A full decade of football futility surrounded the city of Cincinnati. The 1990s came and went with only one playoff appearance at the onset of the decade, and the Bengals had cemented their place as one of the worst-run franchises in all of professional sports.
The team was on their fourth head coach from 1990 to 2001, as well as the umpteenth quarterback under center. Jeff Blake was the star of of the chorus line of signal-callers, if one is so inclined to call No. 8 such, with the path littered by names like Jay Schroeder, Paul Justin, Scott Mitchell, David Klingler and Akili Smith. In the offseason, the Bengals were turning to journeyman Jon Kitna.
Dick LeBeau was the head coach, flanked by offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Mark Duffner. The trio were desperate to strike gold in the draft. Holding the No. 4 overall selection in the draft, as well as high-slotting in the subsequent rounds, the team needed help everywhere.
If a team gathers three starters and a couple of other contributors from a class, that becomes a pretty solid group. If there's a Pro Bowler or franchise player in the class, even better, though that can be tough to come by. What then, does that make a class consisting of four players combining for 13 Pro Bowl appearances and breakers of numerous franchise records?
With the No. 4 overall selection, the Bengals took the best pass-rusher in the draft, Missouri's Justin Smith. The grizzly defensive lineman finally called it quits after 14 seasons last week after a very productive career. As we recently discussed, he wasn't necessarily a true scheme-fit in Cincinnati, and the bulk of his major successes came when he played in San Francisco's 3-4 system.
Though he never cracked the double-digit sack mark in his career, Smith was a pillar of consistency and durability. Smith never played in less than 14 games in any season, and had 43.5 of his 87 total sacks as a Bengal, exactly half.
Not much needs to be said about pick No. 36 that year--wide receiver Chad Johnson. "Ochocinco", as he would later be called, remains one of the most polarizing and productive players in Bengals history. Johnson holds every significant franchise career receiving record and has five Pro Bowls to his name.
He'll likely just miss out on being a Hall of Fame player, but No. 85 was truly a dominant player through the mid and late-2000s. Perhaps more than his stats was Johnson's bravado and animated nature that brought the Bengals national attention once again. Most of the time, Johnson's antics were about having fun, but other times they led to animosity between himself and the coaching staff. Johnson spent 10 years in The Queen City and remains one of the team's best draft picks of all time.
Throw in fourth round running back Rudi Johnson and Ochocinco's college teammate at Oregon State, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and the Bengals had their own version of "The Triplets" in the fold. Johnson and "Housh" would make a Pro Bowl each and were major keys in the team's high-flying offense in the mid-2000s.
Of course, it took a couple of years and the arrival of both Marvin Lewis and Carson Palmer for this class to realize its potential. Smith shot out of the gate with an 8.5-sack performance as a rookie and remained consistent, but the triplets on offense became a five-man show when Palmer was under center and either Kelly Washington or Chris Henry were the third receiver.
After years of abysmal draft classes that Mike Brown banged the table for, the team had quietly laid a solid foundation for Lewis when he arrived in 2003. Little did Lewis, or anyone at the time know, but it was a class that would largely shape Lewis' successful teams from 2003-2007. Of course, "success" was and is a relative term for the era, as the 42 wins in those five seasons were enormous in comparison to the 19 collective wins from 1998-2002.
Kudos go all around for the 2001 class, really. Brown, LeBeau, Bratkowski (who supposedly banged the table for both Oregon State wideouts), and Duffner all get credit for making the picks, along with the then-paltry scouting staff. Credit also needs to be given to Lewis and his staff for getting the most out of those picks and creating stars with four of the seven picks made in 2001.