Ritz and I have suffered as Cincy sports fans together since our days as social/intellectual juggernauts at The College of Wooster, so when he asked for a topic, I immediately thought "Bengals".
As the Bungles stumble their way toward another side-door entry into this year's NFL playoff party, it seemed fitting to examine whether reason for hope exists. Or if, as has been the trend since Operation Desert Storm, these pussy-ass cats would continue to lose and lose and pathetically lose.
Just as I knew he would, Ritz gave it some serious thought and came back with the answer.
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When Reed asked me to organize my thoughts on what it would take for the Bengals to win a playoff game, I paused to contemplate the magnitude of that request. I paused because we as Bengals fans seem to have recently forgotten the historic futility of this team. When WAS the last time the Bengals won a playoff game???
Bandwagoners (and myself, admittedly), emphatically point to the fact that the team has made the playoffs two out of the last three years – and now is realistically on the way to sneaking into three of four – as evidence they’re not that bad; however, I had to consult Google to confirm what I’d feared. The last time the Cincinnati Bengals actually won a playoff game was January 6, 1991.
A lot has happened since the start of 1991. I won’t try to cheesily put it in a historical world events perspective, but I know that seven-year old me thought that sports fandom was always supposed to be this easy. The underdog Reds were coming off a convincing World Series sweep of the juicing juggernauts from Oakland, and the Bengals were only two years removed from fourth quarter heartbreak at the hands of a now-legendary Montana/Rice San Francisco team. Those days, we figured we were one more Bay-area earthquake away from Cincinnati being the center of the sports universe.
How was my innocent young self to have known the Sisyphean frustration that would follow me these last 20+ years?
So many what ifs.
What if Mike Brown hires a scouting department to insist he give Jeff Blake some O-line protection to throw those beautiful deep balls to Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott? What if Brown takes Ditka’s Saints up on the offer of a whole year’s worth of draft picks to trade up to number 3? (A number 3, who we Bengals fans remember all too well, was promptly spent on used-car-sales-hall-of-famer Akili Smith. The next three picks? Edgerrin James, Ricky Williams, Torry Holt. Maybe you’ve heard of them.)
What if Carson Palmer’s knee has a weaker Kimo von Oelhoffen magnet? What if Chris Henry doesn’t break his arm on that crossing route and subsequently gets to spend the rest of the fall bonding with his teammates instead of chasing pickup trucks? (Too soon? RIP.)
When people are feeling full of wisdom, they’ll lament that you can’t change the past. Some people, feeling even deeper and wiser, will tell you the past is the only thing you can change. Unfortunately, this more enlightened latter angle doesn’t extend to results of sporting events. You can laud the Wicked Witch’s good intentions; you can revise the motives behind any number of historical evils that have been committed; you can convince yourself of your faultless, impeccable past relationship behavior. But you can’t undo the fact that, not long ago, we had to talk ourselves into Jon Kitna saving the day.
And it ended how we expected it would.
So what would it take for the Bengals to win not even a Super Bowl, but just a playoff game? Seeing as though I was seven years old when they last won a playoff game, I figured I should put myself in an early-90’s, childish mindset to answer this question.
I won’t pretend I remember everything about myself in elementary school. I wore sweatpants just about every day. I was obsessed with my Reds and my Bengals. I was way into He-Man, Ninja Turtles, and Super Mario. And I read a lot of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. They were great. If you accidentally walked into the cave and got eaten by a bear, you could flip back to the last choice you made and do the other thing. Maybe opening Door Number Two results in slaying the dragon and getting the princess.
When you’re a kid, this seems slightly plausible, if not completely realistic.
Early 90’s Me had other influences pushing this alternate revisionist narrative on me as well. You’ll all fondly remember the classic Wayne’s World gimmick of sad ending/other ending/happy ending. Of course! Why shouldn’t a movie have three endings? (This is the part where I link to Youtube clips and we all get a laugh about how great Wayne’s World was. None of the links for the endings seems to be working. Thanks, copyright Nazis. Oh well, at least there’s this.)
