This might be a real hum-dinger for some, and I’m re-writing the 90’s Bengals article for two reasons: number one, it was the first post I ever wrote, so I wasn’t quite accustomed to writing public posts about sports yet. As a result, the whole thing was just a 2,000 word mess of dreary melancholy that I’m assuming most of you excused just for the content. Reason number two is that I don’t think I added enough to it, and there might have been a few holes in what needed to be said (a special thanks to Greg Price for commenting and pointing out a hole in both my research and my knowledge).
At the time of my writing (December 23rd, 2014), there’s only one week left to go in the NFL season, and the Bengals have just secured a playoff spot after drubbing the Broncos on Monday Night Football. With a 10-4-1 record, Cincinnati has a chance to win their division. They’ve made the playoffs several times, but it hasn’t always been this way.
After a successful run in the 1980’s in which the Bengals went to two Super Bowls, the 1990’s weren’t as kind to them. After a 9-7 record in 1990 thanks to a schedule where their opponents went 115-141 (90-135 if you deduct the 12-4 Raiders and 14-2 49ers) and a quick playoff exit, Cincinnati began 1991 with an 0-8 record, crash-landing to a 3-13 record under head coach Sam Wyche. Afterwards, Wyche resigned, and the Bengals did not make the playoffs again until 2005, enduring a 14-season stretch in which the Bengals won 71 games and lost 153.
The trouble for the franchise begins and almost ends with Wyche himself, who was let go after demanding a hand in the draft process. Wyche was denied this privilege and consequently left for Tampa Bay, leaving owner Mike Brown as the team’s general manager. It would kill Cincinnati in the long run, as Brown provided fans with almost comical decisions in the draft.
In 1991, the Bengals’ deficiencies that were masked in 1990 behind an easy schedule were painfully visible. Boomer Esiason struggled behind a terrible offensive line, as the 1988 NFL MVP threw for only 13 touchdowns all year. The pass defense was the biggest issue for the Bengals in 1991, as they gave up 7.586 yards-per-pass-attempt, the 9th worst in NFL history. The defense also gave up 30 or more points nine times. The Bengals started 0-8 before beating Cleveland, the Super Bowl-hungover Giants and the 6-10 Patriots.
After the season, change was needed. The Bengals decided to hire one of two coaches: the Dallas Cowboys’ wide receiver coach Dave Shula, or Bill Cowher. The vote from both the fans, and more importantly Mike Brown, was to go with Dave Shula, the son of Don, who would go on to be the winningest coach in NFL history. The idea was that maybe Don’s “Mini-Me” would have some of that winning magic rubbed off on him, and that the namesake might be able to instill some respect for the organization and net some W’s. What happened was the total opposite, as Bengals fans quickly learned that Dave Shula was out of his depth in just about every facet of head coaching. His aviator sunglasses were literally the best thing that came from his stint in Cincy.
Dave Shula is a prime example of why you shouldn’t use the phrase “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. Dave’s apple did indeed fall far from the tree that happened to be Don, as Dave’s apple rolled out into the street, was crushed by a truck, went rotten in the sun and then was picked at by vermin. A total embarrassment for the organization and the league, Dave’s career head coaching record and winning percentage (19-52 and an appalling .278%, respectively) speak for themselves. He lost 50 games faster than any head coach in history, with the 50th coming in Week 6 of 1996, coincidentally two games before he was fired. His high-water mark came in 1995 with a 7-9 record, a year where he actually faced his father, something he did twice in his career: both predictably ended in losses, with scores of 23-7 and 26-23.
Shula, along with Mike Brown, joined together to form the “Cincinnati Draft Incompetence Club“, a cool place where you go to hang out with guys who couldn’t make the right pick in a fantasy league and make very Jets-like decisions.
Shula’s first-ever first-round draft pick was used on a guy named David Klingler. Klingler was a product of the University of Houston, whose “Run ‘n Shoot” system had taken the NCAA by storm for a few years. Klingler was just awesome in 1990, throwing the ball 643 times for 5,140 yards and 54 touchdowns in an 11-game schedule. At one point, he threw for 6 touchdowns in a single quarter, and in the 1990 Coca-Cola Bowl in Tokyo, he threw for 716 yards and 11 touchdowns in a single game. In 1991, however, Klingler started 10 games but wasn’t nearly as good. He also got sacked a lot, but since the Bengals didn’t take a very close look at his game but fell in love with the mind-boggling numbers, they took a shot at him in the 1992 draft.
