5 biggest What If's in Cincinnati Bengals History

Eric Bruns
Benjamin Solomon/GettyImages

It can be maddening to look back at history and ponder the what-ifs. It is a deep rabbit hole one can fall into and never come out of. However, some of us enjoy pain and like looking back at what could've been.

There was an entire ESPN show dedicated to this premise. It was called "What If?" or a similar title and each episode was a different scenario in sports. One episode I remember specifically is "What If the Falcons do not trade Brett Favre?" They had a similar show called Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame. One episode focused on the Favre/Falcons subject.

Today we are going to look at five What If? scenarios for the Bengals. First, we are going way back to the early years of the Bengals.

All game stats are courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

What If the Bengals Had Hired Bill Walsh Instead of Bill Johnson?

Paul Brown stepped down as the Bengals head after the 1975 season. For his replacement, he chose Bill Johnson, who was the offensive line coach. He coached Cincy for three seasons and went 18-15 during that time. He also never got the team to the playoffs.

Johnson also, never was a head coach for another team. However, there was another coach on the Bengals staff that could've been picked...Bill Walsh. Yep! The creator of the West Coast offense was an assistant coach to Paul Brown.

It makes you wonder -- Why pick the offensive line coach rather than your assistant coach? Walsh became the offensive coordinator for the Chargers in '76 then he became the head coach at Stanford for two years before becoming the head coach in San Francisco in 1979.

What happens if Bill Walsh becomes the Bengals head coach? Cincinnati already had a good offense in 1976 led by Ken Anderson. Twice in 1976, the Bengals put up 40 points. Anderson was a good quarterback. With an offensive-minded head coach like Walsh, the Bengals could've done serious damage.

With Anderson injured in 1978, in 1979 with Walsh at the helm, maybe they draft Joe Montana to replace Ken Anderson. Does Montana lead Cincy to the promise land like Anderson did in 1981? Maybe Cincinnati actually wins a Super Bowl, even with Ken Anderson and if the 49ers do not have Montana or Walsh.

There are so many variables in looking at what ifs but it's not hard to fathom that if Walsh becomes the head coach at Cincinnati, maybe the 80s becomes their decade instead of the 49ers'. Who knows, maybe Walsh wasn't ready and he flounders out in the Queen City. What if he never got a second chance?

Also, Did Paul Brown curse Cincinnati by not hiring Walsh and then losing to him twice in the Super Bowl?

Lewis Billups nearly picks off Joe Montana in Super Bowl XXIII

Early into the fourth quarter, the Bengals led 13-6 over the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII in 1989. The 49ers were in the red zone and looking to score. Montana looked to throw to John Taylor but Lewis Billups jumped the route.

Perfectly timing his cut, the ball sailed right into Billups' hands in the end zone. Lewis bobbles the pass and drops it. Billups was that close to Super Bowl Glory. Instead, he becomes a forgotten player as the 49ers score on the next play.

Bengals' Lewis Billups drops interception in 1988 SuperBowl - YouTube

What happens if Billups secures that interception? Obviously, the 49ers are not scoring on that drive. Billups would've knelt in the end zone for a touchback. But do Boomer Esiason and the Bengals score?

After Stafford Jennings' 93-yard kick-off return for a touchdown, this interception might've been the game changer Cincy needed. Maybe Esiason and Co. put their feet on the throats of the 49ers and never let up.

Possibly mid-way through the fourth quarter, Montana is looking at 14-point deficit. Does he have enough time to come back? If the Bengals get another stop it would feel like the game is over. There is a possibility that Cincy wins Super Bowl 23 if Lewis Billups makes that interception.

Of course, the flip side of that coin is Esiason immediately throws a pick-six. There are so many variables in a game to say one play results in the outcome of a game. But it's hard not to wonder what if? What if Lewis catches that ball?

What If Ki-Jana Carter doesn't get hurt?

With the first overall pick in the 1995 draft, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Ki-Jana Carter out of Penn State. In his third season at Penn State, Carter amassed over 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was an explosive back and seemed to be a sure-fire pick.

Cincinnati traded with Carolina for the first overall pick and they were the new expansion team. Everyone in the Queen City knew that Carter was going to be the first overall selection and he signed a seven-year $19.2 million contract with over seven million guaranteed.

It was the biggest rookie deal ever at the time, which is crazy compared to nowadays. Carter could have been that player that'll change a franchise. He could finally lead the black and orange to the Super Bowl, or at least a foundation around which Cincy can build a team.

