While we now acknowledge the Browns as the perennial laughingstock of the NFL, fourteen years ago that title belonged to another team across the state. Back in 2002, the Bengals had just put their finishing touches on a crash and burn 2-14 season. They had just fired their Head Coach, the decorated defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau, and hadn’t made the playoffs since 1990. Again, think Browns level bad. Across the state, the Browns were a team on the upswing, having just finished 9-7 after entering the league in 1999 with a young superstar quarterback in the making in Tim Couch, not that unlike the Raiders or the Jaguars today.
Enter Marvin Lewis. Lewis was a hotshot young coordinator coming from the Ravens, the same Ravens who had boasted an all time defense in 2000 that led them all the way to the Super Bowl. Lewis was young and unheralded, but brought with him the hope of resurrection of this wayward franchise.
Now, it’s important to understand that the Bengals have a different power structure than any other team in the league. They don’t have a general manager, or anyone that is clearly in charge of personnel. They can best be described as a family business, headlined by owner Mike Brown, who bought the team over twenty years ago. Brown maintains full control over the 53 man roster. His brother, Pete Brown, is the Executive Vice President of Player Personnel. Because of this, the head coach has a larger say in the decision making than anywhere else in the league. More than anywhere else, the responsibility was going to lie on the shoulders of Marvin Lewis to turn things around.
And slowly but surely, things started to turn around under Lewis. In his first year, Lewis drafted an all-world college prospect out of USC in Carson Palmer. People tend to forget it because of the muddy mildy of his career, but coming out of college Palmer was the type of prospect that begged comparisons to the Peyton Mannings, Andrew Lucks, and John Elways as prospects. Paired with a young, elite receiver in Chad Johnson, as well as a high-end bruising running back in Rudi Johnson, the team suddenly had one of the most exciting offensive nucleuses in the league.
History doesn’t give the Carson Palmer the credit he deserved. Nowadays, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Russell Wilson are talked about as the three young superstar quarterbacks in the league. Back then, it was Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Carson Palmer. After what was essentially a redshirt rookie year, Palmer was dynamite for the Bengals. After a Pro Bowl season in 2005, Palmer lead the team to an 11-5 finish and their first playoff berth since 1990. He led the league in touchdowns and completion percentage. For once, things were headed in the right direction in Cincinnati.
“You see, Carson Palmer was once a Chosen One,” wrote Ty Schatler of Bleacher Report. “He was a Heisman Trophy winner and a No. 1 overall pick.Palmer was a franchise quarterback, a blue-chip prospect who put up better numbers faster than Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck or nearly anyone else in NFL history.”
In the Wild Card round of the playoffs, the Bengals were set to face their rival Steelers. The Steelers were everything that the Bengals weren’t and wanted to be. They were one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, with a collection of 4 Super Bowl titles from their 1970’s dynasty. They were riding high that year on the arm of rookie signal caller Ben Roethlisberger, who was only beginning to show flashes of the player he’d become today. On the first play of the game, Palmer threw a 66 yard touchdown pass to Chris Henry. As he let the ball go, Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen wrapped up Palmers leg and violently brought him to the ground. Palmer lingered, visibly in pain. He would not return to the game. He had tears in major ligaments in his knee, as well as cartilage damage. At the time, it was seen as career threatening. Palmer, the young golden boy from California, the savior of the franchise, would never be the same player again.
The next years for the team were marred with inconsistency. After an encouraging 2006 campaign, Palmers next years in Cincinnati were derailed by injuries, leading to spotty performance from the once promising franchise quarterback. In 2007, he led the league in interceptions after a serious elbow injury. Chad Johnson became the legend of Ochocinco and then left for apparently greener pastures. Rudi Johnson fell off a cliff after the 2006 season. ALthough the team did make it back to the playoffs in 2009, they failed to find sustainable success. The center pieces of the teams once explosive offense fell apart through those years, leaving the team a shell of its former self and much like it was before Lewis had taken over. Those few years of encouragement were proven to be just a tease for the other downtrodden franchise in Ohio.
NFL Owners are impatient. They need wins, and they need it now. New coaches are typically given a three year window to build a winner, and if they don’t, they are out of town. The 49ers have fired two coaches in the past two years. The Browns have had six different head coaches since 2008. Right or wrong, coaches aren’t given patience when it comes to building their team.