With the 6th overall pick, the Bengals selected Klingler. To the Bengals’ credit, they tried to have him grow behind Boomer Esiason and even Donald Hollas, who started a game. Klingler finally got his shot in Week 13 against a very good Pittsburgh defense, and his flaws stood out. Klingler threw for only 140 yards in the game to go along with no touchdowns and 10 sacks as Cincinnati lost 21-9 and their record dropped to 4-8. In four starts, Klingler only won once, threw for only 132.5 yards-per-game and was sacked 18 times. These four starts were really a macrocosm of his career.
In 33 games as a professional player, Klingler was sacked 83 times (which is actually less than Ryan Tannehill over that period of time), and amassed a starting quarterback record of 4-20. He was out of Cincinnati by 1994 after a catastrophic shoulder injury that essentially ended his career, throwing for 3,792 yards while he was there – 1,348 less than he did as a junior at Houston.
The Bengals in 1992 sort of had the opposite problem of the 1991 team: sure, the defense still wasn’t great, but passing for only 121.4 yards-per-game will smack you with a 5-11 record, which is exactly what happened. Although they started 2-0 and were predicted by NFL Primetime’s Chris Berman to make the playoffs in 1992 (along with the Buccaneers who also started 2-0), Cincinnati went 3-11 down the stretch and looked to 1993 for both a good sophomore campaign from Klingler and some better play.
In 1993, the Bengals spent their No.5 overall draft pick on defensive end John Copeland – a guy who would go on to have only 24 sacks in an eight-season long career. 1993 began with an 0-8 start, the second in three years. The Bengals’ offense struggled mightily in 1993, as the team scored only 3 rushing touchdowns all year and David Klingler continued to struggle, throwing 6 touchdown passes in 13 starts. Cincinnati scored only 187 points all year, and finished 3-13 for the second time in three years.
In 1994, the Bengals had the No.1 overall draft pick, so what did they do? Waste it, of course, on defensive tackle Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson. Wilkinson didn’t have the sort of emotional stability or maturity you’d expect out of an NFL player, and was more of a second-round talent than a first overall pick. He was out of Cincinnati like a shot after calling the city “racist”. Ironically, Cincinnati also chose Kimo von Oelhoffen in the 6th round, the guy who would go on to ruin their 2005 playoff game…playing with the Steelers.
The Bengals would again start 0-8 in 1994 as David Klingler lost all seven of his starts before he was traded to the Raiders. Cincinnati finished with a league-worst -130 point differential and somehow managed a -23 turnover differential. They finished 3-13 again, and for this, they received the No.1 overall draft pick (again) in 1995.
With this pick, the Bengals selected running back Ki-Jana Carter from Penn State. By drafting him, they passed on so much talent it’s not even funny.
The Bengals skimmed over:
- Tony Boselli
- Steve McNair
- Kerry Collins (even he would be better)
- Kevin Carter
- Joey Galloway
- J.J. Stokes
- Warren Sapp
- Hugh Douglas
- Ty Law
- Korey Stringer
- Derrick Brooks
- Kordell “Slash” Stewart
- William Henderson
- Curtis Martin
- Antonio Freeman
- Terrell Davis!
Almost immediately, Carter showed signs of what his career would be. He tore a ligament in his knee in training camp and missed his entire rookie season.
By this time, David Klingler was no longer a starter. The new guy, Jeff Blake, kick-started an era of Bengal football where the offense was known as the “Shake ‘n Blake”. This was Cincinnati’s most successful stretch of the 1990’s, which isn’t saying much considering the Bengals never rose above .500. In 1995, Blake had a career year, throwing for 28 touchdowns and 3,822 yards but only won 7 of 16 starts.
However, Jeff Blake really wasn’t a starting quarterback. He was more of a ‘Kyle Orton, Brian Hoyer’ kind of guy: someone who can come in and play well for a while, but not for sixteen games. He wasn’t a consistent player, and was terrible in clutch situations.
