For 13 weeks, we have been taking these walks down memory lane, taking a look at some of the Bengals squads of the past. And for 13 weeks, it seemed like things were never going to get better. Alas, here we are in 2005, which marked a turning point in so many ways in Bengals history. This season featured the highest of highs, being the first season the Bengals went to the playoffs since 1990. And, as we all know, it also was arguably the beginning of the end for Carson Palmer in Cincinnati.
For the second week in a row, Oprah is going to be featured in our 2005 fun facts – wouldn’t have predicted that that would happen 13 weeks ago. This was the year Tom Cruise went onto her show and lost his mind, jumping up and down on the couch, flailing about and declaring his love for Katie Holmes. In similar news, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston entered Splitsville, as the former ended up with Angelina Jolie. And, in arguably far more important than either of those, YouTube was founded in 2005.
And so it begins – this Bengals team went 11-5, finally paying off years of re-building, tearing down, and re-building again. The team was still very young and was shaping up to be a force for years to come – the 11-5 record earned the Bengals the AFC North crown and set up a Wild Card round home playoff game against the division rival Pittsburgh Steelers. The game changed the history of the Bengals forever (I’ll expand on this), ultimately triggering a downward spiral across the board.
Another good draft was a key factor in the Bengals’ success in 2005 – they drafted Georgia linebackers David Pollack (17th overall) and Odell Thurman (48th), before selecting wide receiver Chris Henry (83rd). Each player had solid success as rookies, yet more proof of how good the team was due to be for years. All three men, following brief success, would be out of the league prematurely… but we will get there.
Quarterback Carson Palmer was firmly entrenched as the leader in Cincinnati, and he turned in what would usually be an MVP effort had he not played at a time when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were lighting up fields everywhere, and Shaun Alexander was having a career year. Palmer built on a promising sophomore campaign to the tune of 3,836 yards and 32 touchdowns with only 12 interceptions.
And his success had plenty of beneficiaries – Chad Johnson (97 receptions, 1,432 yards, 9 touchdowns) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (78 receptions, 956 yards, 7 touchdowns) set what were franchise records at the time for combined receptions and yards for two receivers. The aforementioned Henry had 31 catches of his own and six touchdowns, while second-year running back Chris Perry earned some attention in the passing game with 51 catches.
The electric passing game opened a lot of holes for Rudi Johnson, who was impressive yet again with 1,458 yards and 12 touchdowns. None of this would have been possible if not for some solid offensive line work, led by veteran tackle Willie Anderson and young guard Eric Steinbach.
The defense found some outstanding success as well – the Bengals had added veteran cornerback Deltha O’Neal in 2004, and he really stood out here in 2005, pacing the NFL with 10 interceptions… okay, he was tied with Ty Law, but they were the league leaders. Justin Smith recorded 92 tackles and six sacks, continuing his work as a top-tier defensive lineman.
As for Pollack and Thurman – Pollack was decent, though not spectacular. He only recorded 28 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but earned his attention for his on-the-field presence as a leader. Thurman was the stat star, racking up an astounding 148 tackles, 1.5 sacks, five interceptions and four forced fumbles. Suddenly the middle of the Bengals’ defense was a force again, filling a void that had been left behind by Takeo Spikes.
This team stormed out of the gate to a 4-0 record, and entered their Week 10 bye week 7-2. They emerged from the bye with a matchup against the mighty Colts, led by Manning. The Bengals would lose a 45-37 thriller, but established themselves as marquis-level competition.
They would ultimately overtake the division lead with a December 4 victory in Pittsburgh, and would clinch two weeks later with a win over the Detroit Lions. The Bengals would play conservative football in Weeks 16 and 17, dropping those games to the Bills and Chiefs (in ugly 37-3 fashion in this case). All of this was leading up to January 8, 2006.
On a cold night in Cincinnati, Paul Brown Stadium came unglued as their division champion Bengals stormed the field, ready to storm past a division rival and get to the Super Bowl. The Bengals’ offense would take the field early in the first quarter and on the first play of the drive, Palmer launched a deep 66 yard completion to Chris Henry, much to the pleasure of Bengals’ fans everywhere. And then the nightmare set in.
The play ended and suddenly, the Who Dey nation saw their Pro Bowl quarterback writhing in pain near the endzone he’d just been backed into. Steelers’ defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen – who I referenced in my piece about 1994 – had rolled up on Palmer’s left leg, tearing the young quarterback’s ACL, MCL, and damaging his meniscus. There was even a brief thought that the injury could be career threatening. But in the immediate aftermath, Bengals’ fans watched on in horror as Palmer was carted off the field. Jon Kitna would be the guy.
Kitna wasn’t too bad overall, but not spectacular either. He would throw for just under 200 yards with a touchdown and two picks. The Bengals were actually able to jump out to a 17-7 first half lead behind a long touchdown run from Rudi Johnson and touchdown catch by Houshmandzadeh. However, as has happened so many times since, the Steelers scored just before halftime and ultimately dominated the rest of the game, outscoring Cincinnati 24-0 following their 17-7 deficit. The Steelers won 31-17 and would go on to win the Super Bowl. It could be said that this was the game to really kick off the red hot Bengals/Steelers rivalry.
I’ll give something of a spoiler in this part of the piece – I referenced above how much this game would impact the future of what looked to be an incredible Bengals team. Palmer was never the same after his injury, despite some solid performances in future seasons. Chad Johnson started to become something of a circus act, countless players (Thurman included) began to run into off-the-field issues, injuries would start piling up, and overall disgruntlement wound up being the reason for Palmer’s exit from Cincinnati.
While 2005 didn’t end anywhere close to how we wanted it to, it was one of the key years in Bengals’ history, and undoubtedly one of the most fun. Sadly, our weekly journeys are about to re-enter something of a dark period, as it would be a few years before the Bengals would be back in the postseason.
Next week – an extra point that is remembered for all the wrong reasons.