The Bengals weathered a season with the only five-game road trip in franchise history, finishing 9-7 and claiming the AFC Central title out of a three-way tie with Houston and Pittsburgh. Cincinnati finished first based on best head-to-head record against the other two teams (3-1). Houston earned a Wild Card berth, and Pittsburgh missed postseason, based on the Oilers topping the Steelers in the tiebreaker of record against all AFC opponents. The Bengals had no assurance of making the playoffs entering the season's final day, but they earned the division title by beating Cleveland in an afternoon game, combined with a Houston victory over Pittsburgh that night. The Bengals had stayed in the race in Week 15 by pounding Houston 40-20 at Riverfront Stadium, and they pounded the Oilers again at home in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, prevailing 41-14. Cincinnati was eliminated the next week in the Divisional round at Los Angeles, falling 20-10 to the Raiders. In the L.A. game, Raiders RB Bo Jackson, the dual-sport superstar, suffered a hip injury in the third quarter when tackled by Bengals LB Kevin Walker. Though the tackle looked routine and the injury was not initially considered serious, it proved to be a hip dislocation that ended Jackson's pro football career. He never would play in another NFL game ,and in baseball, he would not again appear in as many as 100 games in a season. The Bengals had to play five straight regular-season games on the road because their scheduled Oct. 14 home game against Houston was moved to Houston, due to a stadium conflict with Reds postseason baseball play. The Reds in fact did not wind up playing at home on Oct. 14, but the schedule change had to be made in advance — on the basis of the baseball game being possible — because Riverfront Stadium's baseball/football conversion process was too cumbersome to allow a late decision. The Bengals schedule had called for two road games prior to Oct. 14 and two road games after Oct. 14. The Bengals finished 2-3 on the trip, and their scheduled Dec. 23 game at Houston was moved to Cincinnati. In the second of the five straight road games, a 34-31 overtime win against the L.A. Rams at Anaheim Stadium, Boomer Esiason passed for 490 yards, a team record that still stands through 2017. Esiason passed for only 412 yards before the overtime, however, leaving Ken Anderson's 447 in 1975 vs. Buffalo as the highest club total in regulation time. Prior to the season, offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet left the Bengals to become head coach of the N.Y. Jets, and in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener, at Riverfront, the Bengals beat the Jets 25-20.
Paul Brown, the Bengals' founder and first head coach, and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died on Aug. 5 at age 82, at his Cincinnati home. The cause of his death was complications from pneumonia. His funeral was held Aug. 7 in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio. Among those in attendance were NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, former commissioner Pete Rozelle, numerous team owners and eight Hall of Famers. Pall bearers included former Bengals Ken Anderson, Reggie Williams and Dave Lapham. As directed by Brown during his final days, the current coaches and players remained at work in training camp at Wilmington, Ohio during the days after Brown's death. But head coach Sam Wyche, a private pilot, flew his own plane from Wilmington to Massillon during a short break in his camp schedule. At the funeral, Pete Rozelle said: "Whether they know it or not, nearly everyone in the game of football has been affected by Paul Brown. His wealth of ideas changed the game." Brown's son Mike, a key figure in both bringing the Bengals to Cincinnati and in operating the club, took over as chief executive. The season, a major disappointment at 3-13, would be the eighth and final one for Wyche as Bengals coach. Following a Dec. 24 end-of-season meeting between Wyche and Mike Brown, the team announced that Wyche had unexpectedly resigned. Wyche interpreted events as his being fired, but there was no disagreement that his tenure had ended. On Dec. 27, the Bengals announced that WRs coach Dave Shula was promoted to replace Wyche. Shula, the son of legendary coach Don Shula, became at age 32 the second-youngest head coach in NFL history. (Harland Svare took over the L.A. Rams in 1962 at age 31). Mike Brown and Wyche went on to maintain cordial relations, and a disagreement over compensation for Wyche from his 1992 contract was later settled amicably. Wyche would go on to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as head coach from 1992-95. Prior to the season, the NFL announced new guidelines for media locker room access, action that had been sparked in large part by Wyche repeatedly expressing concern over the propriety of having female reporters in the locker room. Though the NFL maintained full access for all reporters, teams were instructed to screen shower areas from view, provide robes or extra-large towels to all players, and provide separate post-game interview areas for head coaches and key players.
