From the comfort of my uneasy chair Friday, I watched the past rewind. I never thought I'd see a return of the sort of stricken football I witnessed throughout the Lost Decade of the 1990s, as a sad hack covering the Bengals. Not even in Cincinnati, home office for stricken football. But, dear God, there it was:
In about 15 minutes of real time, the rookie quarterback had thrown an interception on his first professional pass. A fumble had been lost on a kickoff return. The Detroit Lions led by two touchdowns. I mean, the Detroit Lions. A doormat shouldn't be able to wipe its feet. Not even on another doormat. I needed to lie down in a cool place.
There are good places in the NFL, real football spots such as Green Bay and Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Football is "fun" there. It makes fans "happy." Folks there are "excited'' to watch their teams "win."
And there are places such as Cincinnati. Cincinnati is unlike any other NFL place. Even the locals can't stand the home team.
History does repeat itself, dammit. The Lost Decade has become Groundhog Decade. Bill Murray is back, this time in pads, wondering why it's always 1992 (Bengals record: 5-11) and David Klingler is getting sacked 13 times in his first pro start.
So what, you might say.
Fans in Cincinnati, diehards who remember 1994 (3-13) like it was Valley Forge, are trying to forget pro football exists in their own town. Why should anyone outside of Cincinnati care?
Because as Archie Bunker reminded us, "There's a little bit of me in all of youse.''
The Bengals might have invented town-gown alienation in the NFL. They're not alone in attempting to perfect it. Raise your hand in Washington, Buffalo and Oakland, if you know what I mean.
Futility everlasting should not be an option in the socialist NFL. Every card player comes to the table with the same aces. It takes the rare franchise to mess up a good, Marxist thing. It takes an even more rare fan to endure it. Because I am a veteran, I know what it takes. DC, Buffalo, Oakland ... Cleveland, Carolina, Detroit ... I am here for you.
By about 2000 (4-12), I'd stopped taking the Bengals seriously. In Game 3 that year, running back Corey Dillon refused to return to the contest. The coach, Bruce Coslet, resigned the next day. Dillon said he'd rather flip burgers than play for the Bengals. I went to a local McDonald's and did just that. It wasn't bad.
Even before that, the temptation to write jokes instead of columns was great. The Bengals were, after all, like watching a good comedian. You didn't know how he'd be funny, only that he would be.
I coined a few terms. I should have gotten the patents, because the sayings have endured. They are, in fact, timeless:
• Bengalized: A state of perpetual, beaten-down despondency, brought on by overexposure to the way owner Mike Brown runs the team. Characterized by overtly bad body lean and a blank stare into the middle distance. Best evidenced by coaches who've been in Cincinnati too long. See: Coslet, Bruce; and Lewis, Marvin.
If you're in Washington or Oakland, just replace "Mike Brown'' with "Dan Snyder'' or "Al Davis."
• Bengal Moments: Inescapably definitive and horrid examples of how one franchise can find new and different ways to lose. Epitomized by former Bengals QB Gus Frerotte in 2002 (2-14). In a game at Cleveland, Frerotte was flushed from the pocket. He rolled left and, just before going out of bounds, threw a left-handed pass. That would have been understandable, except Frerotte was right-handed. A Browns defensive lineman intercepted the pass and rumbled some 60 yards before being tackled.
I amused myself and my heathen-media buddies by predicting Bengal Moments right before they occurred. Nailing the Frerotte Moment was among my finest achievements.Even if it wasn't all that difficult.
Plays like that occurred every week. Now, they're back. Andy Dalton kicked off Groundhog Decade Friday night, on the Bengals first play. With Ndamukong Suh in his facemask, Dalton threw deep and futilely in the direction of rookie wideout A.J. Green. The ball was intercepted. And away we go.
I could call them BMs. But that would be childish.
• The Lost Decade: Actually, the 12 years between 1991 and 2002, when the Bengals went 2-14 once, 3-13 four times and 4-12 twice. I got so good at jokes, Letterman had me on speed dial.
I ran a contest in my newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, asking people why I should rake their leaves on Sunday, instead of going to the game. The only requirement was that they not have the game on as I raked.
I wrote a travel report instead of a game column, the day after the Bengals played in Seattle, the theory being the games were the penance for some pretty good trips. I recommend Queen Anne Hill and the drive out to Snoqualmie.
In the Internet's infancy, I conducted a poll, asking readers if I could take the last 4 weeks of the season off, given my mind was damaged and I'd run out of synonyms for "lousy.'' Of the approximately 1,000 responses, 75 percent said I could. Many suggested I never come back.
Often, I'd retreat to the press dining area wherever the Bengals were playing. There, a bank of TVs offered every game in the NFL being played at the moment. I was incredulous: So that's what it looks like. Monday Night Football offered a similar revelation.
When the Browns returned to Cleveland, I wrote a letter to the city's mayor, thanking him for bringing the NFL back to Ohio.
I learned that people who watch a Stephen King novel on Sunday afternoon don't want to be scared again Monday morning, when they open the paper. I tried to make them laugh. They seemed to like it. It kept me away from ledges.
Comedy isn't pretty, Steve Martin observed. But it beats the alternative. And sometimes, it's all we've got. Take heart, Oakland, DC and Buffalo. Or take cover.