Bengals fans rarely have any direct interest in the outcome of the Super Bowl. The Bengals have never won a Super Bowl, but they have been close a few times. Obviously, they were closest in Super Bowl XXIII. They were nursing a 16-13 lead with three minutes and 10 seconds left in the game. But, legendary quarterback Joe Montana engineered a 92-yard touchdown drive that took only two minutes. With just more than one minute remaining for their final drive, the Bengals were unable to respond and lost by a score of 20-16.
Since then, the Bengals have yet to return to the promised land. In fact, for about 12 of the 28 years since, the team was so far from the Super Bowl that even merely putting the words Bengals and Super Bowl in the same sentence could evoke laughter. In analyzing where the Bengals stand in relation to a Super Bowl, I’m reminded of the infamous Doomsday Clock that measures how close the world is to global catastrophe. However, I am going to use this analogy in a much more positive light, in relation to the Bengals’ chances of winning a Super Bowl in the near future.
In that idea, let’s say the clock would have been set at 20 minutes to midnight (winning the Super Bowl) when the franchise first started in 1968. In all reality, the expansion Bengals were probably a bit closer than that, but at the time, it seemed inconceivable that an American Football League team like the Bengals could even compete with a team in the NFL, as evidenced by the Packers absolutely dominating in the first two Super Bowls.
However, by the end of that season, with the AFL’s New York Jets upsetting the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, the Bengals’ clock would have likely been raised to 15 minutes from midnight. They were still an expansion team who finished 3-11 that season, so they were still very far from a Super Bowl victory, but at least the AFL/NFL barrier was out of the way.
The next significant change would have happened in the 1970 season, when the AFL and NFL merged. The Bengals finished 8-6 that season and earned their first ever playoff berth. They were shut out by the Baltimore Colts in the first round of the playoffs, but at this point they were considered an up and coming team. 8 minutes to midnight.
However, in 1981, the Bengals’ clock would have slowly risen throughout the season as they won game after game, finished 12-4, and made it to Super Bowl XVI to face the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were favored to win, but it was still the closest the Bengals had ever been to taking home the Lombardi Trophy. Three minutes to midnight.
Unfortunately, the Bengals lost that game and fell into a slump in the mid-80s where the team consistently won between seven and 10 games from 1982-1986. Things took a bit of a dip in 1987, but shot right back up in 1988 when the team again finished 12-4 and rode the playoff train to Super Bowl XXIII. By the time the Bengals took the lead late in the fourth quarter, they were the closest they had ever been or have been since. Two minutes to midnight.
After the Super Bowl loss, things were manageable for a while. But, they fell off a cliff in 1992 when the Bengals fired Sam Wyche, hired David Shula, and drafted David Klingler. By the end of the 5-11 season, the Bengals’ clock would have been right back to the expansion mark. 20 minutes to midnight. Things only got worse from there.
After a 3-13 season in both 1993 and 1994, the team’s clock dipped below even the expansion mark, 22 minutes to midnight. Things improved from 1995-1997, but plummeted right back down to absolute futility after 1998. By the time the Bengals set their franchise worst record of 2-14 in 2002 and fired head coach Dick LeBeau, the clock would have been off the charts. 30 minutes? 40 minutes? 50 minutes? Who knows. It was a bad time to be a Bengals fan.
Things changed substantially when the Bengals Drafted quarterback Carson Palmer and hired head coach Marvin Lewis in 2003. By 2005, the Bengals’ clock looked to be back on track. They won the AFC North and looked poised to be a dark horse candidate for the Super Bowl. That was until Palmer’s infamous injury in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, which caused the team to be about seven minutes from midnight. Things took a bit of a dip after that, to a very low point after the 2010 season when the Palmer/Lewis era essentially blew up. By the time the Andy Dalton/A.J. Green era began in 2011, the clock would have read somewhere around 20 minutes to midnight, again. Not even close to the Super Bowl.
At that point, the Bengals started a five-season streak of making it to the playoffs. By the time they won the AFC North in 2013, the team looked poised at around seven minutes to midnight, again. That number fell to eight or nine in 2014, but the Bengals really got going in 2015. Before Dalton’s unfortunate thumb injury, you could argue the team was as little as four minutes from midnight. Not quite at the same level as the two Super Bowl teams, but still right on the verge of competing to be back in the biggest game of the year.
Then, the 2016 offseason happened. After the Bengals lost many key contributors in free agency, in addition to losing a variety of key coaches, the clock was back to 10 minutes from midnight. By the time they were 3-7-1 after Week 12, you could wind that number back to 14 minutes from midnight. Although, a late season resurgence and the emergence of some of the younger players like Tyler Boyd put their current clock around 11 minutes from midnight. It’s an improvement from the beginning of the season, but there remains significant work to be done.
After such a poor season, you might be thinking, why wouldn’t the Bengals be further than 11 minutes to midnight right now? They were further than that after other six win seasons, so how can they seem on the verge of being competitive? Believe it or not, the question comes down to continuity. The Bengals are currently so much closer to a Super Bowl victory than they were in 2010 because, despite the offseason losses from last year, the basic core from 2015 is still there.
The Bengals still have Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap, Vontaze Burfict, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard and a whole host of other core contributors. It might seem tough right now, but the Bengals have been much worse off at other points in their history when it comes to their chances of winning a Super Bowl soon.
If the Bengals add a few key contributors this offseason in free agency, make a resurgence in the Draft by utilizing their 11 picks wisely and trim off some of the dead weight like Rey Maualuga, Domata Peko and Michael Johnson (or at least upgrade their positions with new starters), the clock could quickly begin ticking in the right direction in 2017.
How far do you think the Bengals are from winning a Super Bowl?