The Worst Teams of All Time, Part 1: The Bengals of the 1990s

This is the first post in a series that will be ongoing, where we examine and poke fun at some of the most ghastly teams ever to take the field. This series will branch off into different sports over time. But for now, we start with the NFL.

The Bengals are a proud franchise, a member of the AFL before merging with the NFL, and the owners of two AFC titles, both received in the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, the Bengals’ fortunes went south. The Bengals went from 9-7 in 1990 to 3-13 in 1991, and didn’t post another winning record until 2005. During this turbulent time (1991-2004), the Bengals went 71-153.

Sam Wyche

Sam Wyche coached the Bengals from 1984-1991, and sent them on their troubled path.

Although the eccentric Sam Wyche took the Bengals to a Super Bowl in 1988, he was the one who steered them toward their decade of futility. After an awful 3-13 finish in 1991, Wyche was fired. Then came the fateful decision. Should the Bengals hire a future-Super Bowl winning head coach in Bill Cowher, or hire the youngest NFL head coach in history, Dave Shula? Don Shula, Dave’s father, finished his career as the winningest head coach in history.

The story as it goes in Cincinnati is, Mike Brown, their owner, lived in a huge shadow of Paul Brown. Brown apparently liked Shula better because he felt that Dave lived in a huge shadow of Don, and wanted to see if he could jump-start the franchise. As we see now, it was a tragic case of name reputation and nepotism obscuring how horrible Dave Shula was as a head coach.

Dave Shula

Dave Shula’s melancholy yet confused look that he should have patented.

Dave Shula was so horrifically out of his depth that it was embarrassing. His 19-52 record equates to a winning percentage of .278. He lost 50 games faster than any head coach in history (Shula lost his 50th in Week 6 of 1996, falling to the Houston Oilers 30-27.). Dave met his father, Don, twice in regular season play. The Bengals lost both times, with the final scores at 23-7 in 1994 and 26-23 in 1995, the year Dave Shula produced his best record, 7-9.

Shula regressed the franchise in a big way, showing a complete and utter inability to draft talented players. He used his first-ever first round draft pick on David Klingler, a star at the University of Houston. However, Klingler’s game didn’t translate to the NFL, and he was jettisoned from Cincinnati at the end of 1994.

David Klingler

The famously immobile Klingler on the ground in 1994. This was a very familiar position for him, as he was sacked 87 times in 24 starts.

After another horrid 3-13 finish in 1993, Shula drafted “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson with the 1st overall pick.

Drafting Big Daddy proved to be a big mistake. Wilkinson didn’t have the emotional and psychological stability to play in the NFL, and although he was a fine defensive tackle, he was more of a late-second round talent as opposed to the first overall pick.

Dan Wilkinson

Wilkinson trying to chase down Bobby Hoying. Note the clueless look.

Wilkinson ended his career in Cincinnati by calling the city “racist”, and insulting the people of Cincinnati. Mike Brown promptly traded him to the Washington Redskins. The Bengals finished 1994 with a 3-13 record, their 3rd time finishing with that mark in 4 seasons.

Next up on the draft bust carousel was Ki-Jana Carter, a running back out of Penn State, whom the Bengals drafted with the 1st overall pick, passing on players such as Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Steve McNair, Joey Galloway and Curtis Martin.

Immediately, Carter tore a ligament in his knee in his third carry of their first pre-season game, causing him to miss the entire 1995 campaign.

By this time, David Klingler had shuffled off to Oakland, and Jeff Blake was named the new starter. This initiated an era where their offense was known as the “Shake and Blake”, and Cincinnati produced their most successful years of the 1990s with 7-9, 8-8 and 7-9 records from 1995-1997.

However, Jeff Blake was by no means a stable quarterback, and the Bengals found this out the hard way. Blake was inconsistent, and was terrible in the clutch.

Jeff Blake

“Jeff Blake, franchise quarterback” just doesn’t have that certain ring to it. Cincinnati found this out the hard way.

So, crippled with the absence of Carter, the 1995 campaign ended with a lukewarm 7-9 record, and people expected big things from the offense in 1996.

Ki-Jana Carter

This run against the Cardinals is enigmatic of Carter’s entire career.

Carter’s production was tepid at best in 1996, as he finished with 91 carries for 264 yards and 8 touchdowns, an average of 2.9 yards per carry.

Right off the bat, the Bengals faltered, falling to 1-6, and mercifully, Dave Shula was fired.

Dave Shula 3

The official pose of Dave Shula’s coaching career.

The new man brought in was Bruce Coslet, and looking back, it’s a wonder he was even hired. Coslet coached the New York Jets from 1990-1993, finishing with a 26-38 record there. In 1994, he was hired by Cincinnati to be their offensive coordinator. Initially, however, Coslet’s tenure as the interim head coach was very promising. He went 7-2 in the final 9 games, bringing life into an offense that had only scored 30 or more points once in their 1-6 start (30 in their lone win against New Orleans).

Bruce Coslet

Bruce Coslet’s whiny demeanor and tendency to argue with officials made him unpopular among players and fans.

