It’s that time of year again. Fans from around the nation will be glued to their TV, computer, tablet, and phone screens soaking in the first breaths of a new Bengals football season.
Hopes are once again high in Cincinnati. As well they should after five straight playoff appearances. For many fans including myself, the sting of last season’s finale is still freshly seared into our minds. Perhaps what made the sting so severe was the lingering pain and scars of the Bengals Dark Ages.
It was undoubtedly the most terrible era in Bengals history. Lasting from the 1991 season until its official end with a playoff berth in 2005. That’s 14 seasons without a winning record. For those of us who were in the infancy of our Bengals fan-hood these days were trying and tough. The disappointment was relentless as Cincinnati seemed to choke again and again under Dave Shula. By the 1996 season, any real remnants of 88’ AFC Champions were gone.
The Bengals entered the season with renewed optimism after a 7-9 finish in 1995. The first half of the season did not bode well for Cincinnati. They stumbled their way to a 1-6 start, losing several close games.
The bloodletting reached critical mass as the Orange and Black lost a 21 point lead in San Francisco. This loss marked the end of Dave Shula’s tenure in Cincinnati. Bengals long time offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet took the reins. Fans figured that they were in for another rough end to a rough season.
The Cincinnati turnaround started with an unheard-of three-game winning streak. It was the first time since the 1990 playoff season that the Bengals could put together three straight victories. Names like Jeff Blake, Carl Pickens, and Darnay Scott became household names all across Cincinnati.
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Of those three wins, the most memorable was—without a doubt —a statement performance against the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers jumped out to a lead in the second quarter, the Bengals quickly answered. The Steelers scored again just before the half and it looked as though Cincinnati would trail during the intermission.
The Bengals’ David Dunn had different plans and returned the following kickoff 90 yards for a game-tying touchdown. Cinergy Field erupted in roar the likes of which I had never heard previously. Cincinnati went on to win the game by a score of 34-24.
Aside from the Pittsburgh victory the game that stands out the most came against an old rival with a new name. The Baltimore Ravens were in their first season after the franchise’s departure from Cleveland. The Bengals and Ravens battled hard throughout that December 8th game. The Bengals had a late lead 21-14 but the Ravens were threatening to tie it up.
The Ravens drove the ball to the goal line and over the next three plays the Bengals’ defense stiffened their backs against the goal line and held the Ravens out. After three rushing plays failed to produce the few inches the Ravens needed, they resorted to a play-action pass on fourth down. Bengals safety Sam Shade kept the completed pass from resulting in a touchdown and dropped the Ravens receiver at the one-yard line. Cincinnati held on to win 21-14.
As an eight-year-old boy, it wins like this that cemented my status as a lifelong fan. Without 1996’s 8-8 finish Bengals fans would have been without hope in the 1990s. Though just a .500 season, Cincinnati managed to go 7-2 in their last nine games which gave the fans a taste of winning football.
That brief taste would have to hold the Cincinnati faithful over for quite some time, as the optimism of the Bruce Coslet era quickly faded into bitter disappointment that only continued through the Dick Lebeau years. From 1998-2002 Cincinnati posted some of the worst records in franchise history and the 1996 season soon became a distant memory.
After five straight playoff berths and seven total appearances in my span of memory, the 1996 team still ranks among my top three for Cincinnati teams that I have actually watched playing. The only two teams that I covet higher in the post-1988 era are the 2005 and 2015 squads who each gave the fans firsts of their own. But 1996 was the year that made me and so many other lifelong and devoted fans. Without that bright spot in the Bengals dark ages whose to say who I would be writing for today.