Hope springs infernal in Cincinnati where, God help us, we believed the Bengals would be good this fall, for the second consecutive season. It's a peculiar, Charlie Brown faith that sustains Bengals fans, and it was furthered last offseason. A good defensive team took bold, very un-Bengals-like leaps to strengthen the offense. They signed Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens. They took a pass-catching tight end, Jermaine Gresham, in the first round of the draft. They found a useful wideout, Jordan Shipley, in Round 3.
Coming off a division title in '09, things looked bright.
How quickly we forget.
These are the Bengals.
The Bengals haven't had consecutive winning seasons since 1982. They haven't won a playoff game since 1990, which makes sense, given the Bengals have only played in two playoff games since 1990.
Halfway home this year, the Bengals are nowhere. They are 2-6, with a game Sunday at Indianapolis. Very likely, the Bengals will be favored to win no more than two of their last eight, home games with Buffalo and Cleveland. That would give them a 4-12 record and make the 2010 club the most disappointing in the franchise's 43 seasons, in a town where NFL disappointment is a way of life.
There are tangible reasons for failure in 2010. Probably, some of them are good.
The Bengals don't rush the passer. They have seven sacks in eight games. They don't protect the passer. Carson Palmer has been sacked 14 times and has spent considerable time swiveling his head.
Palmer, the erstwhile elite quarterback, is inconsistent. Some of it is not his fault. How would you like to run the playpen inhabited by both Owens and Chad Ochocinco?
On offense, the play calling is unimaginative. Fans at Paul Brown Stadium can be heard yelling "Cedric Benson, off tackle!'' before a play when Cedric Benson runs off tackle.
Coach Marvin Lewis appears burned out, maxed out and, occasionally, spaced out. Regardless, Lewis, in the last year of his contract, likely will be out after this season, probably by his own choosing.
Of course, there is the matter of ownership. The Bengals run an NFL corporation like a corner store that sells pretzel rods from a jar by the cash register. The media guide lists one scout. The "personnel department'' includes four people not directly related to the owner (five if you count a secretary) and two "consultants.''
Cincinnati's loss Monday night to the Pittsburgh Steelers was the 200th in Mike Brown's 20-year tenure as the team's president and majority owner. Brown is now the quickest owner to 200 defeats in NFL history, surpassing former Atlanta Falcons owner Rankin Smith.
So there is all of that. None of it explains the Bengals.
To do that, you have to take a trip back in time, before the Bengals moved into Paul Brown Stadium, the taxpayer-financed luxury venue they've occupied since 2000. Back to Spinney Field, several acres of flatland just west of downtown, beneath a viaduct that leaked toxic crud that literally stripped the paint from cars parked below its span.
There, you will see former Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson, trying to dry his massive body with a towel the size of a floor mat. Anderson was 6-foot-5 and weighed 340 pounds. In his mitts, the towel looked like a Kleenex.
That was the Bengals.
So was this: Former MVP quarterback Boomer Esiason, sitting in a meeting with new and completely unqualified coach Dave Shula, when Shula asked all the players for their home phone numbers. Esiason gave Shula the number for a local pizza restaurant.
And this: ESPN had a camera in quarterback David Klingler's living room, when the Bengals took the former University of Houston star with the sixth overall choice in the '92 draft. Klingler's nationally televised response was something along the lines of, "Oh, no.''
After the Lost Decade of the 90s -- 52 wins, 43 if you don't count 9-7 in 1990 --there wasn't a grocery bag big enough for this franchise's head.
Over the years, some of us honed our survival skills. Self preservation is the strongest human instinct. I've been here since '88. I've witnessed 350 Bengals football games, give or take. Don't feel sorry for the players, who make lots of money and are generally gone after a few years. Don't feel bad for the fans. They are addicts and enablers. The Bengals have sold out 57 consecutive home games.
Bengals fans are the Kevin Bacon character in Animal House, the frat pledge begging for another paddle-whacking:
"Thank you sir, may I have another!''
Plus, fans can leave. They can walk away from love, anytime they want.
Feel sorry for me. I have to watch this stuff, week after year after decade. Real men don't leave. Especially if they're getting paid. We learn to deal.
During one especially horrid stretch of football -- it could have been the 3-13 year in '93 or the 3-13 year in '94 or the 3-13 of '98 or the consecutive leaps to 4-12 in '99 and 2000, the mind hazes -- I offered in print to rake the leaves in someone's yard, instead of attending yet another Bengals disaster. My only requirement was that the game not be on. I got several hundred responses and spent a fabulous fall afternoon piling up a stranger's dead leaves by the curb.
One other time, 12 games into another season of abject hopelessness, I suggested in print that I would very much like to not write about the Bengals the rest of the year. I had run out of synonyms for "lousy.'' During games, I had begun retreating, shellshocked, to the media dining area behind the Paul Brown Stadium press box, where a bank of TVs displayed actual NFL games.
After 12 games, I asked the readers for mercy. Will you parole me from the last month of the Bengals season?
A few thousand responded. Some said, "Take a break, we feel for you.'' Many more said, "Only if you make it permanent.''
By then, I had watched so much terrible football, I could predict, Nostradamus-like, exactly when the Bengals would do something so hideous on the field that it would surpass anything else hideous they'd done that day.
I called them Bengal Moments. BMs.
The finest Bengal Moment occurred in Week 2 of the glorious, 2-14 campaign in 2002. Bengals quarterback Gus Frerotte was flushed from the pocket (either that, or he took the snap and immediately started running for his life), ran left, crossed the scrimmage line, then threw a left-handed pass.
It was intercepted, naturally, by a Cleveland defensive end named Kenard Lang, who returned it 71 yards.
Just before that play, I'd turned to the reporter to my left, another guy sentenced to spending his fall Sundays witnessing football atrocities. "Time for a Bengal Moment,'' I'd said.
More than two decades into it, I have also developed an acute awareness of when a player or coach has been overwhelmed and/or given in to the way things are done in Bengaldom. These individuals become beaten down to the point of apathy. Symptoms include shrugging shoulders, hands in a palms-upward position of supplication and a 20-mile stare into the middle elsewhere, where NFL teams have scouting departments and the towels are bigger.
Everyone who works for the Bengals becomes Bengal-ized, sooner or later.
It's not a franchise determined to win. Not at all. Winning is a want in Bengaldom, like hitting the Powerball jackpot or marrying a Victoria's Secret model. It's not exactly a calling. Ownership makes money, regardless.
So why aren't the 2010 Bengals winning? Why aren't they as good as advertised?
Because they're the Bengals.
That's the best I can do.
They're Big Willie Anderson, emerging from the shower with a towel that would fit on a business envelope. Twenty years of losing, and losing becomes who you are.
We believed they would be good, for the second year in a row.
We should have known better.