This was originally published in The Athletic....
My memories of the spring of 1999 are a little grainy, mainly because that May is when I graduated from college. I spent the weeks before and immediately after getting my diploma behaving in the ways you’re supposed to when you’re 21 and about to enter the real world.
So I was too busy killing brain cells and compromising my memory to pay attention to most of what was happening, but a few fuzzy recollections do pop into my head when I try to think of that time period.
I remember the New York Knicks beginning an improbable run to the NBA Finals as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. It was big deal for me then as the only certifiable fan of that franchise living in Dayton and remains seminal two decades later as a lonely Cincinnati-based supporter of the worst franchise in sports.
And I somewhat vividly recall listening to reports that indicated the New Orleans Saints were perhaps desperate enough to hand over a huge haul of draft picks to a team that owned an early pick in the ’99 draft in order to select Ricky Williams. I also recall thinking to myself that with the Bengals owning a roster bereft of talent and having nearly an entire decade’s worth of consecutive losing seasons behind them, it would be swell if the Bengals became the beneficiary of Mike Ditka’s infatuation with the Texas running back.
You don’t need to have stayed sober throughout the process to remember what ended up happening. The Saints found a trading partner, dealing to Dan Snyder’s Redskins their first-, third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks in the 1999 draft – every pick they had – and their first- and third-round choices in the 2000 draft in exchange for the fifth overall pick in ’99, which was used by the Saints to take Williams. Ditka and Williams would end up posing together for an infamous ESPN The Magazine cover photo while the Redskins did some more draft maneuvering, ultimately sending some of the New Orleans picks to Chicago to move back up to the seventh to take future hall of famer Champ Bailey. Ditka would retire from coaching after a third and final losing campaign in New Orleans. Washington would make the playoffs the season after the trade, then spend the first two decades of the new millennium as the NFL’s version of the Knicks. And the Bengals would eventually graduate into relevance after having to endure a few years of the Akili Smith experience.
Smith was taken by the Bengals with the third pick of the 1999 NFL Draft, the third quarterback selected that year, behind Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb, and ahead of 12 players who would each become Pro Bowl selections. Smith laughably told reporters that he possessed John Elway’s arm on Randall Cunningham’s body. Then he became what felt like the 21st straight Bengals first-rounder to stage a training camp holdout before spending parts of the next four seasons losing 14 of his 17 starts while throwing 13 interceptions to five touchdowns, and generally publicly and privately acting – by his own admission these days – like an ass.
In the days leading up to the ’99 draft, Mike Brown reportedly turned down an insanely generous offer from the Saints that included all six of their 1999 picks, plus their first-round picks in both 2000 and 2001 as well as their second-round choice in 2002 in exchange for the third overall pick, which the Bengals ended up using on the Oregon quarterback who’d made just 11 college starts. While it is easy to use revisionist history and claim that the Bengals’ owner got it wrong by hanging on to his first-round pick and turning down the deal, it is staggering to think about the way things would’ve played out had Brown signed off on the deal. Would accepting New Orleans’ offer have guaranteed that the picks acquired would’ve helped lead the Bengals to things like playoff victories and – gasp! – championships? Uh, no.
Would it have stood out at least at the time as the kind of creative, outside-the-box draft move that the Bengals just don’t make? Yep.
Was it at all surprising 20 years ago to read and hear the Cincinnati Bengals were standing pat? My memories of the spring of 1999 might be clouded by a combination of alcohol and time, but I don’t remember being at all surprised at management’s unwillingness to do something a little bit different.
Why am I bringing up both stuff that happened and didn’t happen 20 years ago? Because here we are, with the hellish experience of another terrible Bengals season nearing an end, and with it all but being settled that Mike Brown will go into next spring’s draft with a first-round pick that’s at least as high, and likely higher, than the one he used on Akili Smith in 1999. The only thing that matters with this franchise right now is how the Bengals can use the 2020 NFL Draft to get itself out of the seemingly bottomless hole they dig deeper on nearly a weekly basis.
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