The winds of change were strong in 2004. Following an 8-8 campaign in 2003, the Bengals carried lofty expectations for the future. Veteran quarterback Jon Kitna had been outstanding, but the reigns were being turned over to second-year man Carson Palmer. The roller coaster we experienced – given that we now have the gift of hindsight, turned out to be a wild ride. The Palmer era was officially here.
This year was also the age of Usher, who turned out four top hits, including Yeah! which I promise can still be heard at fraternity parties all over the country. The same couldn’t be said of Britney Spears, who was married for about 55 hours one weekend in what began quite the downward spiral for her. Luckily, she bounced back quite nicely. And finally, 2004 was the year Oprah “gave away” cars to every member in her studio audience, immortalizing the phrase “You get a…!” What actually should’ve been said was, “You get a car! YOU get a car!… as long as you pay roughly $7,000 in taxes, otherwise, no car for you!”
Palmer was at the helm of one of the youngest teams in the NFL at the time, and it was probably the beginning of a trend where for the next decade, the Bengals would have a top five roster in the NFL. As young as they were already, the team brought in a pretty good load of rookies in the 2004 Draft – Chris Perry aside, the team drafted Keiwan Ratliff (CB, 49th overall), Madieu Williams (S, 56th overall), Landon Johnson (LB, 96th overall), and Robert Geathers (DE, 117th overall).
And as a last nail in the youth coffin, so to speak, Corey Dillon was traded to New England, where he would get a much-deserved Super Bowl win. You can dislike him for his words against the Bengals, but the guy was a workhorse for some truly terrible teams. He was to the Bengals what LeBron was for his original run with the Cavaliers – a top-notch guy with no support.
Finally, let’s get into the nitty-gritty here – the Bengals went 8-8 once again in 2004, which was mildly disappointing, but did nothing to deter optimism for the future. Palmer, who started 13 games before a sprained knee ended his season, was good, not great, throwing for 2,897 yards with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. There was some inconsistency, but that was to be expected from the young guy. The Bengals were 6-7, in games started by Palmer. Things started, off rough, as the Bengals came out of the gate 1-4 before winning five of their next seven games. Kitna (623 yards, 5 touchdowns, 4 picks) finished the season 2-1, notching two victories to end the year.
No Dillon? No problem – even being the workhorse he was with Chris Perry injured most of the season, Rudi Johnson put up a stellar 2004, leaving no doubt he could fill the void. He racked up 1,454 yards on 361 carries (4.0 YPC) and 12 touchdowns.
Chad Johnson solidified himself as a top 5 receiver once again, catching 95 passes for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns. T.J. Houshmandzadeh – who, if you recall, missed all of 2003 with a hamstring injury – bounced back into the fold nicely, catching 73 passes of his own for 978 yards and four scores.
The defense – despite allowing some hefty scoring games (eight games allowing 26 points or more) – showed a lot of promise as well. Justin Smith continued to establish himself as a top-tier defensive lineman, recorded 97 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Tory James reached his first Pro Bowl to the tune of 74 tackles and 8 picks – he likely would have gotten a lot more attention if not for the beast that was Ed Reed in 2004.
Our aforementioned rookies had some solid numbers as well – Williams racked up 103 tackles with a couple sacks and three interceptions, Landon Johnson had a whopping 133 tackles, and Robert Geathers kicked off what would be an outstanding Bengals career with 3.5 sacks and an interception.
This Bengals team also had some milestones worth talking about, which is something I don’t think I’ve typed in the 12 or so weeks I’ve been working on this series. The team had four Pro-Bowlers, most by far up to this point in our walk down memory lane, those being James, the Johnsons Rudi and Chad, and Willie Anderson. They also played in the highest scoring regular season game in NFL history on 11/28/2004, as they battled the Browns (no, seriously) at Paul Brown Stadium to a 58-48 victory.
And perhaps the most jarring milestone, though it probably shouldn’t be – the Bengals played on Monday Night Football for the first time since…. 1992! I wish there was a way to put numbers in all caps, because that is a deserving number for such a thing. Keep in mind everyone – 1992 was the beginning of our journey I refer to as ‘A Year in the Life of the Bengals’. Notable reminders from that piece – Anthony Munoz and Boomer Esiason were Bengals in 1992, Dave Shula was in year one, and Harold Green was the only Pro Bowler. 12 years later, on October 25, 2004, the Bengals played the Denver Broncos at PBS on Monday Night Football, then on ABC. They won (again… seriously) 23-10.
And here we are folks. The last 15 or so years of Bengals football has been something of a roller coaster ride, and we’re entering the first real thrill of the ride next week as we cover the fun, emotional, and controversial 2005 season.
Strap in everyone – the wild ride that has been the Marvin Lewis tenure is just getting started.