In the franchise's 25th anniversary season, the team started 2-0 under new head coach Dave Shula, with wins at Seattle and vs. the L.A. Raiders. And they seemed a lock to go 3-0 the next week against an 0-2 Green Bay team under rookie head coach Mike Holmgren, leading almost all the way. But a little-known Packers QB, Brett Favre, made the first splash of what would become one of the NFL's greatest careers. Favre directed a 21-point fourth quarter for a 24-23 win. A second-year pro at the time, playing in only his fourth game, Favre had come off the bench to replace injured starter Don Majkowski in the first quarter. Favre's two TD passes, including a 35-yarder to unheralded WR Kittrick Taylor with 0:13 to play, were the first two of a total that would rise to an NFL-record 508. The Green Bay game was the start of a five-game losing streak for Cincinnati, and the team finished 5-11. The year was marked by news involving many of the franchise's biggest names. All-Pro OT Anthony Munoz, with 11 Pro Bowl selections on his resume, was limited to eight games by injuries and announced his retirement prior to playing in the season finale. Another Bengals icon, QB Boomer Esiason, was benched in favor of '92 top draft pick David Klingler after the team fell to 4-7. Esiason asked to be traded as the season ended, and the club said it would try to accommodate him. Early '92 was the end of the line for Ickey Woods, Cincinnati's 1988 rookie RB sensation. Woods had seen some action in '90 and '91, after suffering a season-ending '89 left knee injury, but his '91 year included a significant right knee injury, and he was waived after failing to show well in the '92 spring minicamp. WR Eddie Brown, a standout performer from 1985-91, saw his NFL career essentially ended by a ruptured disc in his neck discovered early in training camp. Brown underwent surgery and missed the season. He gained free agency after the season, but found the market slow and wound up re-signing with the Bengals. He was released in final 1993 preseason cuts and did not play again in the NFL. Through 1991, Brown ranked third in Bengals history in receiving yards (6134) and held club records for receiving yards in a game (216) and a season (1273). Bright spots in '92 included WR Carl Pickens, named Associated Press NFL Rookie of the Year, and RB Harold Green, whose 1170 rushing yards were second-most in club history to that point. After the season finale, the Bengals hired team QB legend Ken Anderson as QBs coach. In the Game 3 loss at Green Bay, Bengals rookie Pickens turned in a 95-yard punt return for a TD, the longest punt return through 2017 in Bengals history.
The difficult road toward the eventual 2000 completion of Paul Brown Stadium began in earnest in November of '93. At that time, Bengals president Mike Brown, with support from NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, sounded the call that Riverfront Stadium had become economically obsolete in the changing world of pro football. Brown warned that absent real progress on improving the Bengals' stadium situation, the club might be forced to consider moving. The first step toward a solution came in December, when the club agreed to stay at least through 1998, in exchange for a deal to partially renovate Riverfront and amend the team's lease. It was also stated that civic leaders would explore construction of a new stadium by the "early 2000s." The Bengals played their first season since 1984 without QB Boomer Esiason, who was traded to the N.Y. Jets in March for a third-round 1993 draft pick. David Klingler, Cincinnati's first-round 1992 selection, had taken over at QB at the end of 1992. Klingler directed late-season victories in '93 over the Rams and Falcons, but the bottom line was a 3-13 finish. Klingler had missed three games at mid-season, due to back problems, but veteran backup Jay Schroeder had been unable to right the ship. The '93 season was the most defense-dominated in Bengals history (through 2017), as Cincinnati and its foes averaged total combined points of only 31.6 per game. Preseason cuts had seen the Bengals release longtime kicker Jim Breech in favor of rookie Doug Pelfrey of Kentucky, a Greater Cincinnati native (Fort Thomas, Ky.) who would play for the team through 1999. Breech through 2017 is still Cincinnati's all-time leading scorer (1151). Breech started his Bengals career in 1980, after one season with Oakland, and through '17 he ranks third in NFL history in consecutive games played scoring at least one point (186). Changing public attitudes on smoking impacted Bengals fans in April, as Cincinnati City Council enacted a ban on smoking in seating areas at Riverfront Stadium, to take effect in 1994.
