The Cincinnati Bengals should pay better attention to the past. Because it is clear that they have not, and, as a result, are repeating their mistakes.
In 1988, Cincinnati lost in Super Bowl XXIII to the San Francisco 49ers by a score of 20-16. The following year, the Bengals’ slogan read: “Finish Everything.”
Even though Cincinnati did not quite live up to that slogan that year (the Bengals’ finished the year with a record of 8-8 and ended up in fourth place in the AFC Central), it is a lesson that this year’s squad never learned, either. Witness the latest debacle, where Cincinnati led at the half against Pittsburgh by a score of 17-3 and wound up losing 23-20 on a last second-field goal.
Perhaps it is fitting that the first team on the Bengals’ 1989 schedule was the Chicago Bears, and the game turned out to be one of the better contests in the brief history of the rivalry. In fact, the teams have played only 10 times, with Cincinnati holding a 6-4 edge. Chicago won the last meeting, in 2013, by a score of 24-12.
Chicago comes into Cincinnati Sunday, with the Bengals’ reeling from their latest loss to the Steelers and the Bengals’ playoff hopes all but gone. In order the make the playoffs now, Cincinnati realistically would have to win all four of its remaining games and have Baltimore lose three of its last four games (the Ravens have Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis and Cincinnati remaining).
Historic Soldier Field was the location for that 1989 game, and the Bengals actually had a chance at the end to turn defeat into victory.
The Bears had put together a long touchdown drive against a tired Bengals’ defense to grab a 17-14 lead, and were just trying to run out the clock when Cincinnati recovered a Chicago fumble at its own 36-yard line with 1:29 left.
But, as has so often been the case in Cincinnati, the Bengals’ offense could not finish what their defense had started. The game was a reminder of Super Bowl XXIII, where the 49ers put together a 96-yard touchdown drive late to end the Bengals’ hopes for the first Super Bowl victory.
''Yeah, I won't lie,'' said Reggie Williams, one of the Bengals' greatest linebackers ever. ''As the Bears were driving late for what proved to be the winning margin, I thought about the Super Bowl. I thought about how again we had played so well but leave with an empty feeling. But it's obvious that when a team goes 95 yards like they did to win the game that somebody on the defense has to make the play somewhere in that 95 yards to stop it.''
Monday night, Cincinnati allowed Pittsburgh to drive 80 yards in 10 plays for the touchdown that tied the score at 20-20 and set up the heartbreaking finish. Like in 1989, somebody had to make a play to stop it. And, like in 1989, nobody did.
And when the Bengals did get the ball back with an opportunity to put the game away, the offense was not up to the task. Then or now.
The Bengals moved the ball into Chicago territory at the 48-yard-line before turning the ball over on four straight Boomer Esiason incompletions.
''When we got the ball after the fumble, we were tired,” Esiason said. “We had been on the field most of the day and had pretty much manhandled them. We kept knocking on the door and we were close.''
Cincinnati took a 7-0 lead with just over five minutes gone in the first quarter on a 4-yard pass from Esiason to James Brooks. Mike Tomczak’s 12-yard scoring run capped an 80-yard drive that tied the score at seven with 10 seconds remaining in the half (sound familiar).
The Bengals upped the advantage to 14-7 after a 5-yard touchdown run by Ickey Woods midway through the third quarter before a Kevin Butler field goal cut the lead to 14-10. The Bears’ go-ahead drive started at their own 5-yard-line, and Chicago needed 14 plays and 4:54 of the clock to turn the deficit into a 17-14 advantage that it would not relinquish.
''They had their moments and we had our moments,'' said Sam Wyche, the Bengals' coach at the time. ''They had three points' more moments.''
It all sounds eerily familiar today. The more things change, the more they stay the same.