So, thanks to Blake’s “sizzle-then-fizzle” style and the absence of an impact running back (something they wanted in Ki-Jana Carter), the Bengals struggled and in Weeks 11-17 won and lost games on a week-to-week basis.
In 1996, Ki-Jana Carter was back, but his production would make Toby Gerhart blush: Carter carried the ball 91 times for only 264 yards, a 2.9 yards-per-carry average. Immediately, the Bengals hit a wall, falling to 1-6, and Dave Shula was finally let go.
The official pose of Dave Shula’s coaching career.
The new guy to be brought in and try to save a 1-6 season was Bruce Coslet, and I’d really love to hear the reasoning behind his hiring. In four seasons with the Jets, Coslet went 26-38 with Gang Green. During Shula’s 1-6 reign of terror, Coslet served as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator. Initially, however, Coslet did a really good job, revitalizing a down-and-out team to go 7-2 down the home stretch of the season.
Although Coslet supplied some life to the 1996 Bengals, their defense let them down. Cincinnati’s offense didn’t have huge numbers, but they were efficient and avoided turnovers. The defense, however, forced them into losses and a point differential of a field goal. 1996 happened to be their most successful season from 1991-2004, as the Bengals reached 8-8.
1997 served as the final season for the Shake ‘n Blake offense. After a 3-8 start to 1997, Blake was benched, and the offense became the “Shake ‘n Boomer”, as 36-year old Boomer Esiason was signed. In the final five starts of his NFL career, Esiason went 4-1, throwing 13 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. This couldn’t save the season, however, as the Bengals suffered through another lukewarm 7-9 season. In Week 4 of the 1997 season, Ki-Jana Carter was injured again, tearing his rotator cuff and missing the rest of the season. Corey Dillon, a rookie, came in and played very well. That might be an understatement, as Dillon came in and set the rookie single-game rushing record (that has since been broken) with 246 yards against the Tennessee Oilers.
In 1998, quarterback Neil O’Donnell was signed after chucking two hideous interceptions in Super Bowl XXX and two unproductive seasons with the Jets. Despite a good season from O’Donnell (15 TD, 4 INT, 61.8% completion rate, 90.2 rating), Cincinnati ranked third-to-last in scoring and last in points given up. Their point differential was worst in the league, and O’Donnell’s starter record also stood at 2-9 as the Bengals finished with their fourth 3-13 record of the decade. Corey Dillon remained the lone bright spot, rushing for 1,120 yards. This is because Ki-Jana Carter hurt himself again, missing his entire season after breaking his wrist against the Oilers. To make matters worse, The Bengals’ first round draft pick, linebacker Takeo Spikes, was out of Cincinnati by 2002.
After the awful season, Neil O’Donnell was kicked to the curb in favor of the Bengals’ new darling: No.3 overall draft pick Akili Smith, a quarterback from the University of Oregon. It was really unbelievable why the Bengals even considered drafting him. Smith only had one successful year at Oregon, his senior year, and also showed legendarily low football IQ: he scored a 9 out of 50 on his Wonderlic test, whereas the average Janitor scores 14. The average quarterback scores 24, while the absolute lowest you want to go before you draft a quarterback is 21. In the process of drafting Smith, the Bengals passed on Edgerrin James, Brandon Stokley, Torry Holt and even Ricky Williams.
The Bengals started the 1999 season 1-10 as the offense struggled greatly thanks to the terrible play of Smith and Ki-Jana “Pencil Bones” Carter’s injuries – he was hurt again, dislocating his right kneecap in Week 3. He was released after the end of the season, and played out the rest of his career with the Redskins and Saints.
Akili Smith, in his first year, started four games in 1999. In these four starts, Smith threw for 805 yards, only 2 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He also took 19 sacks, somehow. It’s a mystery to everyone. The ’99 Bengals ranked seventh-to-last in scoring and last in points given up. Cincinnati finished 4-12.
In short, Akili Smith just did not know how to play quarterback at the professional level. He didn’t have the arm, the accuracy, the vision, good decision-making skills, the ability to read defenses or really intelligence in general. Smith didn’t throw a touchdown pass after 2000, was sacked 59 times in 17 career starts and fumbled 19 times, bringing his career turnover total to 32. Absolutely horrendous for No.3 overall draft choice.