A shot of "Blake-mania" livened a 3-13 overall season. Due to injuries to QBs David Klingler and Donald Hollas, late-August waiver pickup Jeff Blake got a chance to start on Oct. 30 against Dallas, the two-time defending Super Bowl champions. Blake couldn't engineer the season's first win, but he threw for two TDs and had the Bengals up 20-17 until late in the third quarter of an eventual 23-20 loss. Blake went on to lead wins the next two weeks, at Seattle and vs. Houston. He remained the starter despite Klingler's return to health, and finished the year as a huge fan favorite, leading the NFL in pass completions of 50 or more yards (eight). In a nationally televised Oct. 2 Sunday night game at Riverfront, Miami's Don Shula and Cincinnati's Dave Shula became the first father and son to oppose one another as head coaches in North American major pro sports. The Dolphins won, 23-7. The Bengals closed the season with a unique comeback, beating Philadelphia 33-30 when Doug Pelfrey kicked two FGs in the last :03 of the fourth quarter. He connected from 22 yards at :03 to tie the score, then kicked a 54-yarder at :01, after the Bengals kickoff team recovered an Eagles muff at the Philadelphia 37. Though there is no official NFL record for multiple FGs in the waning seconds of a game, the Elias Sports Bureau confirms that from 1970 through 2017, no other player has kicked two in the last :03. On May 5, the Bengals signed Ohio State DT Dan Wilkinson, the first overall pick in the '94 draft. Wilkinson was the first player ever drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals (later to be joined in 1995 by RB Ki-Jana Carter and in 2003 by QB Carson Palmer). In December, fan favorite Tim Krumrie, a two-time Pro Bowler, announced his retirement, effective at season's end. Krumrie was honored by the team at the regular-season finale, and shortly after the season he was hired to the coaching staff. He served as a defensive assistant in 1995 and was promoted to defensive line coach in 1996. The two-point conversion was added to NFL rules prior to the '94 season, with the Bengals among 23 teams voting in favor, and in the first preseason game, when Cincinnati played against Tampa Bay and former head coach Sam Wyche, a Buccaneers two-point conversion was the deciding play in a 17-16 Tampa Bay win. Much debate and some controversy continued through the year as the Bengals and baseball's Reds negotiated with Cincinnati leaders about the need for a new stadium, or even two. As co-tenants with the Bengals at Riverfront, the Reds balked at parts of an agreement the Bengals had reached in 1993 for interim improvements at Riverfront, and in an attempt to resolve issues, a city/county Stadium Task Force was formed, led by Cincinnati mayor Roxanne Qualls and Hamilton County Commission president Guy Guckenberger. The Bengals meanwhile agreed to share the cost of major improvements to Spinney Field, the team's city-owned practice facility.
The Bengals were alive in the playoff race through Game 14, but were eliminated in a 26-10 loss at Cleveland in Game 15. The Dec. 17 Browns game was the last home game for Cleveland prior to the franchise's controversial move to Baltimore. The Bengals' 7-9 finish included a 2-0 start and wins in four of the last seven games, but Cincinnati lost six of seven in a midseason stretch, including a 26-23 home loss to Miami in "Shula Bowl II," as Bengals head coach Dave Shula opposed his father, Don, for the second straight year. The Bengals closed the season by erasing a 21-point deficit in a 27-24 win vs. Minnesota, tying the largest comeback to win in club history. Jeff Blake held serve on the No. 1 QB job he had gained in 1994, keeping David Klingler in a backup role, and both Blake and WR Carl Pickens earned Pro Bowl berths. Pickens set a franchise record for TDs (17, all receiving) that stands through 2017. (In receiving TDs only, no other Bengals player through 2017 has had more than 12.) The Bengals had retained Pickens for 1995 by matching a free agency offer he received from Arizona. The Bengals suffered a severe blow in preseason game three on Aug. 17 at Detroit, as RB Ki-Jana Carter of Penn State, the top overall pick in the '95 draft, was lost for the season to a severe knee injury. Carter, who had missed the first two preseason games with an ankle sprain, was lost at Detroit on his third Cincinnati carry. The Bengals had traded with Carolina to gain Carter as an offensive centerpiece, moving up in the first round for the first time in franchise history. Carter would come back to play seven NFL seasons, four of those for Cincinnati, but he never matched his college form at the pro level and closed with only 1144 career rushing yards. The year of 1995 was filled with issues regarding the Bengals' need for a new stadium. A lack of progress on the local front led club president Mike Brown to explore the possibility of a move to Baltimore, pressed by a deadline on Baltimore's end. But Brown repeatedly professed he had no desire to move the team unless forced to by an untenable local situation. On June 28, just minutes before a Bengals-set deadline, Cincinnati City Council voted 5-4 to approve a Hamilton County plan from Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus to raise the county sales tax by one percent to fund two new stadiums. In the end that proposal was scaled down to a one-half percent hike, funding stadiums and also providing homeowners with property tax relief. But after the County Commission voted to implement the tax, forces opposed to the increase successfully petitioned to make approval subject to a public referendum to be held in March of 1996. In October, Mike Brown announced that the Bengals for 1996 would move most of their front-office operation from Riverfront Stadium to the team's new practice facility building at Spinney Field.
