Let’s get this out of the way: I was in the bathroom. For whatever reason—O.K., there was an urgent, pressing reason—I got up from the table I share with my Bengals gameday companions Erik and Nisha just before Bruce Gradkowski, once a Bengals killer, and now the Bengals’ backup quarterback, hit A.J. Green for a 41-yard touchdown with the team facing a third down with 12 yards to go. I didn’t see Green’s professional coming out party, just as I didn’t experience the sudden, heightened sense of belief in everything Marvin Lewis had spoken about during the preseason. I didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, allow myself to believe that this play would jumpstart the season, if not the franchise. But, then again, I didn’t see it in live action.
Those who did can hopefully say, “This was the moment I knew…” And while many, including the most Bengals-scarred observers, have characterized this game as the launching pad for a new era, I’ve spent the last day or so thinking of someone I’d very much like to forget: Akili Smith. Yes, that Akili Smith. The quarterback Mike Brown drafted third overall in the 1999 draft instead of trading the pick to the New Orleans Saints who might have thrown in the Superdome as well as their entire draft board in order to secure the rights to take running back Ricky Williams. The Akili Smith who still stands as the living, breathing avatar of every mismanaged, botched, and otherwise ill-conceived decision the team made during the 1990s. The man who started and lost the first game at Paul Brown Stadium, and afterwards was found at his locker crying. The player who described his tenure with the team, as most Bengals fans would, as “hell.”
Yes, him. To be a Bengals fan (at least one like me, with a vivid memory of the past two decades of ineptitude), one takes high points where he can find them. And for me, one that stands out is another day in Cleveland, in 1999, as two potential “franchise quarterbacks”—Smith and Tim Couch—faced each other for the first time. Even before they were drafted, the pair had appeared on a cover of Sports Illustrated that still makes folks in Cleveland cringe, that makes me cringe. The magazine said that the reborn Browns had the chance to draft either quarterback and anoint him as the savior for the “new” Browns after Art Modell sold out the city and his soul when he moved the first version of the franchise to Baltimore. Not featured was the player the Eagles would pick between the two—Donovan McNabb.
With the Bengals beginning 0-4, then-head coach Bruce Coslet tapped Smith to make his first professional start on October 10 against the Browns, the team he felt slighted him when it took Couch first. In the final two minutes, Smith drove the Bengals eighty yards. With each first down, he implored the crowd to get louder, to make things harder so he could show them what they had missed out on. That alone should have signaled a gross immaturity and lack of football acumen on Smith’s part. But when he hit Carl Pickens for the game-winning score, he looked as if he was Boomer or Kenny or even maybe Greg Cook reborn.
“That was the highest point of all,” Smith later told the Enquirer.
Perhaps this is a way of saying Game 1 of the 2011 season was just that: Game 1. We know little about how A.J. or Andy Dalton—who was injured near the end of the first half—will emerge, just as we had no idea that Smith’s prolific beginning would give way to a frustrating, futile career. Nor do we know how Jay Gruden’s West Coast offense, which seems eerily similar to the one many fans complained about being “too boring” when the team won the AFC North in 2009, will work with Dalton playing a full game against, say, the Ravens or Steelers.
Make no mistake: I take little joy in being Ben Bergin’s grouchy counterpart in this blog, the Bert to his Ernie. (Please, save the domestic partnership jokes. I would never have him. He’s too British.) I would like to believe his prediction, and not my own, to see the Bengals win 10 games rather than crawling and tugging their way through an awfully weak schedule to reach even six. Please Bengals, let me stop looking back but forward. Please, prove me wrong. When I look back on this season, I’d very much like to admit that the precise moment this team put the NFL on notice, I was in the John.