Welcome Back: Lewis Leads Bengals To First Postseason Since 1990

By Paul Daugherty
Updated: December 19, 2005

Rudy Johnson

Rudy Johnson

DETROIT – You bought the seat license and the Akili Smith jersey. You bought into the notion that a new stadium would change things. You came back, week after year after Lost Decade. After quarterback failures – David Klingler and Jay Schroeder and Jeff Blake and Neil O’Donnell. And Scott Mitchell, Gus Frerotte and Akili Smith. After 3-13 became a way of life, you came back.

What kept you coming back?

After coaching failures – Dave Shula and Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau. After draft busts – Ki-Jana Carter and “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson – and ridiculous years turned meaningless by Halloween, celebrated at the stadium weekly, a bag on your head.

You could have left. Instead, you kept waiting for team owner Mike Brown to set you free.

It seemed he never would. Until he did.

This is for you. You know who you are.

Anybody so blindly loyal deserves what he gets. That belief had a different meaning Sunday than it does today. Celebrate the difference.

This morning, no group of sports fans understands suffering or appreciates success more than you. We can’t know pleasure until we know pain. You were experts at pain. It was overrated. Allow yourselves some pleasure today. It’s what kept you coming back.

The Bengals are in the playoffs now, officially, for the first time in 15 years. They beat the Detroit Lions on Sunday, 41-17. How ironic Cincinnati would clinch against the Lions, a team every bit as inept as Cincinnati used to be. The 2005 Lions looked so much like the 1994 Bengals, I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t time traveling.

It was like looking into someone else’s bad dream, and nodding in sympathy.

I hear you, brother. There but for the grace of Marvin …

Fifteen years is enough. Too much, really, in the socialist NFL, where every team plays with the same pile of chips and bad teams are awarded high draft picks and easy schedules. We won’t dwell on the impossibly bad past, except to say it makes today’s wine taste all the sweeter.

It’s for you. Of course, it’s for coach Marvin Lewis and wide receiver Chad Johnson and quarterback Carson Palmer, too, for offensive linemen Willie Anderson and Rich Braham and linebacker Brian Simmons. It’s for Jim Anderson. Is it ever. Twenty-two years coaching the Bengals running backs, coach of James Brooks and Ickey Woods in 1988, of Derrick Fenner and Harold Green and Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson.

Anderson, a very good coach and a humble man, knows about pain and pleasure.

“It tests your character” he said. “You’re just grateful you’re around to help put the pieces back together. It is a little more gratifying this time (because of) everything you go through as an individual.”

What about you? Rooting for a team isn’t like anything else. We don’t root for the cars we drive or the houses we own. We don’t sit around watching the Financial News Network, going nuts every time P&G’s stock adds a point.

We might enjoy a vacation or a movie or a sunset, but not with the same sort of passion we invest in our sports teams. They don’t hit us where we live. We take no pride in that family trip to Gatlinburg. What happened here Sunday was more than simply a joyous afternoon. It rang with the power only faith provides.

Not to ambush the metaphor. But only sports provokes the sort of elation the Bengals and their fans feel today. Especially after 15 years of everything but.

“Richie and Willie had the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen,” noted Palmer. “You don’t realize how sweet it is. Then you look at guys like Willie and Richie.”

Willie Anderson, the right tackle, has been a Bengal for a decade; Braham, the center, has him by a year. Today, they know what you know.

“Nobody thought you could take trash and turn it into a flower,” was what Anderson said about that. Braham was more direct: “I stayed around the last three or four years for this.”

The Bengals did what they had to do against a lousy and demoralized Detroit club. Lions fans came to Ford Field mainly to boo their team and yell for the ouster of club president and CEO Matt Millen. As a result, the atmosphere surrounding the Bengals’ best achievement since 1990 was as dead as the Model T.

“You had to generate your own enthusiasm,” said receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The environment was so strange, not even the showman Chad Johnson knew how to deal with it. After he scored on a 1-yard pass in the first quarter, Johnson stood in the corner of the end zone, looked at Houshmandzadeh and said, “What do I do?” Johnson simply put the ball down. If you live long enough, you’ll see just about everything.

Even this: Cincinnati Bengals. AFC North champions.

To all who kept coming back: Savor the day. You’ve earned it.