And finally… mercifully… we have the turning of a corner in Bengals history. We started this journey back in 1992, and though we have had some minor ups along the way, it’s mostly been a lot of bad memories that didn’t seem to have an end in sight.
Enter Carson Palmer and Marvin Lewis – an era we somehow still live in. While we all have a lot to say on the situation these days, the outlook was considerably different back in 2003. So much was about to change in the Queen City.
Other notable occurrences in 2003 – the $2 bill, while still in circulation, was last printed that year. Outkast topped the music charts with Hey Ya! which is ironic because I was listening to that song early today for nostalgia purposes. And 2003 was the year in which Steve Bartman became something of a baseball legend. The Chicago Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins in the NLCS, and on what appeared to be a playable foul ball for Cubs’ left fielder Moises Alou, Bartman reached over and tipped the ball away from Alou. The Cubs’ left fielder was outraged, the Cubs went on to lose the series, and Bartman became synonymous with all of the other various Cubs’ shortcomings over the years.
Now for our main event. The 2003 Bengals effectively kicked off with the signing of Washington Redskins Defensive Coordinator Marvin Lewis to be the new head coach. They would also hold the top draft pick that year, and used that selection on reigning Heisman trophy winning quarterback Carson Palmer out of USC. Gone were the days of David Klingler, Jeff Blake, and Akili Smith – enter the upper-tier Palmer. It is also worth noting that the Bengals drafted Eric Steinbach in the second round, a talented guard from Iowa who would go on to have some nice seasons in Cincinnati.
This 2003 team began their season much like so many of the teams before them, dropping three consecutive games to open the season and entering their Week 6 bye at 1-4. It seemed that another woeful season awaited. And then the team caught fire, winning six of seven out of the bye week, capping off the streak with a Week 13 win in Pittsburgh. This setup a huge division-defining Week 14 game against the Baltimore Ravens, with the Bengals walking into the game 7-5, prepared to separate themselves at the head of the AFC North.
Like so many times since then, the team let us down, showing they were in no way ready for the spotlight, losing 31-13. They would win Week 15 in a thriller against the 49ers, but dropped the final two games of the season to close out an 8-8 campaign, 2nd in the AFC North.
In a move that would be questioned by many in today’s NFL, Palmer did not play in 2003 – Jon Kitna remained at the helm, and what a season he had. He tallied 3,591 yards, 26 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions en route to the best season of his career and earning the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. Chad Johnson was the primary beneficiary of Kitna’s stellar season, notching 1,355 yards on 90 catches and 10 scores.
This would also be the last year of note for former fourth-overall pick Peter Warrick, though it was arguably his best. He managed 819 yards and seven touchdowns on 79 catches – he would make sporadic appearances in 2004 and 2005 (in Seattle), but this was effectively the end of his career. Third-year receiver TJ Houshmandzadeh missed all of 2003 with a hamstring injury.
This is the longest any of our recent journeys have gone without a mention of Corey Dillon. The Bengals’ star running back hit his proverbial rock bottom with the Bengals this season, as a combination of disgruntlement and injuries limited Dillon to only 541 yards on 3.9 yards per carry, easily his worst season in orange and black. However, this was not all bad, as Rudi Johnson emerged as a pretty good running back, filling in to the tune of 957 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.
The defense still had its struggles as key linebacker Takeo Spikes had departed for Buffalo. However, his spot was filled by former Jaguar and Cowboy Kevin Hardy, who racked up an impressive 124 tackles. Duane Clemons and John Thornton had six sacks apiece, while Tory James began what would be a fairly impressive run in Cincinnati with four interceptions.
Having only been 13 years old at the time of this season, it’s hard for me to remember exactly how the feeling in town was, but I can recall quite a bit of excitement for what turned out to be an 8-8 team. We knew that better times were ahead and we were excited at what all of these changes were becoming. A new coach had turned the team around to be a competitive club, a new face had entered at running back, Chad was emerging as a top receiver… .we couldn’t wait to see what it would bring.
Tune in next week as we begin to examine the rise of Carson Palmer!