This was originally published in The Athletic.
The final home game of a miserable season was played in a half-empty Paul Brown Stadium, with the Bengals slogging their way to a win in front tens of thousands of empty green seats as well as a few hearty fans who seemed mostly bored during a victory that allowed their unpopular, embattled coach to walk off the field a winner in what felt like possibly his final home game.
That was on Dec. 22, 2002.
Whenever I’ve been asked if I remember what the Bengals were like before Marvin Lewis became head coach, I think back to that chilly afternoon at PBS 16 years ago. The Bengals played the Saints that day, and after winning just once through their first 14 games, they pieced together a 20-13 triumph in what ultimately turned out to be Dick LeBeau’s final win as an NFL head coach. I don’t recall many particulars about the actual game, other than Nick Luchey getting a very brief star turn with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but I vividly remember the stadium. How barren it looked, how dead it felt, and from the perspective of someone who was questioning his own time and emotional investment in the team, how hopeless it felt to be sitting virtually by myself as one of the holdovers who still cared how the Bengals were faring.
Mainly, though, I remember looking around at the scores of empty seats thinking that there’s no conceivable way the status quo could remain.
Sunday’s experience at PBS felt, and looked, the same.
The Bengals ended a five-game losing streak on Sunday with a win over the Raiders that proved to be little more than a temporary stay of execution for their playoff hopes, which were officially crushed for good hours later. The particulars of the game don’t seem to matter much – the team’s overall performance was highlighted by a second consecutive big game from Joe Mixon, strong special teams work by Alex Erickson and some defensive dominance by veteran Geno Atkins and rookie Sam Hubbard. There are very few takeaways to cull from the win other than to maybe wonder how much different the offense would’ve been this season had Mixon been featured more prominently when the games actually mattered. Or to conclude the Bengals scored a coup in taking Hubbard with the 77th overall pick in last spring’s draft.
But if there’s a such thing as a series of indelible images and memories from a game pitting a 5-8 team against a 3-10 squad, it’s those of the stadium and environment in which is was played.
To read the entire piece, go to The Athletic.