Fans of the Cincinnati Bengals know all about down times. For a period of nearly 20 years, they were considered one of the worst franchises in all of sports, inept both on and off the field. From bad draft picks that couldn’t produce, to poor head coaching hires that didn’t work out, the Bengals, and their fans, had to endure a lot of losing, In the years from 1991 until 2005, Cincinnati never made the playoffs and didn’t even have a single year with a winning record, instead posting a cumulative record of 71-153. The emotions of fans ranged from apathy, to embarrassment, to anger.
The years after 2005, when the Bengals finally broke through the playoff barrier, have been kinder to fans, especially the most recent seasons. Having made the playoffs in three of the previous four years has fans feeling much happier and more excited about the future. The key to the franchise’s renaissance has been the ability to draft well and make good decisions with the team’s money. Instead of recklessly adding big names, they have placed much more emphasis on the NFL Draft, and little importance on free agency, other than to add depth. This shift in philosophy is more in line with what the league’s consistently good teams do, and would appear to enable them to stay a contender. While this method of building a team has proven to be effective, it does leave fans feeling anxious during free agency. Watching other teams add star players is hard enough, even for supporters of great franchises. Watching other teams add star players as a fan of a team with a history like the Bengals can be agonizing.
Once again, the free agency period has begun, and the Bengals have been quiet, having signing only some of their own free agents, and only making basic inquiries about anybody else. With a team that is seemingly close to a breakthrough, a large portion of the fanbase is on pins and needles, wanting to see a move toward that goal. Many fans are clamoring for a major signing, with the thinking that it could be the move that puts Cincinnati in the Super Bowl instead of watching from home. With nearly a week gone and most of the biggest stars already taken, it looks like the Bengals will stay true to their plan of building through the draft, minimizing large contracts that go along with big free agents. Fans will have to trust Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown once more this offseason, and trust that they will continue the right moves. However, those who recall the dark days of the late 1990s can’t forget those times, and a few bad offseasons will bring those memories flooding back. If this plan fails due to a bad draft, and the team takes a big step back, the angry murmuring over failing to sign free agents will become a roar, and Bengals Nation could enter a state of rebellion.