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Don't Print Bengals Playoff Tickets Just Yet

By Bill Peterson · September 14th, 2005 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

Among the exceptions to Cincinnati's often-noted reticence concerning newcomers, Marvin Lewis is the most current and, other than Jerry Springer, the most famous. But not even Lewis has fully comprehended the futility in the folkways among fans of the professional football team.

For that, we can be grateful. If puzzled.

Take a look at this, from the Bengals' official literature, their weekly press release entering their Sept. 11 opener in Cleveland. Regarding the observation that Bengals fans and players will be disappointed if the stripes don't make the playoffs, Lewis said, "I've been disappointed for two years, so I'm glad they finally agree with me."

Bengals fans have lived for 14 years with disappointment about the same way Eskimos live with snow. Lewis has lived with only two years of it, and they weren't bad. They just weren't good.

For Bengals fans, the past two years of 8-8 were like outpatient care after several months in the hospital with a bad illness. We look now for signs of good health, and we have one with the Bengals' 27-13 win in Cleveland to open their first season in at least a dozen as a supposed contender.

Suppose you were born in 1985 and, at about the age of 6, you began to understand something of the outside world. You knew about football, maybe because your dad was a coach who followed the Bengals, so you knew the Bengals were a football team that traded in winning and losing. Today, you're a 20-year-old college junior who has never known the Bengals to have a winning season.

Your whole childhood. Gone.

Disappointment is relative to expectations, and expectations are relative to history, and history says Bengals' fans shouldn't be too disappointed with consecutive years of 8-8 because it's twice as good as 4-12. But now the bar has been raised on disappointment. Now that we've seen progress, we'll be disappointed when we don't.

On Sept. 11, the Bengals went to Cleveland and decisively beat a football team starting from scratch. No big deal in a lot of towns. But it's the first time the Bengals have won an opener on the road since 1995.

The Bengals hadn't won an opener anywhere in Lewis' first two years. After two straight 1-4 starts, they need a good start. And they still don't have that. As Lewis said after the win in Cleveland, a win isn't a good start.

In 2001 the Bengals opened with a home win against the Patriots. Five months later, the Patriots hoisted their first Super Bowl trophy while the Bengals licked their wounds from a 6-10 performance that included a seven-game losing streak.

Oh, it was their best season since 1997, they dropped three straight tight games during the losing streak, they finished with two straight wins and we thought we saw progress with Dick LeBeau's first full season as head coach. A year later, the Bengals spit out a 2-14. That's why Lewis is on the sideline today.

In short, we've been something like here before. Don't start printing playoff tickets. But keep those January weekends open, just in case.

Were it not for a guy named Willie Parker, we might be touting the Bengals as the AFC North frontrunner. But isn't it just like the Pittsburgh Steelers to come up with Willie Parker?

A week after the Steelers went to camp, running back Duce Staley needed knee surgery. He hasn't practiced since. The Steelers still had Jerome Bettis, the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. But a calf injury kept him out of the Steelers' opener against Tennessee.

So it fell to Willie Parker, an undrafted free agent in his second year out of North Carolina. Last year, he rushed for 186 yards, which was better than the 181 rushing yards he amassed as a senior at Carolina.

Parker went off for 161 rushing yards in the Steelers' 34-7 win against Tennessee. They needed Ben Rothliesberger to throw just 11 passes. Now Bettis could be back next Sunday, Staley could be back the Sunday after that and the Steelers still have Parker with his speed. They don't have a running back problem.

The outlook in Baltimore isn't nearly so promising now. They weren't ripping it up at quarterback even before Kyle Boller left Sunday night's 24-7 home loss to Indianapolis with a hyper-extended toe. Until garbage time, the Colts' defense scored more touchdowns (one) than the Baltimore offense.

Pittsburgh will be there, Baltimore will struggle to get there unless its defense turns monstrous and Cleveland won't be there. Which is why it's hard to tell much from the Bengals' win against the Browns.

The Browns game was a win. Sunday's home opener against the Vikings will be more of a gauge. After beating a bad team on the road, can the Bengals beat a mediocre team at home?

It's another six weeks before we find out how good the Bengals are, because that's when their schedule gives them a chance to prove it. If they're 6-0 by then, we'll say they're not bad at all. If they're 5-1, we'll say they're not too bad. If they're 4-2, we'll worry. If they're 3-3, we might be doomed.

Chalk up the opening game victory as a training exercise, a dress rehearsal, an exhibition game that counts. But don't draw conclusions. Except this: It's a win against a team the Bengals should beat. Last year, the Bengals lost at Cleveland, one of maybe three games they lost that they should have won -- the others being the game at Tennessee and perhaps the home loss to Buffalo.

Winners win when they're supposed to win. So far, the Bengals have done that much.

Around here, that's a lot. Someday, one hopes, it won't be. Maybe in a couple months.



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