2000 provided Cincy fans with another draft blunder: No.4 overall pick wide receiver Peter Warrick, an okay receiver who turned the ball over too much and all too often got into hot water with the law.
Right before the draft, Warrick and a Florida State buddy went out and bought almost $420 worth of clothes at Dillard’s for only $21.40 – a discout that is so big that it’s considered SHOPLIFTING under Florida law, and then was arrested for grand theft. How do you even do that? Don’t you realize you can get locked up?
After the 2004 season, Warrick was released for the Bengals after a bunch of underwhelming seasons and his infamous punt return gaffe against Indianapolis in 2002.
In 2000, the Bengals scored only 185 points, a stat that ranked next-to-last in the league. One stat really stands out: 6 touchdown passes. I’m not talking about two or three games, or even one, I’m talking about 16. Sixteen whole games; only 6 touchdown passes. Three were provided by Akili Smith, the other three were provided by Scott Mitchell. That’s just awful.
What might be even worse is the Bengals through their first three games. After a 24-7 beating at the hands of the Browns, the Bengals were shut out in two consecutive games – once against Jacksonville, and once against Baltimore, with the latter performance matched with only 94 offensive yards and 7 first downs. After the Baltimore embarrassment, Bruce Coslet resigned. He amassed a 21-39 record as a head coach in Cincinnati. In short, Coslet was just a bad coach who whined too much and couldn’t get through to his players or make good draft choices. He couldn’t design a game plan, or really anything, it was just a mess.
In 2000, the Bengals -14 turnover differential and paltry offense sunk them to another 4-12 season.
2001 proved to be an important year for the franchise. Under new head coach Dick LeBeau, the “Bungles” drafted Justin Smith, Chad Johnson and Chad Houshmandzadeh. Jon Kitna, the new quarterback acquired from the Seahawks, replaced Akili Smith as the team’s starter. Although he was better (not by much), and Corey Dillon rushed for 1,315 yards, the Bengals scored the fewest points in the NFL with 226 (14.1 per game). Although I said Jon Kitna was “better”, a 12 touchdown – 22 interception ratio doesn’t raise any eyebrows.
After 2002, Akili Smith was released, and what a way to go out with a whimper. In 2002, the Bengals served up the worst season in franchise history with a 2-14 record after starting 1-13. Cincinnati scored only 17 points per game and ranked last in the league in points given up, despite being coached by the defensive-minded Dick LeBeau. The team’s turnover differential stood at -15, and the defense allowed 30 touchdown passes to forcing only 9 interceptions. Cincinnati stopped themselves on fourth down inside their opponents’ 10-yard line on what would have been the game winning score: in Week 8 against Tennessee and in Week 11 against Cleveland. Cincy also ranked 31st in the league in turnovers forced. For this, the Bengals earned the first pick in the 2003 draft and a reason to fire Dick LeBeau: they did just that.
In 2003, the Bengals took Carson Palmer with the No.1 overall pick, and along with Marvin Lewis, they turned the Bengals around. Starting 7-5, the Bengals had a very good shot to make the playoffs, and with an 8-6 record going into the final two weeks, Cincinnati needed a win to secure a playoff berth. They didn’t find one, orchestrating a Dolphin-style choke to close out yet another season without entering the playoffs.
2004 was the year Carson Palmer really started to come into his own, and along with running back Rudi Johnson rising up thanks to the trading of Corey Dillon to New England, the offense played well, most notably in a 58-48 shootout win over the Browns. However, the defense couldn’t really catch up, and when Carson Palmer sprained his knee against the Patriots, the Bengals fell to 8-8.
2005 was the year Cincinnati finally turned the corner. The sun came out. The offense scored 421 points, the Bengals finished 11-5, and they won the AFC North. However, in the playoffs against the Steelers, Carson Palmer suffered a cheap shot from former Bengal Kimo von Oelhoffen to the knee – an injury he’s never really recovered from. The Bengals lost that game, along with every playoff game they’ve been in since 1990. However, all was forgiven by ‘Who Dat Nation’ thanks to the sudden success that came from a terrible 14-year stretch of god-awful futility, a team that spent fifteen seasons just trying to get up to their knees off the mat, one that was occasionally billed as “worse than expansion” and “the Bungles”. In 2005, the day came, and according to anyone in Cincinnati, it was beautiful.