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.
Gerald McCoy in stripes makes plenty of sense
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved on from star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy earlier this week after failing to find a suitable trade partner for his $13 million salary and the Cincinnati Bengals have taken notice.
— Dianna (@diannaESPN) May 22, 2019
As for Gerald McCoy and the Bengals — @diannaESPN was first on Marvin's departure, Burfict's release, and then Webb and Dennard's signings.
— JG (@JoeGoodberry) May 22, 2019
Russini is clearly qualified and plugged in when it comes to breaking Bengals related news and this seems like a step in the right direction for fans who want this “New Dey” for the Bengals to start going after top tier talent with minimal long term risk. It’s clear that no team around the league wanted to give up draft picks while taking on McCoy at such a high cap number.
The Bengals should roll the dice here and take a calculated chance on a guy like McCoy who could turn this entire defense into the group most Bengals fans had high expectations for last season but ultimately finished as a bottom-three unit. McCoy and Geno Atkins would make up arguably the best interior line combination in the league. One that would rival the duo of Ndamokung Suh and Aaron Donald that the Rams rode to the Super Bowl.
After missing the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2012 last season, McCoy still notched six sacks and more importantly a team-high 21 pressures for the Buccaneers. Over his highly productive career, the former Oklahoma Sooner has tallied 393 pressures, good for sixth among interior linemen since 2010. McCoy is a stud who was the best defensive player on his team and a wrecker who has never been surrounded by much talent in the trenches.
Despite a rough year across the board for this Bengals defense, Atkins clearly showed he is still at the top of his game after tallying double-digit sacks for the first time since 2010 and creating 64 pressures, which ranked fourth among all interior linemen. Joe and Jake brought up a great point on Wednesday’s podcast, McCoy would be the best inside partner that Atkins has ever played with and would not only help open up more playmaking opportunities for him but also spell players across the line more rest after it was ravaged by injury in 2018.
The Bengals have roughly $23 million in cap room as we head into the summer months and despite a clear goal of extending Tyler Boyd and A.J. Green, signing McCoy to a one or two year deal worth $10-12 million annually is more than doable. Green already accounts for $15 million against the cap this year and most estimates have his new deal reaching around $18 million per year, while Boyd has gone on record this week with expectations of a deal similar to Sterling Shepard’s four year/$41 million contract.
That leaves Cincinnati with just enough room to sign McCoy to a deal he’d be happy with.
The bottom line is players like this don’t come around very often, and during the Marvin Lewis Era, they were almost never targeted by the front office. McCoy could turn this swiss cheese-defense into a formidable force overnight while helping Bengals fans see the light of a New Dey at Paul Brown Stadium.
The AFC North Power Vacuum
The AB shoe has dropped.
After a drama-filled start to the offseason, Antonio Brown got his wish: A new home and contract in the Bay Area. The Pittsburgh Steelers shipped their disgruntled star to the Oakland Raiders for a pair of third and sixth round picks in this year’s draft.
The Killer-B Era in the Steel City is over.
Le’veon Bell called the organizations bluff last year and sat the entire season after he was offered $14.5 million on another franchise tag. That decision left the Steelers with the fifth most unused cap space in the NFL last season and now the loss of Brown hamstrings them even more. The Steelers must now eat $21 million in dead cap money with Brown in the Silver and Black, ostensibly the largest hit of its kind in league history.
Sweet, sweet music for the rest of the AFC North.
While Pittsburgh holds on to a fading era the other three teams in the division have kickstarted themselves with new coaches, quarterbacks, and in the Cleveland Browns case, both.
Baker Mayfield‘s talents are now fully paired with Freddie Kitchens, the duo led Cleveland to a 5-2 record down the stretch and has injected a breadth of confidence the franchise hasn’t felt since returning to the shores of Lake Erie in 1999. The Lamar Jackson Era is in full swing after the Baltimore Ravens shipped Joe Flacco to Denver for a fourth-round pick. Jackson is a dynamic playmaker but struggled as a passer in year one, despite aerial issues the former Heisman winner notched six wins in seven starts with a 27-24 loss to Kansas City mixed in.
In Cincinnati all of the eggs now lie in the Zac Taylor basket, The entire coaching staff has been overhauled outside of special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons and after 16 seasons of Marvin Lewis, there is tepid optimism surrounding this young coaching staff.
For the first time since Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie season, the Steelers don’t seem like the go-to favorite to win the AFC North and stomp on another Marvin Lewis team. Taylor and offensive coordinator Brian Callahan are bringing fresh eyes and concepts to this roster and ideally Bengals fans will experience the 2018 LA Rams Offense: Midwest Edition when they roll into Paul Brown Stadium this Fall.
