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December 06, 2001

Suffering through Bengal Blues
By Dan Patrick

When I was young, my friends and I would go see the Cincinnati Bengals at Nippert Stadium. We started rooting for the striped ones from the beginning in 1968. We liked Sam Wyche at quarterback and Paul "The Cactus Comet" Robinson at running back. Those early days were fun. The Bengals were an expansion team, and the expectations were reasonable. Back then, just like today, we mostly went to see the other teams.

You see, to be a Bengal fan, you have to live on fumes and scant, precious memories. We've had some good years. The two times the Bengals have made the Super Bowl they gave the mighty San Francisco 49ers their two toughest games in their five Super Bowl appearances.

The Bengals' problem has been their inability to build on a nice season and make another run at it. They also never rebuild for one year and get back into it hunt. They completely reconstruct the team every couple of years. This "strategy" led to the Bengals being the worst team in NFL for the 1990s with a record of 52-108. You rarely see that kind of sustained mediocrity in sports.

The Bengals might eventually get it right on draft day, but I bet they would need every first-round pick to do it.

So I just hope that Dick LeBeau knows what he is getting into. The Bengals have lost five straight going back to 1999. In three games this season, the Bengals have scored seven points, the lowest three-game point total since the 1945 Cleveland Browns. And this week they face a Miami Dolphins team with one of the league's best defenses. A few more weeks of this stuff and LeBeau may be the happiest coach to ever be tagged with the word "interim."

As a franchise, the Bengals have not earned their stripes. But I have a group of friends that love them about the only way you can. Fifteen years ago these 12 guys formed "The Zero Club" with the notion that somebody has to love this team. They have season tickets and support the team for their own reasons, not because of the team's historically valiant play and the front office's relentless commitment to winning. They go because they like pro football and the Bengals play against pro football teams.

Over the years the Bengals haven't exuded a deep desire to win. I wonder how a guy like Anthony Munoz handled it all those years. Today, players like Munoz just leave after a while. They don't have turnstiles in Cincinnati; they have revolving doors. And Corey Dillon will be the next one out.

When the Bengals have a good team, you can bet it was by accident, not design. The team by now must be scared of having a top-five draft pick. They have blown so many that they must rather have the 19th pick every year. Consider these draft-day busts: David Klingler, Dan Wilkinson, Ki-Jana Carter, James Francis and Reinard Wilson. They might eventually get it right on draft day, but I bet they would need every first-round pick to do it.

Being a Bengals fan is like being Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." Every year you wake up and know what is going to happen. And you can't do anything about it.

The rest of this year? The Bengals will win three or four games. They'll beat a couple of teams they shouldn't, which qualifies every other team in the league. Their hopes will rise when they play several good downs in a row on both sides of the ball. But do you know what the Bengals are every year? A 90-yard drive that ends in a field goal.

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