Instead, on the third play of the first preseason game. Carter tore a ligament in his knee. He missed the entire 1995 season and when he came back, he was never the same player. Unfortunately back then the medicine was not advanced enough to help players recover from those injuries.

Dak Prescott and Joe Burrow would be out of the league had they been injured 30+ years ago.

If Carter doesn’t get injured, or doesn’t become injury-prone, Maybe Cincy builds a decent team behind him. Maybe, they’re actually decent and in four years’ time the Bengals are not the one of the worst in the league and end up with the third pick in the '99 draft.

Then, Cincinnati avoids making one of the worst picks in NFL history [More on that in a little bit]. Starting in 1991 and going all the way through 2002, the Queen City only enjoyed one non losing season, and that was 8-8 in 1996.

If Carter stays healthy, Jeff Blake was serviceable enough to at least avoid the misery for as long as the Bungles did for so many years. As stated before it’s possible the Bengals avoid another disaster in 1999. 

What If Cincinnati takes the trade offer from Mike Ditka instead of drafting Akili Smith?

The 1999 draft will live in infamy for a couple reasons. One, it was the draft where Cincinnati took Akili Smith third overall. Secondly, it is the draft which Mike Ditka traded the farm for Ricky Williams at fifth overall, leading to one of the greatest ESPN Magazine covers ever.

Before propositioning the then-Redskins for the fifth overall pick, Ditka and the Saints shopped to all the teams with the first five picks. Ditka offered the Bengals nine picks to move up to third. But Cincinnati had their eyes on Akili Smith, and they would not be wavered.

The Redskins received eight total picks, six in 1999 and two in 2000. What if Cincy took the deal? The good guys would’ve gotten the Saints' first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh round picks in 1999. The first round pick would’ve been 12th overall.

With Cincy needing a QB it looks like there wouldn’t have been anything in this draft. Donovan McNabb went second to Philly and the only other one worth note is Daunte Culpepper who was taken 11th overall by the Vikings. Of course Tim Couch was taken first overall by the Browns.

Looking at the deeper picture in this draft class it makes sense why Cincinnati chose to hold their pick. They thought Smith was their guy and there was not going to be a quarterback worth taking past pick 11.

Maybe they decide to get a free agent and build the rest of their roster, some players who could’ve ended up in the black and orange were: Jevon Kearse, or Damien Woody. Joey Porter went in the third round, Desmond Clark in the sixth, and Donald Driver in the seventh.

Many Bengals fans would’ve taken all those players instead of Akili Smith. Maybe Jon Kitna comes to the Queen City before 2001. He’s leaps and bounds better than Smith ever was.

What If Carson Palmer doesn’t get Hurt in the 2006 playoff game against the Steelers?

By 2005 it began to look like the Marvin Lewis hire and Carson Palmer draft pick were going to pay off. The black and orange crew was stacked on offense but their defense would be the ticking time bomb.

Cincinnati won the division in 2005 and hosted the Steelers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs on Jan. 8, 2006. On a second and nine from their own 12 yard line. Carson Palmer hit Chris Henry for 66 yards. During the play Steelers Defensive Lineman Kimo Von Oelhoffen hit Palmer knocking him to the ground.

Palmer tore his ACL. The score was still 0-0 as backup Jon Kitna took the field. He was commendable, getting the Bengals to a 17-7 lead in the second quarter. But that was all she wrote for the good guys as the Steelers went on a 24-0 run winning 31-17.

What happens if Palmer doesn’t get hurt? Do the Steelers who limped into the playoffs behind second-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger still win? Could they keep pace with Cincy’s potent offense?

If Palmer is able to beat the Steelers, maybe build a large enough lead to where they cannot come back. They would head to Denver and New England goes to Indianapolis. Starting Hot and beating their division rivals say Cincinnati beats Jake Plummer and Denver.

Then, our guys are headed to either Indianapolis or they’re hosting the Reigning Super Bowl Champions. Given how much Peyton Manning struggled against Brady in the postseason, bet on the Patriots to win that game.

There is a possibility where the AFC Championship is going through The Queen City. Beating Brady and Co. would be tough, who knows if they could’ve won. But if they did, Palmer could’ve beaten Matt Hasselbeck and the Seahawks.

Cincy erects a statue of Palmer and Marvin, everyone is happy. Does Cowher still retire in 2007? If he is still chasing the ring, they probably do not hire Mike Tomlin. Where does he end up? If the Steelers do not hire Tomlin, do they ever win a Super Bowl?

One game, one injury, could’ve changed the entire NFL.

What do you think? Did I miss any big What Ifs?