In 1997, the swan song for the Shake and Blake, the Bengals showed more life. Although Jeff Blake was cut after 8 games, old pro Boomer Esiason was brought in, a Bengals quarterback of the past. Esiason would take over the floundering 1-6 Bengals and lead them to a 7-9 finish, throwing 13 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions, working in tandem with rookie sensation running back Corey Dillon. In Week 4, Ki-Jana Carter once again was injured, tearing his rotator cuff and missing the rest of the season. Dillon proved to be the much better back, as he rushed for a then-rookie record 246 yards against the Tennessee Oilers in Week 15.

Corey Dillon

Corey Dillon in action against the Buccaneers.

In 1998, Neil O’Donnell was acquired in free agency from the New York Jets, and Dillon had another good year, rushing for 1,120 yards, and Ki-Jana Carter was hurt once again, missing the entire season after breaking his wrist in a game against the Oilers. The Bengals, however, suffer through another miserable 3-13 season. Their first round pick, Takeo Spikes, was a very solid linebacker, but he was out of Cincinnati by the end of the 2002 season.

1999 a cometh, the Bengals with the 3rd overall pick, and they made one of the worst picks in modern NFL history. Akili Smith was taken with their pick, who had only played for two seasons in college, one of which was largely unsuccessful. Smith, in short, had no idea how to play quarterback at the professional level. By drafting him, the Bengals passed on Edgerrin James, Brandon Stokley, Torry Holt and the immortal Ricky Williams. He scored a his Wonderlic test, and showed extremely low football IQ. The Bengals ignored these signs, and payed dearly.

Akili Smith

One of the best passes in Smith’s muddled and mercifully short career.

In Week 3 of the 1999 season, Ki-Jana “Candy Cane Bones” Carter was injured once again, dislocating his right kneecap in Week 3. At the end of the season, he was released. He would play out the remainder of his career with the Redskins and Saints before retiring in 2004.

Smith, meanwhile, was blundering through the first year of his 4-year career. He finished with career stats of 2,122 yards, 5 touchdowns and 13 interceptions with a 46.6% completion rate, going 3-14 as a starting QB. Because of the offensive troubles, the Bengals finished 1999 with a 4-12 record.

2000 started with yet another draft mistake, wide receiver Peter Warrick out of Florida State. Warrick was an average receiver with a penchant for turning the ball over, and his career was derailed by legal troubles.

Peter WArrick

Warrick most likely running away from both Jaguars defenders and the police in this picture.

After an 0-3 start in which the Bengals only scored 7 points, the embattled Bruce Coslet resigned, being replaced by Dick LeBeau. The now oft-teased “Bungles” finished 4-12.

Jon Kitna

Not even Jon Kitna took LeBeau seriously. He struggled to motivate players, communicate with them, or win, for that matter.

2001 proved to be an important year, as Cincinnati drafted Justin Smith, Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmanzadeh, and they would become very important pieces down the road. Nonetheless, a 6-10 finish was in store. Jon Kitna was now the regular starting quarterback, with Akili Smith occasionally coming out to embarrass himself.

2002 was Akili Smith’s last year, and also happens to be the worst year in franchise history. The stumbling Bengals finished with a 2-14 mark, earning their only two wins over Houston and New Orleans. However, in the 2003 draft, Carson Palmer was drafted, and a turnaround was near. Dick LeBeau was fired at the end of the season, and Marvin Lewis arrived.

2003 provided hope, as the Bengals finished at .500 for the first time since 1996. Going into the final two weeks at 8-6, the Bengals hoped to earn their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1990, but two losses to the Rams and 49ers ended the season on a sour note.

In 2004, Corey Dillon was traded to New England, and Cincinnati began to look towards the future, as newly acquired running back Rudi Johnson rushing for nearly 1,500 yards.

2005 arrived, and so did the Bengals’ first winning season in 15 years with an 11-5 mark. Although they received an early exit to the playoffs, it was a blessing for the long-suffering Bengals’ fans that had to endure the franchise’s “Decade of Darkness”.

In summary:

Dave Shula ruined the franchise with slapstick draft decisions along with terrible choices and signings.

Bruce Coslet didn’t do anything for the franchise except waste talent and make more incompetent draft selections.

Dick LeBeau milled around for a few years and drove the Bengals into the ground with a franchise worst season.

Everything was awful for the 90s Bengals, they were a national joke, and everything they did seemed to be wrong. But with an apparent Super Bowl contender emerging in Cincinnati now in 2014, Bengals fans can be rest-assured that there won’t be another time like the 90s anytime soon.

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3 thoughts on “The Worst Teams of All Time, Part 1: The Bengals of the 1990s

  1. You’ve got the start of the demise all wrong. Wyche was fired by Mike Brown, and Brown is the one who ran the franchise into the ground as the de facto GM after his legendary father passed away. Firing Wcyhe was the biggest mistake he made. Sam was allegedly let go because he wanted to have a say in the draft process, but Brown would have none of it. Look at Brown’s track record, while Wyche would go onto draft Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, and John Lynch for Tampa Bay. Otherwise, good article, and I’m sure glad the 90s are gone. That was a tough row to hoe as a fan!

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    1. Here’s what’s funny: At the end of the highlights for the 1991 Week 17 Cincy win over New England (on NFL Primetime), Tom Jackson thought that the Bengals would repeat what they did in 1988 and go back to the Super Bowl in 1992 (go to a SB after a bad year). However, he didn’t know that Wyche would be fired, leading to the lost era from 1992-02.

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