YIR: Bengals' Snap Collapse Doesn't Tarnish Good Season

Ordinarily, one looks back on the year in sports and brushes it away. Usually it was just another year. You might be dramatic and say the year, like any year, was distinctive for its changes and

Jan 3, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Ordinarily, one looks back on the year in sports and brushes it away. Usually it was just another year.

You might be dramatic and say the year, like any year, was distinctive for its changes and events. Usually you'd be lying.

But 2006 really was different. Regime change swept through two major athletic programs at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the Reds. The city, once a proud (then failed) experiment in supporting two top-tier minor league hockey franchises, now is back to one low-level team. The Bengals appeared in a playoff game for the first time in 15 years and closed the year bidding for another.

But the Bengals needed help, along with their own win against Pittsburgh, to make the playoffs. They lost their command position for the AFC's final wild card spot on Dec. 24, when a poor snap on a point-after kick kept them from tying their game in Denver.

The year didn't line up very well for the Bengals, all the way down to a simple snap.

It was going to take something so bare and minimal to take down the Bengals. The NFL's second toughest schedule couldn't beat them, nor could eight player arrests or key injuries and deletions in their offensive line and defense.

After the Steelers loss on Dec. 31, the Bengals finished with an 8-8 season, their fourth straight year without a losing record. That, in itself, is an achievement speaking to Marvin Lewis' prospects over the long haul.

How many teams have played the past four years without once posting a losing record? Five. That's it. The Bengals, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks. Every other team has fallen off the cliff at least once, because the NFL is set up to push teams off the cliff.

This year, the Bengals were supposed to fall off the cliff, and they didn't. They lost four games against AFC division winners, but they also beat New Orleans, which isn't easy this year, and playoff-bound Kansas City and mostly handled the few weak opponents thrown their way. The Bengals didn't get a schedule full of Houston and Detroit this year.

The good news for the Bengals this year is also bad news. Of the other leading NFL teams this year, the Bengals were right there against San Diego and Denver, and they could have hung with Indianapolis if the absence of two offensive tackles didn't make it impossible to block the edge.

The Bengals are right there. That's the good news. The bad news is that they aren't quite there.

Even without making the playoffs, the Bengals are a good football team that's still not good enough to win more than their share against the other good teams. Of course, the Bengals play more than their fair share against the top teams, finishing this season 2-4 against division winners. No other team played so many against division winners except the San Francisco 49ers (2-4) and New York Giants (1-5).

The league will be a little more kind over the next offseason to the Bengals, who can set about consolidating their team on the line of scrimmage. Next year's schedule won't be so challenging. The Bengals ought to cut back a bit on the arrests, but they otherwise are on their way to a victorious future. Or at least to a bearable future.

We still don't know about Mick Cronin's long-term future with the UC basketball team or Brian Kelly's apparently short-term future with the UC football team, but the early evidence is promising. Cronin replaced the legendary Bob Huggins after the latter fell out with the university administration while players and fans in Huggins' thrall promised hell to pay. Kelly came to UC for greener pastures in place of Mark Dantonio, who left for greener pastures.

Kelly will take his Dantonio's UC team to the International Bowl in Toronto Saturday against Western Michigan. This is how college football works now: You get one coach for the season and a different coach for the bowl game.

Kelly promised the UC crowd at the Crosstown Shootout an entertaining football team, but one could tell from his comments about filling Nippert Stadium that he has no idea what he's up against. When he understands, he'll be gone.

Cronin is a different creature with a different program, a Cincinnati native taking on Bearcats basketball. He's already distinguished himself by molding a competitive team from the recruits left over when everyone else was done eating, and the situation will only improve as he puts in his program. No one should be too surprised if the Bearcats are back in the NCAA Tournament by 2008 and if they go every year for a very long time.

The year's best news concerned the Reds, who changed hands from the frigid ownership of Carl Lindner to the enthusiasm of Bob Castellini, who brought in General Manager Wayne Krivsky to install a more adult version of baseball. The Reds will be about pitching and fielding now. Fans will learn to love it, if the Reds start winning.

The year's most mixed news came to hockey fans. We already knew the Mighty Ducks took off for Portland, Maine, in 2005, then a proposed replacement team in Cincinnati for this year faltered because it couldn't sell the 2,000 season tickets needed to activate an American Hockey League franchise. In October, a group from Windsor, Ontario, bought the skeleton franchise with plans to move it before 2008.

With the Ducks gone, though, the Cyclones are back after two years in the cooler. Eyes rolled all over town on that day in 1990 when news emerged of minor league hockey coming back to Cincinnati. But the Cyclones were such a hit that the Ducks came along shortly later, only to stress the market with two hockey teams.

Both teams fizzled to the point at which the city went last winter without minor league hockey, but the year ends with hockey back in Cincinnati. Who said it was just another year?