The Cincinnati Bengals: A Lost Generation

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The Cincinnati Bengals: A Lost Generation
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

When your favorite team has only mustered one winning season in 18 years, it's sometimes hard to remember why they're your favorite team to begin with.

Often in sports, fans are not made, they are born. My love for the Cincinnati Bengals is no different.

Born in 1975, my earliest memories of Bengals’ football were positive.

During my first five years, my sports passion was dominated by the Cincinnati Reds and baseball. It’s hard to find a picture of me from that time when I wasn't wearing something with Reds on it.

As a new decade began, though, the Big Red Machine would stall and Cincinnati’s other professional sports team would steal the spotlight. The Bengals were no longer the city’s sleeping lions.

The 1981 season captivated me like never before. It started when the team broke out its new orange helmets with black tiger stripes, scrapping the boring Bengals’ text script format they had worn for years.

Coming off a 6-10 campaign a year earlier, the Bengals raced out to a 6-0 start that season on their way to winning the AFC Central with a 12-4 record.

There were so many things I can remember from then, even though I was only 6 years old.

By time November hit, the Bengals owned the city. A new chant started down at Riverfront Stadium and quickly spread to the playgrounds and across network television, “Who Dey think is gonna beat Dem Bengals? Nobody.”

I will never forget chopping firewood with my dad and listening to Phil Samp on 55WKRC as Louis Breeden returned a Dan Fouts’ interception 102 yards for a touchdown, a then-NFL record.

The Hu-Dey Beer distributed by Hudepohl, a local brewery, after the team made the playoffs that season became an instant classic and a staple of every basement sports bar in the city.

The highlight of that season was undoubtedly the franchise’s first-ever appearance in the Super Bowl. My 7th birthday party the day before had a Bengals theme. It would be my best birthday party ever and still gets talked about amongst my buddies today.

They lost to the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI, 26-21. Yet they were the champions in my mind.

At this point, I was hooked. I didn’t realize or appreciate the accomplishment. I thought it would be like that all the time.

The team didn’t do much to dispel that impression at first. They went 7-2 the next year before a players' strike shortened the season.

Once the dust settled, the Bengals would make the playoffs, only to lose to the Jets as Freeman McNeil ran for what seemed like 500 yards at the time (22 carries for 211 yards), breaking my heart.

The team wasn’t great the next few seasons, but it offered enough hope to keep me interested.

I lived for Bengals’ football. I couldn’t wait until training camp started each year. We would often make the journey to Wilmington College and watch the team prepare for the season.

In 1988, the Bengals would turn out another 12-4 record on their way to Super Bowl XXIII, their second trip to the big game in seven years.

Of course, Joe Montana would make me cry for the second time in my childhood as he led the 49ers to a last-minute comeback. It wouldn’t kill my enthusiasm, though.

Boomer Esiason was a blonde Jesus in my eyes. The Ickey Shuffle was the coolest thing I had ever seen.

That season was fuel to my fire. It reignited the passion that had been instilled in me as a young child. Now a teenager, my knowledge and appreciation of the game had reached new heights.

The following year, the Bengals would miss out on the playoffs altogether. The Vikings ruined my Christmas when they beat the Bengals in the regular-season finale on a holiday edition of Monday Night Football.

The team would return to the playoffs again in 1990, losing to the Raiders. It would mark the last time they would play in the postseason for 15 years.

Over the next decade, the Bengals became known as the "Bungles." They were awful.

Team founder Paul Brown died and his son, Mike, would take over the reigns of the team. His long history of poor personnel decisions would haunt the organization for years to come.

During the first 14 years of the Mike Brown era, the Bengals stumbled to a dismal 71-153 record (.317 winning percentage).

Being a Bengals’ fan went from being fun and enjoyable to being a curse. The team would come up with ways to lose you could never imagine.

They left Mel Kiper scratching his head on draft day. Every player’s highlight reel would seemingly always come against the Bengals. My team had gone from a Super Bowl contender to a late-night show punchline.

Having moved away from home for college and shortly thereafter, I would always become the punching bag for all my new friends in the new cities. They were always baffled by how I supported such a pathetic team.

The answer was simple. I grew up enjoying them. My childhood was shaped by those orange and black stripes and having my blood boil every time I heard Guns-N-Rose’s “Welcome to the Jungle” on the radio.

The real question is how do the Bengals have any fans younger than me?

I have nephews and nieces who were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The only Bengals football they know has been bad. Twenty years of mediocrity is a long time.

They remember Big Daddy Dan Wilkinson and Ki-Jana Carter. They were there when the team turned down all of the Saints’ draft picks so they could take their next franchise quarterback, Akili Smith.

They watched as Carl Pickens left the field flipping off the fans and listened as Corey Dillon said he “would rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals”. They will never forget the 2-14 season of 2002.

The Bengals missed out on many fans from that generation. They root for the Cowboys, or whatever other bandwagon team that gets hot.

They’ve jumped to the Colts because they are only two hours way. Some have even rebelled altogether and become Browns or Steelers fans. Regardless, they are not Bengals fans.

Some of those fans have been saved by Marvin Lewis’ arrival to the team. The division championship team in 2005 brought many that fled back to Bengaldom, but if their roots aren’t deep, they won’t stay long.

Everybody loves a winner and when you only have two winning seasons in your last 18 tries, it’s hard to keep fans’ interest. Consistent success will be required to keep creating the new fans who will one day become season-ticket holders.

If the Bengals are going to thrive in their market for years to come, they have to engage their youth and reward their faithful by putting winning teams on the field.

Hopefully Carson Palmer will do for some other young boy what Ken Anderson and Esiason did for me and lead the Bengals back to the Super Bowl. It will spark enough passion to last a lifetime.

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