The 1990s were a time in Bengals history that many fans would like to forget. 'The lost decade' was rife with failed head coaches, draft busts, and poor moves in free agency that culminated in a 14 year period (1991-2004) in which the franchise did not record a single winning record.
However, there was a brief intermission from the absolute turmoil in the mid-90s when the Bengals handed the starting job to Jeff Blake. He put together a Pro Bowl season in 1995 and, with new head coach Bruce Coslet's help, got the team to 8-8 in 1996. 1997 saw the return of legendary Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. In that three year period from 1995-1997, the Bengals went 7-9, 8-8, and 7-9 again. That doesn't seem particularly good, but the surrounding seasons were so horrible, that the period from 1995-1997 brought some hope that this team could one day rise from the pit and become a contender once again.
Esiason's return in 1997 only resulted in a final record of 7-9, but that was only after Blake led the team to a tough 3-7 start. Esiason took the reigns in Week 12 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His first game back with the team was a loss, but he lead the team to a 4-1 record through the rest of the season, showing just how important of a player he could be to a team like the Bengals. And how important having a good quarterback is in general.
Fans were optimistic about the team's chances going forward for the first time in years and Esiason, in particular, had a blast that final season in Cincinnati. In a recent interview for Cincinnati.com's Ring of Honor podcast series, Esiason explained just how much fun that season was for him and how close he was to coming back again the next year.
"I really was close to coming back. I loved my time that last year," Esiason said. "Bruce Coslet was now my head coach and Kenny Anderson was my quarterback coach. It was the perfect situation for me. A veteran quarterback who knew the offense as much as the coaches did. Unfortunately for Jeff Blake, he was struggling that year."
It's interesting that Esiason would say he was so close to coming back, which many Bengals fans would have loved, but he didn't, partly because he received a great opportunity to start his broadcast career with Monday Night Football after the 1997 season concluded. Unfortunately, the Bengals' contract offer wasn't enough for him to stave off his career change for another year.
"I think I was a realist at that time. I remember telling Mike Brown, 'look, if you want to give me some contract that I can't say no to then I will come back and do that'. That would have been a significant amount of money at that time," Esiason said, "This was going to be the third year in a row I believe I was offered the Monday Night Football analyst job. And if I didn't get it then I don't know that I would have ever gotten it after that."
When Esiason left the Bengals, they tried to fill the quarterback position with former Steelers and Jets quarterback Neil O'Donnell. His stats didn't look too bad as he put together 2,216 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions despite being sacked 30 times in 12 games. But, he didn't have what it takes to lead the team like Esiason did, so they ended up finishing 3-13 on the season. They didn't even manage to win seven games again until Marvin Lewis was hired in 2003 and the team finished 8-8 for the first time since 1996.
It's hard to blame Esiason for taking the Monday Night Football job. He was 37 at the time and the job was something that he just couldn't pass up, again. But, it certainly would have been nice to see what he could have done with the team for another season or two.
"It was a great run for me at the end of that season, my young teammates all bought into what I was selling." Esiason said, "To watch guys like Corey Dillon and Ki-Jana Carter and James Hundon and Marco Battaglia and a host of guys get to another level that I don't think they thought was possible was probably one of the most satisfying aspects of finishing up as a Cincinnati Bengal."
You can listen to the Enquirer's full podcast with Esiason here.