The Bengals aren’t like that, though; they’re run differently than every other team in the league. Despite the stumbles of the Palmer era, hope remained in Lewis, even after losing ten straight games in 2010. Sure, they hadn’t won a playoff game in his first eight years as coach, but they were no longer the laughingstock they were before he came. They decided to give him more time to see his vision through properly.
"We are close to being the kind of team we can be," Brown said after that rocky 2010 campaign. "I think continuity will give us the best shot at becoming that team. We have a good relationship, Marvin and I. We work well together. It isn't an easy relationship, but it's a good one."
Hope sprang anney for the team in the 2011 NFL Draft, a record breaking draft class littered with future All-Pro talents. With the fourth pick in the draft, the Bengals replaced Ochocinco with a dynamic talent at receiver in A.J. Green. On day two, the team made the difficult decision to bring in another quarterback, presumably Palmer’s successor, in Andy Dalton. Dalton was a highly accurate quarterback out of TCU who, despite below average arm talent, presented an option that could start Week One.
The team entered training camp with a three way quarterback battle between Palmer, Dalton, and Bruce Gradkowski. Palmer became vocally frustrated, demanding a trade out of Cincinnati, or else he would retire. The team honored his request, sending him to Oakland for a first round pick, as well as a conditional second round pick. Dalton became the team's de facto starter.
Lewis’ crew immediately took steps back in the right direction with Dalton, making the playoffs in his first year under center. Lewis built a winning roster around Dalton, boasting what many had described as the strongest roster in the league.
“I’ll tell you, I do believe it is the most talented team in the league,” Harbaugh said. “We have great respect for them, for their coaches [and] the way they play. Obviously, it starts with A.J. Green, but the whole cast of characters there on offense is very talented and gifted – tight ends, running backs, quarterback. The whole group is very good, and they have a heck of an offensive line. I’d say they’re the complete package, talent-wise.”
Still, skepticism remained around the young signal caller in Dalton.
Dalton was an extremely streaky passer from his first day in the league. He would follow encouraging streaks of quality starts with blistering cold streaks that would hold the entire team hostage. In his first four years in the league, he showed little signs of improvement, with QBR’s of 44.5, 48.6, 56.8, and 53.9; four years in he was the same frustrating player that he was when he entered the league. Dalton also had a knack for cracking under pressure for critical games. In his first nine primetime games, Dalton had 56% completion percentage with 6 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, and a 2-7 record. Notably enough, Dalton lost his first four playoff games with the team, all on Wild Card weekend. He performed dreadfully in each of these games. Even though he was a Pro Bowl player, Dalton was holding a Super Bowl ready roster hostage with his mediocre play.
“Dalton's 2014 season shows how he perfectly straddles the middle tier of NFL quarterbacks,” wrote NFL Media’s Gregg Rosenthal. “ He's had a few disastrous moments: the shutout in Indy, the "TNF" meltdown against the Browns and the three-pick first half against the Bucs. But he's mixed in a few excellent showings and stayed out of the way more often than not.”
After that 2014 season, in which the Bengals predictable ended with a Wild Card round loss to the surging Colts, fans had had enough with Dalton. The clock was quickly ticking out of time for not only Dalton, but Marvin Lewis as well, who was now 0-7 in the playoffs. The ownership could only have so much patience before they were forced to make changes.
The ensuing summer, Dalton partook in the Celebrity Softball Game in his hometown of Cincinnati before a Reds game. As he took the field, Dalton was greeted with a sea of “Boos” from local fans. Their patience was up with Dalton. They were done waiting for him to make the leap. The crowd was letting him know exactly what they thought of him after four straight one and done trips in January.
After the game, Dalton shrugged off the fans reactions. “I’m not worried about it,” he said. “Everybody has got an opinion. It doesn’t really matter. It comes with it. Everybody has their opinion here. There’s a lot of support and that’s all that matters.”
Regardless of what he said than, it did matter to him, so much so that it sparked a change in the way Dalton approached the game.
“I’m not going to tell you it didn’t bother him,” said his offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, to Peter King. “It did. When you have the success he has had—four seasons in the league, four times in the playoffs—getting booed in your own city, that has to hurt a bit. But he was able to hit one over the fence for a home run. And he flipped the bat. His message was sort of, You might not like me now, but you’re going to love me later. I truly believe that was a turning point for Andy.”
