It’s time for some optimism around here.
Yes, these 2023 Cincinnati Bengals are greatly disappointing at the present, but it’s still early. And, with this slow start comes the masses pointing at their rebound last year, wherein they made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game once again.
And, while more examples of such turnarounds in NFL history and within the Paycor Stadium walls are sparse, there’s another example from this franchise’s yesteryear at which to point. Back when the legendary Paul Brown was still coaching the Bengals, they had a rough, rough start to the 1970 season.
Prior to the great Ken Anderson era, the Bengals had another generational talent at quarterback. Greg Cook was the team’s No. 5 overall pick in 1969 and made an immediate impression with the team getting off to a 3-0 start. However, he suffered an improperly diagnosed torn rotator cuff and subsequent partially torn biceps tendon that derailed his career.
It forced the Bengals to go in a different direction in the 1970 preseason, trading for veteran journeyman Virgil Carter. He started 11 of 14 regular season games that year, with the iconic Sam Wyche stepping in here and there, getting playing time in six games and three starts.
The year started off promising, with the Bengals beating the Oakland Raiders in their heyday (that 1970 John Madden-led squad made it to the Conference Championship Game). Cincinnati had a 31-21 victory and looked to be headed in a good direction for the year.
But, inconsistent quarterback play and a myriad of other factors led to what could only be equated to pushing a snowball down a frosty hillside. The Bengals subsequently lost six straight games, falling to 1-6.
This stretch of ineptitude included a divisional loss to the Oilers, Browns, and Steelers, respectively, putting them in a huge hole. How big, you ask? Well, to even think about playing playoff football, they’d need to sweep those three teams and, well, every other team comprising their second half of the schedule.
And, in classic P.B. style, he got his team to play inspired, high-level football. Cincinnati rattled off seven straight wins—a previous record before the 2015 and 2022 squads bested that mark. The Bengals smoked the Bills in Week 8, 43-14, won a tough one against the Browns, 14-10, then promptly dismantled the Steelers, 34-7.
Can you imagine if there was social media in 1970? Bengals started the year off 1-6… ONE AND SIX!— Bengal Jim’s BTR (@bengaljims_BTR) October 1, 2023
Went on to run the table and win the AFC Central championship after winning their last 7 games. No one gave them a chance. It’s okay to vent, you have that right and I don’t blame… pic.twitter.com/buuHNV70io
Carter kept the ship afloat with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, but the Bengals’ rush offense was a juggernaut, putting up 2,057 yards as a team. Jess Phillips led the way with 648 of them, with Paul Robinson logging 622 and Essex Johnson contributing as a back and receiver.
The streak led to an unlikely (and once-seemingly impossible) AFC Central title and a day-after-Christmas playoff matchup to face the Colts on their home turf. Unfortunately, Hall of quarterback Johnny Unitas got the better of Brown’s Bengals, ending their season after a Cinderella run. The Colts went on and won Super Bowl V that year under head coach Don McCafferty, after Don Shula left for Miami.
Sure, the cynic will be quick to point out that this was nearly five-and-a-half decades ago—hell, the Colts were still in Baltimore, the Patriots used “Boston” in their team name, and the uniforms have since undergone multiple changes. And, aside from a different era of football, these stories are also the outlier, not the norm.
Still, it has happened and has done so with this particular team. We know the NFL is a crazy league, filled with surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. Injuries, momentum, game plan adjustments, and other facets are all woven into an NFL season.
This year’s Bengals can not only look at their run last year but the hot streaks of the 2015 and this 1970 squad as benchmarks on how to get hot and make a mark. While it looks bleak at the moment, it’s early, and this particular group has already shown the fortitude to break through long-standing franchise barriers, as well as get out of funks in big ways.
Any given Sunday. Any given year.
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