It is no secret in Cincinnati that the 1990s were the dark ages for football. The Bengals had reached the Super Bowl in the 1988, only to lose in the last seconds to legendary quarterback Joe Montana. Two years later, they defeated the Houston Oilers in the first round of the playoffs in January of ’91, but no one would expect it would still be the team’s last playoff victory to date.
Shortly after the win over Houston, everything changed. Head coach Sam Wyche was gone after a 3-13 season in 1991 and was replaced by Dave Shula, who would be fired in the middle of the 1996 campaign after an abysmal 19-52 overall record.
He was replaced by Bruce Coslett, who led the Bengals to a 7-2 record in his first year in ’96, resulting in a .500 season, the team’s lone non-losing season in the decade besides their playoff year in 1990.
A 7-9 record in ‘97 preceded a 3-13 finish in ’98, the club’s fifth year with 10-plus losses in the last eight seasons.
Despite all the losses and the rise of the term “Bungles,” the 1999 NFL Draft gave the team a chance to change their fortunes.
Prior to ‘99, the Bengals’ habit of first-round busts had run rampant.
1992: 6th overall, quarterback David Klingler (Houston): lasted just four seasons and lost his starting job to Jeff Blake.
1994: 1st overall, defensive tackle Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson (Ohio State): Lasted just four seasons
1995: 1st overall, running back Ki-Jana Carter (Penn State): signed highest contract ever for a rookie at the time, missed entire rookie season after suffering torn knee ligament on his third preseason carry. Battled injuries his entire time in Cincinnati, lasted just five seasons.
1997: 14th overall, linebacker Reinard Wilson (Florida State): Started just 23 games in six seasons.
But the 1999 Draft was once again another chance for the laughing-stock Bengals. They had the third overall pick and were once again thinking quarterback after lacking stability with Klingler, Blake, Boomer Esiason and Neil O’Donnell in the previous six seasons.
The draft class was loaded at quarterback, with Tim Couch from Kentucky, Donovan McNabb out of Syrcause and Oregon University-product Akili Smith.
It was a chance to find their franchise quarterback for the future, but just before the draft, Cincinnati got the chance to sell their third overall selection in exchange for a whole lot more.
New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka, who had won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears 14 years earlier, was thirsty and impatient in his effort to bringing success to New Orleans after back-to-back 6-10 seasons. Ditka had his sights vividly set on Texas running back Ricky Williams, but needed to move up in the order to get him.
The Bengals sat at number three and were obviously not in the market for big-name running back after finding success in second-round pick Corey Dillon two years earlier. But Ditka needed to jump in front of the Indianapolis Colts, who held the number four pick and were searching for a running back after trading Marshall Faulk to the St. Louis Rams prior to the draft.
The result was a boatload of picks, nine to be exact, thrown to the Bengals by Ditka and the Saints for the number three pick, an offer Cincinnati’s front office eventually would decline, a decision that would come back to haunt them.
The Bengals stayed in their original spot and waited to see which quarterback would basically be handed to them.
Couch went first to the Browns and McNabb followed one pick later to the Eagles, leaving Cincinnati with Smith, who had just finished throwing 32 touchdowns in his final year at Oregon.
The Bengals had found their guy, but the celebration was short-lived. Right after being drafted, Smith held out of his rookie training camp due to contract disputes, and when he finally did hit the field, his struggles with inaccuracy and learning an NFL-style offense were evident.
In four seasons with the Bengals, Smith completely flushed into one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history, compiling a 3-14 record as a starter, throwing 13 interceptions, fumbling 13 more times and throwing just five touchdowns.
His biggest highlight in his tenure with the Bengals was in week four of the ’99 season, leading the offense on an 80-yard drive to beat the Cleveland Browns (and Couch) with a two-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Carl Pickens with five seconds left in front of the “Dawg Pound.”
Smith saw his last action with the Bengals in a 35-7 loss in 2002 to the eventual Super Bowl-Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and would be out of NFL football after being cut in ’03 by the Green Bay Packers and again in ’05 by the Bucs.
Cincinnati moved on to veteran Jon Kitna for the 2003 season (he would win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award that year) and finally got it right the same year in the draft by selecting Carson Palmer with the first overall pick.
But what might have been?
After the Bengals declined the offer from Ditka, the Saints had to settle with the Washington Redskins for the fifth overall pick in the draft to get Williams one spot after Indianapolis took running back Edgerrin James.
What did Washington do with the load of picks the Bengals could have received?
They cashed in—with Future Hall-of-Fame cornerback Champ Bailey, second-team All-Pro offensive tackle Jon Jansen and three-time All-Pro linebacker LaVar Arrington.
In addition, here’s the list of potential picks the Bengals’ passed on for Smith:
RB: Edgerrin James (4th overall, Indianapolis Colts): 11-year career, 12,246 rushing yards, 91 touchdowns, four-time Pro Bowl (1999, 2000, 2004, 2005), NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (1999), two-time second-team All-Pro (2000, 2004), two-time NFL rushing champion (1999 and 2000)
RB: Ricky Williams (5th overall, New Orleans Saints): 11-year career, 10,009 rushing yards, 74 touchdowns, Pro Bowl (2002), first-team All-Pro (2002), NFL rushing champion (2002)
WR: Torry Holt (6th overall, St. Louis Rams): 11-year career, 920 receptions, 13,382 yards, 74 touchdowns, seven-time Pro Bowl (2000, 2001, 2003-’07), first-team All-Pro (2003), second-team All-Pro (2006), two-time NFL receiving champion (2000, 2003)
CB: Champ Bailey (7th overall, Washington Redskins): 16-year career, 52 interceptions, four touchdowns, 12-time Pro Bowl (2000-2007, 2009-2012), three-time first-team All-Pro (2004-’06), three-time second-team All-Pro (2003, 2007, 2012), NFL interceptions champion (2006)
CB: Chris McAlister (10th overall, Baltimore Ravens): 11-year career, 26 interceptions, five touchdowns, three-time Pro Bowl (2003, 2004, 2006), two-time All-Pro (2003, 2004)
QB: Daunte Culpepper (11th overall, Minnesota Vikings): 11-year career, 24,153 passing yards, 183 touchdowns, three-time Pro Bowl (2000, 2003, 2004), two-time All-Pro (2000, 2004), NFL passing champion (2004)
DE: Jevon Kearse (16th overall, Tennessee Titans): 11-year career, 74 sacks, NFL Defensive Player of the Year (1999), AFC Defensive Player of the Year (1999), three-time Pro Bowl (1999-’01), first-team All-Pro (1999)
C: Damien Woody (17th overall, New England Patriots): 10-year career, 166 starts, Pro Bowl (2002), Pro Football Focus All-Pro (2009)
Luckily for the Bengals, time has passed and winning changes everything. The “Bungles” narrative is long gone with five consecutive trips to the playoffs and three division championships in the last 11 seasons, including two in the last three years.
As Cincinnati prepares for this year’s draft, they are in a great spot thanks to smart drafting-for-the-future methods installed with the arrival of Marvin Lewis in 2003.
The Bengals can look at their pick this year and be thankful that they are in a favorable position and not in the same situation they were in at the turn of the century. Thankful, they can be looking back at this and move on.