Progress continued to be forged on the Bengals' efforts to secure their future in Cincinnati with a new stadium. The biggest step came on March 19, when Hamilton County voters approved by 61-to-39 percent a measure to fund new Bengals and Reds stadiums with a half-cent sales tax increase. The vote came after vigorous public debate, and the Cincinnati Post termed it a "landslide victory" for backers of the issue. On Sept. 10, the Bengals reached preliminary agreement with Hamilton County on a 30-year lease, for an as-yet unnamed and un-sited stadium. The Bengals pushed vigorously for a riverfront site, opposing proposals to build in the Broadway Commons area just northeast of downtown. Both public polls and experts' recommendations indicated a preference for a riverfront site, but the question remained undecided as the year ended. The new stadium's name also remained undecided, but early public response showed strong support for naming it after Bengals founder Paul Brown. On Sept. 9, Riverfront Stadium was re-named Cinergy Field, as the energy utility Cinergy reached a $6 million naming rights deal with Hamilton County to cover the stadium's remaining years of use. On the field, the team lost six of its first seven games, but Cincinnati's fortunes took a U-turn after offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet was promoted to head coach on Oct. 21, replacing the released Dave Shula. Coslet directed the team to a 7-2 finish, including a 5-0 mark at Cinergy Field. The Bengals stayed alive for the playoffs until the next-to-last week of the season, when despite defeating Houston they were eliminated due to results elsewhere. Coslet, signed only through '96 when he took over as head coach, was extended on Dec. 14 through 2000. A signature win for Coslet came Nov. 3 at Baltimore, when the Bengals rallied from a 21-3 deficit to win 24-21. The 18-point deficit stands through 2017 as largest ever overcome by the Bengals in a road win. WR Carl Pickens, who in 1995 had become the first Bengal to lead the AFC in receptions, led the conference again with 100, the first Bengal to hit the century mark. The defense had 34 INTs, a club record that stands through 2017. CB Ashley Ambrose, a veteran free agent in his first Bengals season, led the team with eight INTs and went to the Pro Bowl along with Pickens.
On Feb. 13, the Bengals and Hamilton County reached tentative agreement on a western riverfront site for a new football stadium. The Bengals yielded to County wishes for a site one block farther west than the club's preferred spot, supporting the goal of opening central riverfront space for development of other attractions and neighborhoods between a football and a baseball stadium (though the baseball site had yet to be agreed upon.). A drawback for the development of the more western football site was that some of the needed land was not owned by the county, and that would lead to future delays, as well as higher costs than the Bengals' preferred site. On May 29, the 30-year Bengals lease was completed and signed. It was announced on May 29 that the facility would be named Paul Brown Stadium, with the Bengals agreeing to cover $5 million for the loss of potential corporate naming rights. On April 29, the Bengals received a favorable ruling in a tax case that had threatened the viability of the franchise. In United States Tax Court in Chicago, Judge John O. Colvin ruled that the heirs of the late Paul Brown were not liable for $40 million sought by the Internal Revenue Service, due to a dispute over Paul Brown's acquisition of team shares held formerly by John Sawyer. The Cincinnati Enquirer editorial page opined that the Bengals had been spared an unfair "ambush by the IRS." The football team opened training camp in a state-of-the-art new facility at Georgetown (Ky.) College, after 29 seasons of training at Wilmington (Ohio) College. On April 5, the Bengals had re-signed QB Boomer Esiason as a veteran No. 2 to back up Jeff Blake. Esiason had gone on to play for the Jets and Cardinals since playing for the Bengals from 1984-92. The team was struggling with a 2-7 record on Nov. 9 at Indianapolis when Blake was sidelined with a concussion, and the 36-year-old Esiason entered the game in the third quarter and led a comeback victory. The Bengals lost the next week at Pittsburgh with Blake as the starter, and Esiason was named starter for the final five games. The Bengals were 4-1 in his starts, and they scored 42 points in the start he lost. Esiason did not have enough pass attempts to qualify for a Bengals-record season passer rating, or for the NFL passing title, but he finished the season with a 106.9 rating. The team finished the season 7-9. It was the last Bengals hurrah for Esiason, who retired after the season to take a broadcasting job with ABC's Monday Night Football. The '97 season saw the debut of HB Corey Dillon, a second-round draft choice who stands through 2017 as the club's all-time leading rusher (8061 yards). On Dec. 4 vs. Tennessee at Cinergy Field, Dillon rushed for 246 yards and four TDs, breaking Jim Brown's NFL record for rushing yards in a game by a rookie (237) and tying the Bengals record for TDs and points in a game. Dillon's four TDs and 24 points remain tied for the Bengals record through 2017.
