Since 2009, the Cincinnati Bengals have become one of the savviest movers and shakers in the NFL Draft. In the last seven years, the team has received almost unanimous high marks for their picks, largely going with a best player available philosophy due to a combination of building a deep roster (through the Draft) and eliminating many needs in free agency. A "promote-from-within" philosophy has taken place as well, with the team often extending the core players they drafted before they hit free agency. It's no coincidence that the Bengals have made the playoffs six times in those past seven years.
Marvin Lewis has a number of critics, largely due to his failures in the postseason, but a key reason he has stuck around into his 14th season as the team's head coach is how he turned around the franchise from the preceding 12 years before his arrival. "The Lost Decade" of the 1990s, as many have come to call it, was filled with a terrible on-field product, laughing stocks of head coaching hires and a number of draft busts leading to a 55-137 record during the period. By contrast, Marvin Lewis has led the Bengals to a 112-101-2 record.
Yet, for all of the big Draft busts that came with high designations because of the continuously poor records, there was a semblance of logic in the decisions. After needing to rebuild the team who saw quite a bit of success in the 1980s, the front office actually made some moves that made sense to create a new version of the previous decade's juggernaut.
The problem? A lethal combination of unlucky injuries, inefficiency in free agency to create a solid all-around roster and, yes, wrong decisions on players at the right position of need.
1992: The Year of Transition
Though Mike Brown started to have more responsibilities with operations toward the end of Paul Brown's life, he truly took over the team in 1991. The team Mike's father started from scratch finished 3-13 in the first full season after his passing that year, and turmoil began to ensue within the organization.
At quarterback, the fiery leader who took the Bengals to Super Bowl XXIII just four years earlier, was on thin ice with the club. Entering his eighth season with Cincinnati, Boomer Esiason, a former League MVP, started to show signs of decline. From 1990-1991, Esiason threw 37 touchdowns against 38 interceptions, as his team started to deteriorate around him. Age and Plan B free agency started to erode the team's roster, and Mike Brown just didn't have the same relationship with Esiason as his father did.
Additionally, the affable head coach, Sam Wyche, was at odds with ownership as well. After spearheading two playoff seasons and a Super Bowl appearance, Wyche and the new owner weren't seeing eye-to-eye after an underwhelming 1991 season. Though details are vague and there are two sides to what transpired in a meeting of the minds during the subsequent offseason, it seemed like Wyche believed a planning session was coming, while Brown had a different idea.
"I was simply fired by Mike Brown at a meeting today," Wyche said in a statement released by his lawyers to the national media back in the offseason preceding the 1992 season. "I have no idea why the Bengals have chosen to announce this as my decision to leave."
With Wyche's departure and Esiason's soon to follow, a major shift was about to occur in The Queen City. The inexperienced Dave Shula was hired on the basis of his last name and Brown's ability to control the youngster, while roster mainstays and Pro Bowl players like James Brooks and Max Montoya left in the prior years. Couple that with Esiason's perceived decline and you have a David Klingler selection in the works.
As it turned out, Esiason had a couple more productive years ahead of him with the Jets and Cardinals, while Klingler struggled to adapt to a pro style offense with limited help on the Bengals' roster. Even with Klingler's struggles and Brown's seemingly vindictive nature early in his tenure as owner, the decision to draft a quarterback wasn't necessarily a horrible one. Esiason was struggling and a new coach with a supposed new vision was in place, so a new signal-caller makes a bit of sense with a new regime, from top to bottom.
The Mid-90s: Settling Other Critical parts of the Roster
Really, from 1991-1998, the Bengals made a series of early Draft decisions that would shape the team and should have re-loaded the roster from the heyday of the 1980s. Aside from Klingler in 1992, Ki-Jana Carter in 1995 and Willie Anderson in 1996, the Bengals largely reloaded on defense in the first round during that eight-year period, while Anderson ended up being one of their best first round decisions in team history.
In today's NFL, getting a viable quarterback, having the proper players to protect the franchise's guy and obtaining defensive linemen who can get to the passer are all critical components to building a successful franchise. In the aforementioned eight-year span, the Bengals spent first round picks on three defensive linemen (Alfred Williams, John Copeland and Dan Wilkinson); their perceived franchise quarterback (Klingler); Carter (a running back for the young signal-caller to lean on); a right tackle extraordinaire in Anderson, as well as linebackers Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. Safety Darryl Williams was a quality first round selection for the team back in 1992, even though Klingler didn't work out as a part of a pair of picks in the first round of that class.
While Klingler is known as one of the bigger busts in NFL history, the "bust" labels given to some of the other first round names in the eight-year span might be a bit unfair. Even though the Bengals used a theoretically-wise strategy by investing heavily in the defensive line from 1991-1997 in Williams, Copeland, Wilkinson and Reinard Wilson--a strategy which would be widely-acclaimed in today's NFL--most fans consider those four to be huge failures.
However, while many point to Wilkinson as a poor pick because the team passed on Marshall Faulk for him--a decision that Faulk still criticizes publicly through the NFL Network often--he actually averaged 6.3 sacks per his four seasons with the Bengals. It's an impressive number for a defensive tackle, and isn't far off of the 7.2 sacks per season perennial Pro Bowler, Geno Atkins averages.
