While the Cincinnati Bengals’ run of futility that ran throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s wouldn’t really end until 2005, 2001 was really the beginning of a new era in the Queen City. Sure, Dick LeBeau was still the head coach, and yes, the team finished 6-10 (their 11th straight losing season), but the pieces that would make up a new Bengals regime started to be placed in 2001.
Not only was a new era of Bengals football blossoming in 2001, but a new movie phenomenon was hitting theaters – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the first of eight movies in the series, and the franchise now has its own theme park. And I know what you’re wondering – yep, this guy’s a fan.
This was also the year the Xbox and iPod would be released, one of which is borderline obsolete these days, while the other is still booming. And this would be the year of the best baseball season of my life – in my opinion at least. Barry Bonds launched a season-record 73 home runs, and the Arizona Diamondbacks upended the New York Yankees in one of the most riveting World Series battles of all time.
The Bengals, with the aforementioned 6-10 record, were in the cellar of the crowded six-team AFC Central – yes, even behind the Browns. The Akili Smith project was officially in the can, and the team had signed veteran quarterback Jon Kitna to a four-year deal, taking him out of Seattle in the process.
Remember how I said this was the beginning of a new era? Well, the 2001 NFL Draft saw the Bengals draft defensive end Justin Smith fourth overall, wide receivers Chad Johnson (36th) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (204th), and running back Rudi Johnson. We’ll cover their seasons in longer form as they come to us, but if you’re reading this, you know what effects all of these guys wound up having in Cincinnati.
Meanwhile, established star Corey Dillon put up another stellar season, carrying the ball 340 times for 1,315 yards and 10 touchdowns. Unfortunately, it would be another year where he was the only offensive standout – which we know would wind up leading to his disgruntlement with the organization.
This version of the Bengals got off to a decent start, heading into their Week 8 bye with a 4-3 record and momentum following a 31-27 win over the Lions – had we turned a corner? Oy. The Bengals lost seven straight out of the break, and salvaged the final two games of the season. Kitna struggled with turnovers and inconsistency, throwing for 3,216 yards and 12 touchdowns with a whopping 22 interceptions.
Second-year wide out Peter Warrick pieced together a nice season in a mediocre offense, reeling in 70 catches for 667 yards and a touchdown. Rookies Johnson and Houshmandzadeh combined for 40 receptions and 557 yards, Johnson catching the only touchdown between the two.
On the other side of the ball, the defense actually wasn’t too bad, but like a solid pitching staff in baseball, good outings were often wasted by a poor offense. Takeo Spikes continued his rise to stardom with 109 tackles, six sacks, a pick and a forced fumble. Fifth-year linebacker Reinard Wilson recorded a career-high nine sacks and was responsible for three turnovers.
Artrell Hawkins and Kevin Kaesviharn stood out in the secondary as well – so while there were pieces doing great jobs on defense, they just couldn’t overcome the offense and Neil Rackers, who continued his case of the yips, hitting 17/28 field goals.
At the risk of revealing spoilers for next week, I need to re-visit the ‘new era’ comments I’ve mentioned several times within these few paragraphs – I’m very aware that 2002 was a 2-14 season, appearing to be another step backwards for the franchise. However, I stand by this 2001 season being the beginning of the modern era in Cincinnati, where teams are competitive more often than not.