On Jan. 24, Bengals OT Anthony Munoz (1980-92) was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Munoz was part of a five-member induction class, and he and Chicago Bears LB Mike Singletary became the 47th and 48th players among the then-194 members to be elected in their first year of eligibility. The official induction ceremony took place Aug. 1, at the Hall in Canton, Ohio. NFL labor events had led to Munoz gaining free agent status after announcing his retirement following the 1992 season, and he had signed with Tampa Bay (and his former Bengals head coach, Sam Wyche) as a free agent in '93. But Munoz gave up the comeback bid after suffering a shoulder injury in training camp, and because he was not with the Bucs in the regular season, he is recognized in the Hall as having played only for the Bengals. Plans for the Bengals' new stadium hit a serious snag in January of '98, due to a dispute between Hamilton County and the city over the county acquiring 12.5 acres of city land that it needed to build at its preferred western riverfront site. As the stalemate dragged on, the Bengals announced that if no agreement was reached by Jan. 31, the club would no longer be bound by the lease it had signed in spring of 1997. Tension continued to build until, at 1:15 a.m. on Feb. 1, City Council forged a past-the-11th-hour agreement to accept a county proposal. On April 25, officials from the county, city and the Bengals joined in a public groundbreaking for Paul Brown Stadium construction, with plans for the facility to be ready for the 2000 season. The news on the field was not so encouraging, as the team dipped to 3-13 in its second full season under head coach Bruce Coslet. QB Boomer Esiason, who had a sensational late-season return to the starting job in 1997, after four seasons playing elsewhere, announced prior to the season that he was retiring to join ABC's Monday Night Football as a broadcaster. The Bengals signed former Steeler Neil O'Donnell to compete with Jeff Blake for the starting QB job. O'Donnell won the job in training camp, but the team lost nine straight after beating Pittsburgh in Game 5. Blake started Games 14 and 15 before being injured, and the season ended with no clear starter in sight for 1999. HB Corey Dillon rushed for 1130 yards, becoming the first Bengal (and still through 2017 the only Bengal) to top 1000 in each of his first two Cincinnati seasons. In the season opener vs. Tennessee, injury-plagued HB Ki-Jana Carter, top overall pick in the 1995 draft, suffered a season-ending wrist fracture. DT Dan Wilkinson, drafted No. 1 overall by the Bengals in 1994, saw a rather stormy Cincinnati career end prior to the season, when he was traded to Washington for picks in the first and third rounds of the '98 draft. The Bengals used the picks to obtain LB Brian Simmons (first round) and G Mike Goff (third round).
For the first year since the idea's original proposal in 1993, plans for the Bengals' new stadium proceeded with only minor issues. The rise of the seating bowl of Paul Brown Stadium was watched by citizens throughout the year. However, past issues — particularly a delay in Hamilton County's acquisition of needed land from the city — put construction on a very tight schedule to meet the goal of an August, 2000, inaugural game. On the field in '99, veteran Jeff Blake and rookie first-round draft choice Akili Smith would end up sharing QB duties during a 4-12 season. Blake was benched after an 0-4 start, and Smith started and won his NFL debut, 18-17 on Oct. 10 at Cleveland. The game marked the renewal of the "Battle of Ohio" series, as the Browns returned to play as an expansion team. Cleveland had spent three years without NFL football after the Browns moved to Baltimore for the 1996 season. The Bengals did not win again until Game 12, however, and Smith suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Game 9 vs. Jacksonville. Blake engineered three straight wins in Games 12-14, but the team lost the final two. HB Corey Dillon rushed for 1200 yards and went to the Pro Bowl along with KOR Tremain Mack, whose 27.1-yard average was the team record until Adam Jones surpassed it in 2014.