Before the final game of the 1988 regular season, Sam Wyche stood on the Astroturf of Riverfront Stadium watching his players warm up. It had been a terrific year for Wyche after the train wreck the season prior. The Bengals had begun 1988 with a 6-0 start and now a division championship and home field advantage through the playoffs was at stake. The only thing that stood before them was the World Champion Washington Redskins.
“This one’s the most important one of my career right here,” he said to someone standing nearby, then added, “because if we win I think we have a team that could do it.”
Now, we know what that it was and how close—34 seconds—they came from doing it. But before Miami and the Super Bowl, before Stanley Wilson’s irreversible criminal act and Tim Krumrie’s fall, before the brief optimism followed by unmitigated heartbreak, there was this game. More than any other win that year, this one defined this team and this season.
Those Bengals easily might have lost, letting the fortunes of others determine their rank in the playoffs. But instead they played as they had all year. Trailing in the fourth quarter, Boomer Esiason did what Boomer always did—faked a handoff and found Eddie Brown streaking down the middle for the game-tying score. The defense stripped Doug Williams in overtime, letting Jim Breech win the game with a field goal. For those of us for whom the Bengals in the playoffs was more than mere myth but an actual fact, it remains a seminal point in team history, one that will never recede from memory.
I bring this up now only because we’ve had some distance from what happened against Houston—a game Marvin Lewis himself had deemed the biggest of his career. That game in many ways defined his tenure with the Bengals—a strong start followed by an inexplicable, unimaginable collapse. If that was the truest, most important test of his abilities he failed…badly.
But given a second chance, Lewis can now make things right. While many, including Dave Lapham, have suggested that one could still consider this season a success should the Bengals not reach the playoffs, it’s hard to see losing five of your last seven games as a kind of gateway to a glittering future. Dalton has been superb in stretches. A.J. Green might be the best rookie wide receiver since Randy Moss. The defense has pummeled opponents. But all of this has come in incremental spurts. They’ve yet to define, truly define, what kind of team they actually are and will be.
Indeed, the thread of unkept promise—the story of youth and of sport—has been the central narrative point throughout Lewis’s tenure from 2003 to 2010. But things, he said, with his reappointment before this season, were supposed to be different. His teams would play without internal and external distractions (Read: The TOCHO Show), with the urgency and consistency that defines the best NFL teams. Instead, we’ve seen the team change its tempo and demeanor, its poise and intelligence from quarter-to-quarter with the flickering glow of a candle from one of the lower rooms on Downton Abbey.
And now comes Sunday—the last game of the season and truly the biggest game of Lewis’s life as a head coach. With it come the Ravens, whom despite, for lack of better adjectives, being strong and mean, have struggled over the years at Paul Brown Stadium. Before a full stadium, these Bengals will have a chance to do what was once unthinkable—play for a spot in the playoffs.
In no way is this a team that can do it. But Sunday will prove whether Lewis is the right man to lead a team that actually can.