught a ball in the end zone that he tipped up to himself with two guys around him. Chris Henry had an amazing catch for a touchdown where he high pointed the ball and got it and fell on the pylon. Rudi Johnson's burst for like a 20-yard touchdown to seal the game in Pittsburgh. That was the best defense in the league and probably the best defense I've ever played against, and we went in on their turf and did whatever we wanted, up and down the field, and I remember after the game thinking, 'If this is the best in the league, then we've got a really good shot at it (the Super Bowl).'"
After the win, it was on to Detroit with the chance to clinch the AFC North and the Bengals' first playoff berth in almost two decades. Cincinnati easily dispatched of the Lions, 41-17, and the North was won. There wasn't much of a celebration as Palmer recalls though, as this team felt there was more work to be done and bigger goals to accomplish.
"I remember it not being a big deal. I was like, 'Alright, let's get the next one done.' I think we still had a game or two left in the season, and I just remember feeling like there's a lot of business left. And everyone in the locker room was like, 'Alright, we got these cool t-shirts and hats. This is great and all, but we've got a long way to go.' We didn't think we'd arrived or cleared this huge hurdle. That was what the organization had to deal with. Most of us players hadn't been there that long, so all that history didn't mean that much to us. We thought, 'We've got a couple of games left before the playoffs. Let's just stay healthy and give this thing a run."
That was the high of the 2005 season. The low would come in the wild-card round of the playoffs against the Steelers. On his first pass of the game, Palmer dropped back and took a hit to the knee from defensive lineman Kimo Von Oelhoffen. The hit tore Palmer's ACL, and the magical year was effectively over, and Palmer couldn't believe it.
"I'll just never forget having to lay down in the back of my wife's Suburban as the game was still going on. I had been carted off the field, I'd gone through the MRI, they looked at my knee, it was shredded. I didn't even shower, they just loaded me up in the back and gave me some medication and Ace bandages and ice and all the things I had to do for the next five or six hours as I got ready for the surgery.
"I just remember lying down in the back of the Suburban and driving away from Paul Brown Stadium and looking back at the stadium. It was the third or fourth quarter, the lights were on, you could see the scoreboard, all the cars were still in the parking lot and (I) remember just thinking, 'Man, I can't believe this season is over,' because you get through the regular season and then get to the playoffs and the playoffs are here and there's all this excitement you are talking about all the teams, then the game happens, and you just don't feel like the season could be over tonight.
"You have this new opportunity when the playoffs start and this new season. It could be six weeks long, and all of a sudden it ends, and it's such a weird, eerie feeling. I just remember being in the back of the car we were driving up 75 North, and I was looking back at the stadium as the game was still going on just couldn't believe I was laying in the back of a car when our team was in the third quarter, and my season was over."
While the Bengals' magical season would end that day, the goal of bringing winning football back to Cincinnati had been accomplished. Palmer had helped revive a franchise that had fallen as hard as it possibly could in the 90s and early 2000s. The Bengals went from being a laughingstock to a team their fans could be proud of once more.
"After that year, it was just on. The games are sold out. The place is rocking when that song comes on before kickoff, the place is just extremely loud. Fans just love their football, whether it's Ohio State or the Bengals, the fans just love football, and that's all we knew. As players, you just love that. We had that place rocking."