On the defensive side things can’t get much worse than last season with new coordinator Lou Anarumo taking the reins of a unit that ranked 32nd in total defense (413.6 yards allowed per game), 32nd against the pass (275.9 per game), 30th in points allowed (28.4 per game) and 29th against the run (137.8 yards per game).
Meanwhile, many of the draft experts have the Bengals selecting do-it-all LSU linebacker Devin White with the 11th pick. A massive value at that spot, White is as durable a player you’ll find at the linebacker position and is graded by Scouts Inc. as the fourth best prospect available in April. He would be a welcome addition to a defense that was the worst in the NFL defending tight ends last season.
A New Dey has arrived not only in Cincinnati but throughout the rest of the AFC North and with the Killer-B’s done in Pittsburgh the Bengals have their chance to fill the power void.
The Bengals fans guide to Super Bowl LIII
It’s been 30 years since the Cincinnati Bengals last played in a Super Bowl. A heartbreaking 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was the Bengals most recent shot at glory, and while Sunday’s matchup between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams showcases how far Cincinnati is to breaking that drought, there are plenty of things for Bengals fans to focus on inside of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Keep an Eye on the Incoming Head Coach
Zac Taylor is taking the reins from Marvin Lewis in what will be the first head coaching change since I started watching Bengals games during that magical 2005 season. The 35-year old Rams QB coach joins six other “young, offensive-minded” hires from this years coaching carousel. For Bengals fans, they are hoping he’s a cut above the rest, despite being the last to ink a deal. Bengals faithful should pay close attention any and every time the CBS production crew decides to show him in action on Sunday.
This is the biggest game Taylor has been a part of since entering the NFL coaching ranks with the Dolphins back in 2012 and it will be really interesting to see him handle a moment all Bengals fans hope he can relive sooner rather than later in Cincinnati. No one on the outside of the Rams organization really knows how involved Taylor is with setting up the gameplan, but he has clearly had a very positive effect on Jared Goff since taking over his tutelage in 2017.
How he interacts with Goff in between plays and coaches him through mistakes could go a long way in determining how he will help Andy Dalton (or Ryan Tannehill?) return to his 2015 form. Zac Taylor might not be the most experienced coach getting a chance this year but the results with Goff prove he deserves this opportunity.
Pre-snap and Play-Action
There are still questions as to who will call plays and control the 2019 Bengals offense, but in saying that fans should expect a lot of carryover from this Rams system that has willed their way to Atlanta with pre-snap communication and play-action passing. It’s no secret that Goff and Rams head coach Sean McVay communicate right up to the 15-second cutoff during every play.
McVay can read the defense, then call something to match their formation and he often times uses motion to accomplish that. Former Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor was allergic to this kind of communication and the offense ranked 32nd and 26th in his two seasons because of it. Expect Taylor to have his voice in the Red Rifle’s ear plenty on Sundays.
In terms of play-action passing the Rams used these plays as the cornerstone of their offense, calling them 34 percent of the time with devastating effect. LA’s 9.0 yards per play on these calls ranked third in the NFL and they averaged 1.9 yards per play more than regular calls. On the flip side, Cincinnati ranked 13th in the league calling play-action on 24 percent for 1.5 yards per play more than all other calls. It’s not rocket science, play-action works wonders in today’s NFL and Taylor is expected to bring that mindset with him to the Queen City.
Todd Gurley: The Receiver
Player A: 55 targets, 43 receptions, 296 yards, 6.9 yards per catch, 1 TD
Player B: 81 targets, 59 receptions, 580 yards, 9.8 yards per catch, 4 TD
Yes, I know Joe Mixon had a stellar year running the ball (1,168 yards, 4.9 yards per carry) but he was totally mismanaged in the passing game and his Player A numbers reflect that. Player B, well I’d say he was used correctly and will continue to be used that way on Sunday. Despite his two costly drops in the NFC Championship Game, Todd Gurley is still one of the best receiving backs in the NFL.
A big reason why he’s so productive is the way LA puts him in an ideal position to make big plays, whether it’s a wheel route down the sideline or a throwback screen off of…. play action, this coaching staff does all they can to help him gash defenses. So far in Mixon’s career, I’ve barely seen any of that, it’s similar to putting a governor on a 66′ Cobra. Keep an eye on how the Rams use Gurley’s receiving skills to their advantage and imagine Mixon on the other end of those throws.
This One’s For Whit
Every Bengals fan should be rooting for the new head coach to bring a Super Bowl winning pedigree with him to his new digs in Cincinnati, but if that wasn’t enough, we should all be rooting for Andrew Whitworth.
Likely on his way to back-to-back All-Pro selections Whitworth is one of the best players to ever play the tackle position and was a consummate professional during his 11-year stint in a Bengals uniform. He notched his first playoff win 13 years into his career and why not knock down all of the playoff milestones in one run. I know who I’m rooting for come Super Bowl Sunday.
Enjoy the holiday.