It was. Dalton returned for the 2015 season as a different player than he was the year before. He set the football world on fire over the first two months of the season, leading the team to an 8-0 record. In his second year in Hue Jackson’s offense, Dalton was a more confident player than he’d ever been before, taking selective shots down field to his numerous playmakers with more success than ever before. He proved doubters wrong with late game victories against quality opponents like the Ravens, Seahawks, and Steelers. Dalton even avoided the icy cold streaks of past years and for once looked like a franchise quarterbacks. Without their quarterback holding the team back anymore, the Bengals became instant Super Bowl contenders. For a split second, it looked like the Bengals were finally on track to find that elusive first playoff game.
Then, inevitabley, disaster struck as it always seems to in Cincinnati. In a Week 14 matchup against those most hated Steelers, Dalton injured his thumb on his throwing hand attempting to make a tackle after he threw an interception midway through the game. The Bengals went on to lose the game, and Dalton wouldn’t return the rest of the season.
From there, the once promising season began to unravel for Marvin Lewis. Although backup A.J. McCarron played as well as he could have been expected to in Dalton’s absence, the team lost to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Broncos in overtime, keeping the team from a first round bye in the playoffs and some much needed time to recover from injury. As fate would have it, they were set to play a surging and explosive Steelers team in a quest for that first playoff win.
Predictably, the game was a slugfest from the first kickoff. The rain partially neutralized the Steelers high-powered passing game, turning the game into a defensive battle between the two AFC North heavyweights. Without much juice on offense, the Bengals fell behind 16-0 heading into the fourth quarter. When it seemed as if the Steelers were going to run away yet again, violent linebacker Vontaze Burfict aggressively speared Ben Roethlisberger to the ground, taking him out of the game. Without their star quarterback, the Steelers offense struggled to move the ball, giving the Bengals a chance to take a 18-16 lead late in the fourth quarter. The victory was nearly sealed when Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones threw an unforgivable interception with two minutes left. But as fans have come to know by now, this was a cursed franchise that couldn’t have nice things. We all know what happens next. Jeremy Hill fumbles deep in Pittsburgh territory, Big Ben comes back onto the field, and Burfict’s late hit puts the Steelers in position to kick a game ending field goal. In perhaps the cruelest ways of all, the Bengals were sent home again in January, with Lewis and Dalton left still winless in the playoffs.
With the inexcusable violence by some of his players, fans and writers took to the internet to call for Lewis’ job. They had every reason to be fed up at this point. Thirteen years into his tenure, longer than any coach save for Belichick have been in one position, Lewis was still winless in January. This was the tipping point. After the most encouraging of seasons, they were put down miserably to their most hated enemy once again on Wild Card Weekend, with plenty of fingers to point at Lewis for the lack of discipline on his part that potentially cost the team the game.
"I'm a former Bengal. I'm embarrassed by the way that this game ended and by the way these guys carried themselves on the football field today,"said Boomer Esiason after the game. "I feel bad for Marvin Lewis. I'll tell you one thing, if Lewis can't control his players, then maybe Marvin Lewis shouldn't be on the sideline coaching that drek."
The patience of the Brown family, however, lived on for yet another year. If Lewis is to finally win a playoff game, he will have to do it this year without notable key pieces from last year's squad. Hue Jackson, perhaps the person most responsible for Dalton’s growth in year five, left to coach the Browns. Two of the teams better receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, were lured away in free agency. The team will start inexperienced Cedric Ogbuehi at right tackle. For a little while, 2015 looked like a perfect storm for the Bengals. It won’t be nearly as easy next year.
The fates of Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton are forever intertwined at this point. Both are heavily maligned now, perhaps unfairly, and the patience of both the fanbase as well as the front office has to have run out by now. Their leash has to end somewhere. The narrative on these two is all but written, the two teases who toyed with the hearts of the Bengals fan base for years. The 2016 season offers one last chance to rewrite this story, to make it one of the coach who saved the lost franchise and brought the team back from the dead, or of the young quarterback who led his team to the playoffs every year before they struck big rather than a punchline. The stage is set, and it is up to these two men to follow through in what looks like a career defining year for that other team in Ohio.