There is a stigma attached to the Cincinnati Bengals, one that is equal parts ancestry and recent history.
The Bengals are choke artists. Frauds. They shrink in big moments, crumble under heightened expectations, collapse like a coffee table under the weight of Matt Foley. The Bungles, same old Bengals, etc. It’s a sentiment ingrained in the fan base, no doubt, the pit in the stomach of Bengals faithful that opens at the first sign of trouble, the monkey’s paw that keeps returning to haunt the franchise, again and again.
But it’s also very much a perception created and perpetuated by those at large: the non-native football-watching public, the media, the commentators and prognosticators. To fans, “same old Bengals” is a feeling of dread, helplessness, an inescapable past. For others, it’s merely a justification for dismissal, a self-fulfilling prophecy come home to roost, a smug and disparaging wave of the hand.
And there are plenty of reasons for this. The Bengals have done very little to combat the notion, from the 25 years without a playoff victory, to the team’s recent (and well-documented) failings in primetime and postseason play. It’s unfair to expect the prevailing opinion about this team to be any different. For the most part, when the eyes of our football-crazed nation have been on them, the Bengals have wilted in dramatic and resounding fashion.
Which brings us to Sunday’s contest against the Seattle Seahawks. It wasn’t a primetime or playoff matchup, but it was a high profile game against a quality opponent, and with a public that was tuning in to see if the 4-0 Bengals were, in fact, for real. And when the team quickly fell behind 24-7 in the third quarter, the narrative was set. It didn’t matter that the game had abruptly swung on, essentially, two plays—a long touchdown run by Seattle’s Thomas Rawls and a fumble by Cincinnati’s Rex Burkhead that the Seahawks scooped up and returned for a score. It didn’t matter that Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis, the two faces of the franchise’s assumed ineptitude, weren’t much to blame for the deficit. It didn’t matter that the Seahawks were roundly viewed as a strong opponent, or that there was still a quarter-and-a-half left to play, or that even with a loss, the Bengals would remain in first place in the AFC North. The verdict was already in.
Overheard in the NBC viewing room: “S.O.B. Same old Bengals.”
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 11, 2015
Seattle making a statement today… as is Cincinnati.
— trey wingo (@wingoz) October 11, 2015
Violated one of my primary Sunday Football Pool principles today by thinking the Bengals and Falcons were for real. So far, VERY STUPID! — Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) October 11, 2015
BTW, the Falcons ended up winning, too.
Hands up, if, like me, you picked Cincinnati this week like the fool you are.
— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) October 11, 2015
Reality hitting the Bengals hard. Now down 24-7 and once again, there’s never a reason to fully trust this team. At home. Favored. Frauds? — Jason McIntyre (@jasonrmcintyre) October 11, 2015
(And those are comments from the so-called “experts.” A quick Twitter search reveals plenty more fans, of both the Bengals and non-Bengals varieties, echoing the same thing.)
The re-posting of these snide, hasty, ultimately premature and hilariously stupid statements is not meant to shame their sources. (Ok, fine, maybe a little.) It simply highlights exactly what this Bengals squad—and the organization in general—is up against. The judgment of this team is seeping with doubt and skepticism, and that will continue to be the case until they show up for a playoff game. Each win and impressive performance only serves to stave off the broader uncertainty for another week. Even after the incredible come-from-behind overtime victory—aided by science, no less—football writers everywhere couldn’t help but work the term “same old (or Ol’) Bengals” into their accounts, the curse that lingers even in triumph.
Again, this not unreasonable. The Bengals are well aware of the perception they are up against—and at least for their part, don’t seem satisfied with a 5-0 start, either. They understand, Dalton and Lewis foremost among them, that postseason success is the only way to alter their preexisting assessment.
The Bengals are simultaneously battling the past and the present, a struggle that in some ways is unique to them in the current NFL landscape. That’s a tough fight to win, too. But at least it makes for a good narrative.
Justin Williams is an associate editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @Williams_Justin.