Bengals: How one fumble caused the decline of a franchise

PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28: Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to get past Lawrence Timmons #94 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field on December 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 28: Jeremy Hill #32 of the Cincinnati Bengals tries to get past Lawrence Timmons #94 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field on December 28, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

In 2015, the Bengals were 12-4 and AFC North champions. Aside from an Andy Dalton injury, everything was looking up. The Bengals were facing a 10-6 Steelers team in Cincinnati to open their playoff run. This game ended up being more than just a loss.

It is the 4th quarter: 1:55 remaining with Cincinnati trailing 15-10. The Bengals have the ball  and face a 3rd and 7 on the Pittsburgh 25 yard line. A.J. McCarron delivers a touchdown pass to A.J. Green to give Cincinnati the lead with 1:50 left. The Bengals fail to convert the two point play. The score stands at 16-15.

At this point, the Bengals relied on their defense to win and advance. The first play of the Steelers drive was a pass intercepted by Vontaze Burfict. So, that’s it right? The game is over and the Bengals get their first playoff win since the 1990 season. At that moment, all the pain of a struggling franchise seemed to go away. Loyal Bengals fans finally get another playoff win and some see it for the first time ever. The future is bright in Cincinnati, In a perfect world for Bengals fans, that’s what would have happened.

Worst case scenario, the Bengals run the ball three times, The Steelers use all their time outs, and Cincinnati kicks a field goal to take a 19-15 lead with around 1:15 left to play. That was not even close to the worst case scenario.

What happened next will haunt Bengals fans forever. 1st and 10, a handoff to Jeremy Hill, and he fumbles. The Steelers pick it up. All the momentum the Bengals shifted in favor of the visitors. You know what happened next. I am not going to torture you with all the details, but Pittsburgh drove down and kicked a game winning field goal. The Bengals lost another playoff game they had every chance to win.

To people outside of the organization and city, it probably seemed like just another playoff loss. A 12-4 team got upset in the first round, no big deal. They will have a shot to be back next year. But to Bengals fans, it was much more than that. This was their best chance to finally get a playoff win and take a giant leap in the right direction. The loss was devastating, just watching the game again to write this article hurt. With the Bengals going 12-4 and their quarterback returning from injury next season, there was still hope.

Taking a look at the offseason following that game, it was bad. This loss played a huge part in what would transpire that offseason. Players, coaches and fans were all angry with what happened, The Bengals have never recovered.

Instead of building on a good roster, the front office seemed to let that roster fall apart. Here’s a look at some player and coach departures following the 2015 playoff loss:

Player Departures:

Marvin Jones: WR

Reggie Nelson: S

Mohamed Sanu: WR

Leon Hall: CB

Andre Smith: OT

AJ Hawk: LB

Wallace Gilberry: DE

Emmanuel Lamur : LB

Jones, Nelson, Sanu, Hall, and Smith were all key players on a team that won their division. Losing starters like that is going to be a massive loss to any roster. Besides the key players, Hawk, Gilberry, and Lamur all contributed to the team as well. The Bengals not only lost five starters, but three depth players.

In response to the free agency losses, the Bengals signed wide receiver Brandon LaFell, and linebacker Karlos Dansby. Two solid players, but they didn’t make up for the key players lost. Players that have been with the team for a while and helped the team get to where they were left Players weren’t the only losses that offseason.

Hue Jackson and Ken Zampese, two  assistant coaches who had a major impact on the 12-4 Bengals, departed. You can’t help but think that the loss to Pittsburgh had an effect on everyone’s decisions to leave that offseason. Now, the team must be feeling like they are in a hole they can’t get out of. The fan base hasn’t seen their team win a playoff game in 24 years.

Their roster is now vastly different, Hill never was the same after he fumbled that ball.  Former head coach Marvin Lewis was 0-7 in playoff games, and Andy Dalton didn’t live up to expectations set before being injured a year prior.

The 2016 season ended up being a disaster. The Bengals finished 6-9-1. A lot of fans think the 2016 season started a decline that led back to the struggling franchise we know today, but it all can be traced back to that night in Cincinnati when the Bengals lost a heartbreaker to the Steelers.

We now jump to 2019. The Bengals have one win. Some fans can argue “the roster just declined, it happens.” However, look at all the players lost since that playoff game. The great roster is now almost completely gone and anything but great.

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Sometimes, I can’t help but think how different things could be if Hill doesn’t fumble that ball. The Bengals win that game, and who knows maybe another playoff game too. Maybe the free agents decide to stay. Maybe more free agents want to come play in Cincinnati.

Maybe our coaches decide to stay. Maybe the fans finally get that playoff win and sell out Paul Brown Stadium week after week. We will never know. However, this broken franchise is still living in the shadow of that loss the biggest question is when will the Bengals recover, if ever?