'Everybody used to laugh at us': How Cincinnati Bengals shed loser label, built hungry playoff team

Charlie Goldsmith
Cincinnati Enquirer

CINCINNATI — Most of the Cincinnati Bengals players who will look to break the franchise’s 31-year streak without a playoff weren’t around for the jokes.

There was a stretch of Bengals history during the 2010s where the players, the coaching staff and the front office were constantly under fire. There was no playoff success. Piled on was the weight of five consecutive losing seasons. 

Bengals running back Joe Mixon heard it all.

“Everybody used to laugh at us on the schedule,” Mixon said. “They’d be like, 'Oh, we're going to play the Bengals, this is stat week.' Now there ain't no laughing and no playing and joking no more. They know what's going on. They know how we're coming.”

Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) celebrates during the Jan. 2 win against the Kansas City Chiefs.

On Saturday, the AFC North champion Bengals will host the Las Vegas Raiders in the first round of the playoffs. Quarterback Joe Burrow is an MVP candidate, head coach Zac Taylor is a favorite for Coach of the Year and wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase was voted a Pro Bowl starter.

In just a few years, perceptions of an entire franchise changed.

When Burrow took the podium at the 2020 NFL combine, the first question he had to answer was whether he would be willing to play for the Cincinnati Bengals.

To Burrow, all of the reasons to not play for the Bengals were just problems he could fix by winning. 

“I never thought about (Bengals history),” he said after the Bengals clinched the AFC North title. “There was never any thought that this team hasn’t won a playoff game or been very good for a while. It was, ‘What can I do to come in, play good football and prove to the organization that I was the right guy to draft?’”

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Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow throws a pass during warmups prior to a Jan. 2 game.

In 2019, the Bengals were a franchise with a young head coach, an aging quarterback  and a disheartened fan base. The team didn’t have an exciting young core, wide receiver A.J. Green was hurt and quarterback Andy Dalton got benched on his birthday.

There was no Ring of Honor, there were out-of-date uniforms and a game-day experience that needed significant investment. When the Bengals finished the year with a 2-14 record, the franchise had another straw on their back.

“It was frustrating, but it’s one of those things where you learn that they’ll say what they want to say no matter what,” said Bengals punter Kevin Huber, a captain and a Cincinnati native. “We knew what we were trying to build. We said the fans can jump back on the bandwagon when we’re winning.”

Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah (87) high fives fans after a 34-31 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bengals history has had a few years that stand out as memories, including the AFC title years of 1981 and 1988, the emergence in 2005 and the 8-0 start in 2015. But sandwiched in between, the Bengals had the Lost Decade of the 1990s, multiple quarterback busts, franchise-shaking injuries and five consecutive playoff defeats.

The Bengals were infamous for not having a practice facility, not spending on free agents and maintaining a small front office. 

“It’s taken patience to get to this point, and the journey was a quest to be positive,” said Bengals fan Jeff Wagner, a season ticket holder since 1968. “It’s been painstaking to get here. It’s been a journey and a process. It’s been an emotional roller coaster.”

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According to Wagner, the pre-draft conversation about Burrow felt like a potential low point. If Burrow didn’t want to play for the Bengals, then the entire 2019 season that resulted in the No. 1 pick would have been for nothing, and there wouldn’t have been a Heisman-winning quarterback playing at Paul Brown Stadium in his home state.

The conversation lacked credibility. But it was a “what if” question the Bengals were still held accountable for. Huber said that conversation was one of the most tiring ones that he has heard in his 13 NFL seasons.

“A lot of that was people talking loudly, just to get a reaction,” Huber said. “For someone to say that someone else didn’t want to play, especially something about Burrow not wanting to play in Cincinnati, they obviously don’t know Joe Burrow. Of anybody in the building, he wants to play in Cincinnati and win more than anyone else.”

Bengals punter Kevin Huber, a captain and Cincinnati native, lived through the years of losing.

Some of the franchise’s changes over the last two years were beyond Burrow’s control. Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin made some of the best draft decisions of his career in 2020 and 2021. Taylor brought modern offensive concepts and a new leadership style to the locker room. 

Director of Strategy and Engagement Elizabeth Blackburn led efforts to improve the franchise’s relationship with the fan base, including adding a Ring of Honor and a Ruler of the Jungle tradition.

Burrow was the final piece who made the Bengals relevant, cool and on the rise.

“I know the ownership that we have has taken a lot of heat, but they do a great job and have done a great job building this team,” Burrow said. “A lot of credit to the Brown family for doing that. Like I said, they did a great job hiring Zac. Couldn't have asked for a better situation from ownership all the way down.”

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Following the Bengals Week 17 win over the Kansas City Chiefs, Burrow credited the organization’s patience with a young roster. Taylor has acknowledged that many ownership groups wouldn’t have given him a third season after he won six games in his first two years. 

Bengals defensive end Sam Hubbard was told after the Chiefs game that owner Mike Brown was “on the verge of tears.” As a Cincinnati native, Hubbard said he could relate to the struggle of turning the franchise into a winner.

Hubbard is one of the only remaining holdovers from the 2018 Bengals. Nearly the entire franchise has changed around him, except wide receiver Tyler Boyd, Mixon, safety Jessie Bates and a few others.

Huber said it was a gradual process seeing players “buy in” over the last three seasons. As nearly the entire roster changed, Huber said the point that he stressed was ignoring the messaging from outside the franchise.

Before 2020, that was easier said than done. 

The result has been a team that’s favored heading into Saturday’s home playoff game against the Las Vegas Raiders. For a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1991, it’s another sign that this year’s Bengals team isn’t burdened with the past.

“Being a part of this with the new regime, I’ve been seeing what’s been brewing,” Huber said. “I’ve been seeing what this organization and Zac have been trying to get toward. We’re getting the fruits of the labor for the work that’s been put in. People doubted us, and we showed that we’re putting it together.”