An Open Letter to the Cincinnati Bengals

Dear Cincinnati Bengals,

I think we need some time apart. We’ve been together on an on-again-off-again basis since 1978, and we’ve been inseparable since 2001. So it’s not like I’ve come to this decision lightly.

But I just don’t know if I can do this anymore.

Your performance in Saturday night’s Wild Card Game loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t just rank; it was offensive. I don’t just mean in executing the game plan. I mean all around — as football players, as professionals, as human beings.

All week, you talked a pretty good game about how you’d learned from the past. You told anyone who would listen this wasn’t going to be the same old stuff we’d seen before. Inasmuch as this was the most disgusting football game I’ve ever watched, I suppose that’s true.

For years, I’ve been complaining that you do not play with poise in big games. You melt down when it’s really on the line, when it’s time to step up. When it is time to be tough, you’re soft.

You can talk all you want about the important regular season games you’ve won to get into the playoffs over the years. I can point to just as many wherein you folded and blew it. Two of those games were against these same Pittsburgh Steelers — the final game of 2006 (when beating a 7-9 Steelers team would have put you in the playoffs) and the final game of 2014 (when beating Pittsburgh would have won you the AFC North and given you a first-round bye).

But leaving all that aside, let’s look at the playoffs. You’ve been six times in the last seven years. You’ve gone seven times total in 13 seasons. You were favored to win nearly every time.

But you’ve lost every single one.

I’ll excuse last year. You went into Indianapolis with half the offense on injured reserve. QB Andy Dalton had virtually no one to throw to. Last year is a gimme (although if you hadn’t choked against Pittsburgh the week before, some of those injured players would have been well enough to play the next week).

But the rest of those games are on you. Every one of them involved a meltdown of some sort, and none was more egregious than Saturday’s.

Your two oldest veterans — the heart and soul of the locker room — couldn’t even hold it together, let alone the young, emotional guys like Vontaze Burfict. LT Andrew Whitworth false-started twice in the early going, short-circuiting critical, momentum-building drives. DT Domata Peko ran onto the field and shoved a Steelers player right in front of the referee.

Those guys are both 10-year veterans. They were playing in their seventh post-season game. If those guys don’t have the poise to execute with everything on the line, how can we expect a young, fiery linebacker like Burfict to keep his cool? How can we expect a second-year running back to secure the ball, when he’s trying to run out the clock? How can we expect a guy with a reputation for a bad temper to keep his cool, when he’s being taunted by an enemy coach who shouldn’t be on the field?

I get it. The Steelers are a dirty football team. They are a classless, cheap-shotting gang of ruffians that gets away with illegal hits and other rules infractions.

And you played right into their hands. Again. You let them goad you into losing your cool. You let them trick you into playing stupid football.

And so, for the fifth year in a row and the sixth in the last seven, you’re saying, “Next year, things will be different. We’re going to learn from this, and change the way we do things.”

I’ve heard that before. I hear it every year from you.

But just like an abusive husband who promises to stop beating his wife, just like an inveterate liar who swears this time you can trust her, just like a drug addict who vows to quit using, you return to your weak-minded ways. You have no poise when it matters.

And I’ve no reason to believe this is going to change. Because you don’t change. No matter how many times this occurs, you stick with head coach Marvin Lewis.

At some point, the head coach has to take responsibility. He prepares the team for a game. He spends the season instilling his values on the organization. And no matter all the other things he’s accomplished, Marvin Lewis has not been able to instill playoffs poise in a single player on any of his 13 teams.

But he’s still here. He signed an extension at the beginning of the season, and this latest, ugliest, most shameful playoffs meltdown has not persuaded owner Mike Brown to reverse course. I am beginning to think Carson Palmer was right when he demanded to be traded because the organization was unwilling to do the things necessary to win.

So, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can do this anymore. I bleed Stripes. Cincinnati sports in my very soul. But I just can’t support you any longer until you show some real signs of change.

But it’s not just the Bengals. I could choose another team to root for. I could pick the Cleveland Browns, if I wanted to stay in Ohio. Or I could go with my childhood hometown of Green Bay, or I could pick Kansas City, where I spent much of my adult life. There are other teams I could root for.

But I don’t want to. I’m a Cincinnati sports fan. I want to root for my team, not just switch loyalties.

Moreover, Saturday night’s disgusting display of on-field thuggery is partially the league’s fault. The NFL sent the same officiating crew that couldn’t keep control of the last Steelers-Bengals game. Those idiots let things escalate into the fracas that ultimately led to the penalties that cost the Bengals the game.

Vontaze Burfict has already been suspended for his illegal hit on Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown. But there has been no fine levied on Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier for his vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Bengals running back Giovani Bernard.

Moreover, that hit was illegal, and no flag was thrown. The Bengals would have had the ball inside the Steelers 10. That would likely have led to at least three points in a game the Bengals lost by two. Instead, there was no penalty, and Pittsburgh recovered the fumble that resulted from Shazier knocking Bernard unconscious.

And the viciousness of the hit, the unrepentant illegality of it, and the lack of a flag, combined with the turnover, drove the Bengals insane. The game turned on that moment. Not only did Cincinnati come away with no points on a critical drive, from that point forward, they were looking to hurt the Steelers.

And that’s the NFL’s fault. They knew this game could get ugly. They warned both teams to watch their conduct. Then they sent an officiating crew that had proven it could do nothing to stop it until it was out of hand.

That’s the NFL for you. Last year, Patriots QB Tom Brady was caught cheating in the AFC Championship Game. The league waited to punish him for it until after he had won the Super Bowl.

The NFL is unconcerned with justice or even in enforcing its own rules. Why else would there be a suspension levied for concussing one of its greatest players (Antonio Brown) but not one of its lesser known ones (Giovani Bernard)?

So it’s not just that I think the Bengals and I need to break up. I think it’s football altogether.

That makes me sad. I love this game. I love watching it. I loved playing it when I was younger.

But I’m tired of it abusing me. I’m tired of hypocrisy and meltdowns and always hearing, “Just wait ’til next year!” I’m tired of having my heart broken.

So I think I’m done. I’ve watched every Super Bowl except one since Super Bowl XI, but I’m not sure I’m going to tune in this year. I used to watch the NFL Draft religiously, but I’m thinking I’ll have better things to do with my time in late April. I’ll be cancelling my subscription to NFL Sunday Ticket.

It’s possible I’ll change my mind. Time can heal, and the smell of fall turns my mind to football. Perhaps I’ll give in and come back to you.

I wouldn’t bet on it, though. Until you show some willingness to change, I just don’t think I can take your abuse anymore.

I’m sorry. Good luck.

Sincerely,
John

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