Additionally, in his four seasons with Cincinnati, Williams had 26.5 sacks, and with an average of 6.6 per year, Williams actually betters that of current defensive end Michael Johnson's average of 5.3 with the Bengals. Williams also made a Pro Bowl with the Broncos in 1996, but most fans view him as a bit of a wasted pick for Cincinnati at No. 18 overall back in 1991.
Wilson had a flash-in-the-pan season with Cincinnati in 2001, racking up nine sacks that year alone, giving some credence to his six-year Bengals tenure. Copeland had a nine-sack season of his own for the team in 1995, though he still didn't wholly live up to the hype that comes with a No. 5 overall pick. Still, were these players horrible picks, or were their performances products of both a poor all-around roster and inadequate scheme-fit?
No one would call Simmons and Spikes busts, as they were largely defensive forces in their tenures, both with and away from the Bengals since their 1998 NFL arrivals. The bottom line is this: getting a young quarterback and propping him up with who should have been Hall of Fame-caliber players at running back and right tackle, while loading up on the front seven of the defense wasn't a bad first round strategy on paper. The second round selections weren't too shabby during the span, either.
Wide receivers Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott, tight end Tony McGee, running back Corey Dillon, and cornerback Artrell Hawkins were all selections by the Bengals in the second round in that time and had quality careers. With a relatively sound strategy in the first round and some gems in the second, the team's drafting in the 1990s may not have been the total disaster we have all been led to believe, despite the poor records season after season.
What Went Wrong?
Right Position, Wrong Guy: Whether it was Klingler, Akili Smith, Copeland or others, the Bengals largely had the right idea on position, but not the right player for what they needed. Klingler was viewed as the best quarterback of the weak 1992 Draft class, along with UCLA's Tommy Maddox, so if they wanted a quarterback at No. 6 overall, Klingler was the best they could theoretically do at that point. Many factors, both inside and outside of Klingler's control, contributed to his NFL career demise.
Scheme Misfits: Today's NFL relies more on the cerebral aspects of the game than it did 25 years ago. Matchups, substitution packages, sabermetrics and finding niches for players' skill sets are all placed at a premium. Sure, the quarterback still reigns supreme, but finding players everywhere else who fit what your team does is paramount. Simply put, the Bengals did a very poor job of this when selecting their players in the 1990s. With the lack of success came coaching and subsequent scheme changes, so these athletic guys were sometimes doing things they never had to in college, while also adjusting to the pro level. It's why guys like Wilson couldn't properly get their feet under them as a long-term pro, as he switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense during his time.
Mid and Late-Round Whiffs: Think about what Lewis has done in rounds 2-4 in his drafts. Giovani Bernard, Clint Boling, Domata Peko, Atkins, Robert Geathers and many others are or were longtime contributors to the team. There are some other later-round guys who have helped as well, making many feel as if Lewis, and Director of Player Personnel, Duke Tobin, are a couple of the best in the Draft business. The mid and late-round picks during the 90s were largely poor, with a sprinkling in of very few decent players. It's why the Bengals have one of the deepest rosters today, while the teams of the 1990s were thin.
Passing up Huge Opportunities: We would be remiss to discuss the Bengals' 1990s Draft classes and not mention Brown's eschewing of a blockbuster trade in the 1999 NFL Draft. With the team once again in the market for a quarterback after both Klingler and Jeff Blake fell out of favor in Cincinnati, the front office focused in on the University of Oregon's Smith. Then-head coach of the Saints, Mike Ditka, wanted Ricky Williams even more than Brown wanted Smith and offered a king's ransom of picks to leapfrog the Bengals in the top-five. Brown declined, and the rest is history. Additionally, the Bengals gave up a second round pick in 1995 to move up for Carter, which seemed to make sense at the time to acquire someone who seemed like a stud running back, but his injury and fizzling out blew up in the Bengals faces.
Less "Busts" with new CBA: The Collective Bargaining Agreement that was signed in the 2011 offseason contained a new rookie wage scale, which benefits clubs in lessening the risk in the Draft. Should the Bengals slip back into a streak of first round picks who don't work out (knock on wood), it wouldn't have the same stigma as it did in the 1990s. It would still obviously hurt the roster, though.
Bad Luck with Injuries: Carter was the biggest example of an injury derailing a career of any of their first round picks in the 90s while further crippling the franchise, but there were others too. Charles Fisher was a second round pick in 1999 who tore all three major knee ligaments in the first regular season game of his rookie season. The long-term goal was to have Fisher and Hawkins be the team's cornerback duo for years to come, but Fisher never played another snap.
Controllable Coaches: Since he arrived in 2003, Lewis has had a relationship with Brown that Shula, Bruce Coslet, or Dick LeBeau weren't able to. I don't want to say Brown had less respect for the latter three than Lewis, but the dictatorship Brown ran through the 1990s has dissipated as Lewis, Tobin and Katie Blackburn have asserted control and now continuously make trusted decisions. Lewis and his coaching staff appear to have an enormous amount of say in the Draft, whereas it might not have been the case in the 90s.
While the 1990s were an era of despair for Cincinnati football, it wasn't due to lack of trying. The strategies the team utilized failed often, but had merit that could be better orchestrated in today's NFL.