Probably less well-known, but an interesting different example of re-doing endings until you get it right, is Harry Chapin’s song “30,000 Pounds of Bananas”. (Aside: whatever you think you know about Harry Chapin being a one-hit wonder is your loss. Great storyteller.) This song had everything a young kid could hope for in a song: frantic tempo changes, guys saying the word “bananas” in funny voices… and that’s about it.
Oh, and multiple endings.
If you’re unfamiliar with the song, it’s based on the true story of a truck driver who lost control of his truck going down a hill into Scranton, Pennsylvania, and flipped, killing himself and spilling his load of bananas all over the road. The song downplays the tragic nature of the accident, of course, choosing to focus on the imagery of a truck (and consequently the song) picking up speed and mashing bananas in the street, which was a fun little story for the young son of former Harry Chapin groupies.
Performing live, Harry would walk the audience through his writing process. He’d play each ending that he’d written before he was ultimately told by a friend or family member, “Harry, it sucks.” Then he’d talk about his rationale behind the next ending he wrote, before that one ended up sucking too. Eventually though, however many endings it took the song to wrap up, he told you what you wanted to hear – a silly story about smashed bananas and not much about a tragic truck wreck. With the opportunity to re-write his endings, he could change the past, but without changing the past.
Young me loved this song, although obviously not as much as I did learning every pointless stat of everybody on the Reds’ roster, obsessively organizing my collections of baseball and football cards, and watching the Bengals. Of course back then I didn’t know many of the ins and outs of football. I didn’t even know who Mike Brown was, so I wouldn’t have known that he took control of the Bengals after his father’s death, let alone the significance of that inheritance.
These past twenty-some years of Bengals futility are sort of like the runaway truck and the subsequent writing of the song. You can focus on the positives, like “a lot more people could have died,” or “the team isn’t finishing 3-13 every year now.” You can change the narrative from a story about a fatal accident to a crowd-pleaser about mashed bananas; or from a story about a bad team to stories about young guys making the Pro-Bowl, or about people like Adam “Pacman” Jones turning their lives around and being a positive influence on younger players and their community.
But this is where the fiction parts from the reality. Whereas Wayne and Garth were able to re-choose their own adventures, Harry Chapin’s work of “fiction” was only able to shift the focus of his narrative. The truck still flipped; Bengals fans can’t bring back the near-magic of the 2005 season. We don’t get a do-over on trades missed, bad free-agents signed, and receivers overthrown. As Eminem recently reminded us, "You don't get a second chance; life is no Nintendo game." We can only gloss over the fact that Mike Brown will always be driving our runaway truck, wonder what if, and look ahead to next year.
As much as we like to cheer-lead and talk each other up about this being the year, it won’t be, just as it hasn’t been since Boomer Esiason was a spring chicken. Best case, this year’s team sneaks into the playoffs and then goes into New England or Denver in the first round and gets carved up by a future hall of fame quarterback. Whether it’s Brady or Manning, he’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder for not having a first round bye, and will take that out on our boys in stripes. We can ask “what if” about those awful losses to the Dolphins or the Browns or the Cowboys (or God forbid, the Steelers or Ravens), but the fifth and sixth seeded teams in the playoffs this year will run into a buzzsaw. This is preordained, and our runaway frustration has no brakes.
We can watch film and point fingers afterwards, but the players can’t go back and undo the mistakes they made on the field that led to another disappointing first round exit. There are no opportunities to retry Door Number Two. All they can do is wait until next fall for their next opportunity to start pushing that boulder up the hill again. Towards the top of that hill is another 9-7 record, and maybe another wildcard berth before that big Brown boulder barrels back down the hill, smashing tons of bananas and our hopes yet again. Then the cycle repeats itself.
So what will it take for the Bengals to win a single playoff game? After some serious soul-searching, I really don’t believe it’s possible.
Then again, I did read somewhere about this thing called a reverse-jinx…
JOURNEYMEN Guest Writer and Chief Music Historian
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