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My brother, who lives in New York, sent my six month-old a Christmas present that arrived on our front door on Saturday. It's a toy that takes hollow plastic balls and flings them into the air before they fall down a slide into a "pool" that funnels them into a chamber that ignites the whole process all over again.
My daughter is in love with this toy. It brings her the kind of joy that nothing else can, presenting a controlled chaos that sends her into a laughter-filled frenzy that would make you melt if you witnessed it. I could watch that little girl laugh for hours and be almost as entertained by her as she is by the toy.
I watched her watch this toy do its thing for about an hour yesterday morning. I watched as her wonder-filled eyes followed every ball, and I laughed every time a newly-released ball sent her into a guffaw.
And then I left to go to the Bengals game.
That's not entirely true. I met friends for pregame beers, and I enjoyed their company immensely before trudging with my layers of Bengals logo-ed clothing into Paul Brown Stadium. From there I watched the home team get slaughtered by an opponent that stopped playing for anything meaningful before Halloween. I saw a depleted team go through the motions as a coaching staff that's hopefully on its way out stood helplessly on the sideline as the season slipped away.
About ten blocks from where I sat, my kid giggled as she watched balls being flung into the air.
I have been a Bengals season ticket holder since 1998, with my dad owning our account until 2009 and me taking it over when he passed. With four exceptions, I've been to every Bengals game played at Paul Brown Stadium since the park opened, dutifully being there for every team PBS has housed, always aligning myself with the home team, faithfully cheering on both the best and worst of times, exulting in wins and often being crushed by losses.
I've been there when times were good. I've been there when times were bad. I was there when Paul Brown Stadium was THE place to be. I've been there when no one else wanted to go. I've been there when the city was swept up in what was happening at PBS. I've been there when no one cared about what was happening there.
I've been there when certain front office figures openly wished I wasn't, even though I was wearing their team's colors, hoping the guys wearing orange and black would find a way to win.
I was there yesterday.
As my kid sat at home playing with her new toy.
I watched the Bengals get trounced by the Bears, suffering a defeat that seemed almost preordained while going through the motions against a team that had even less to play for than they did. I'd walked into PBS hoping against hope that I'd maybe see a desperate team sell itself out in an effort to both cling to relevance and save its coach's job. Instead, I watched them lay down like wounded animals, waiting for their carcass to be picked apart.
A short walk away, my kid chuckled as balls got flung into the air.
Physically, I was at Paul Brown Stadium. Emotionally, I was on my living room carpet, watching my infant daughter laugh, oblivious to the football follies taking place just a short stroller ride away. I enjoyed great company, shared a few laughs, and spat out opinions on what was happening before us, but what was before us wasn't nearly as compelling as what my brother had sent my kid, and the fun she was having with it.
So as a dismal season crawls to a close, and as the Marvin Lewis era hopefully comes to an end, here's one of the challenges the Bengals face...
Get me off my living room carpet.
This isn't the hot take of someone who really couldn't care less about how well the Bengals play. Nor is it the lament of someone who rarely passes through Paul Brown Stadium's gates. It's the portrait of a lifelong fan at a crossroads, someone who's spent their entire life making the Bengals a priority who now needs a reason to keep them front and center, both with his free time and his discretionary income.
I need a reason to think that what I've watched this season won't be what I torture myself with next year. I need something to suggest that the half-assed effort against Chicago yesterday won't be repeated. I need a reason to get up and leave when my daughter is having the time of her life.
I need a new head coach. I need a team that looks like it gives a shit. I need something to convince me that I should peel myself away from my little girl and whatever it is that's making her laugh at that moment to go watch a football game. I need something that makes me want to invest money and time in a team that's more fun to watch than my daughter laughing at a plastic balls sliding down a slide.
I've been a Bengals fan since I was a little kid, having revolved entire weekends around their games since I was old enough to know what football is. There's never been any question about what I was doing on my fall Sundays. As long as the Bengals were playing, no matter how good or bad they were, I was watching.
And if they were home, I was there.
But now they've got competition. And it's not the Steelers. Or the Ravens. Or the utterly dreadful Bears team that just rolled them by 26 points. They've got someone more deserving of my time and of my money.
They've got a plastic toy that flings balls in the air, and a little girl who's infatuated by it.
I'm interested in knowing what they've got that's better.