Long before a rollicking, packed, and striped Paycor Stadium festival saluted the two-time AFC finalists in another prime-time victory and changed the culture of how Cincinnati enjoys pro football.
Long before the Ruler of the Jungle.
Long before something called Thursday night streaming featured Seamless Joe vs. Action Jackson in an AFC North docudrama.
Twenty years to the day of Bengals-Ravens in a game pitting four of the last five AFC North champs in a game that may very well decide the fifth, it was the underdog, upstart, unfazed 4-5 Bengals of rookie head coach Marvin Lewis against future Hall of Fame coach Dick Vermeil's 9-0 Chiefs coming into Paycor plastered on that week's cover of Sports Illustrated.
"I've been to the last two home games and that Bills game, I had never seen anything like that," says Willie Anderson, the once and future senior statesmen of that '03 team. "I felt the same way 20 years ago against the Chiefs. That kind of energy. I had never seen that before."
The birth of modern Bengaldom.
Nov. 16, 2003. Bengals 24, Chiefs 19. If you've got that Sports Illustrated cover with Chiefs quarterback Trent Green, one of those up-and-coming Bengals named Chad Johnson will still sign it, "Guaranteed."
"I loved it, I always loved it. I think he did it three times," says Jon Kitna of Johnson's mid-week victory guarantee.
It was the first heady days of "In Marvin We Trust," and they were coming in winners of three of their last four, wriggling within percentage points of first place for the first time in a dozen years this late in the season.
"What I remember is the environment," says Brian Simmons, the ultra-fast-do-it-all linebacker who was in his sixth season that day. "Postgame. During the game. Pregame. The best environment we had seen."
Simmons was at the top of his game. Think Germaine Pratt. When the Bengals were 1-4 and there was grumbling and the Ravens scored to take a 7-0 lead on their first possession at Paycor and then crossed midfield after a Bengals' three-and-out, there was Simmons banging into Ravens rookie quarterback Kyle Boller, hopping on a fumble, and two plays later Kitna hitting tight end Matt Schobel on a bomb and the Bengals going off on a 36-24 win.
"Oh yeah. I watch them now," says Simmons, a retired head high school football outside Orlando, Fla., after his son signed with the University of Virginia. "I really like their linebackers. Pratt. I love watching 55 (Logan Wilson)."
Then there was the week after the Ravens win. The Bengals were back at Paycor locked in a 7-7 game early with the very good and soon-to-be 10-6 Shaun Alexander Seahawks. When Seattle reached the Bengals 25, Simmons knocked the ball from wide receiver Darrell Jackson at the Bengals 25, fell on it, and moments later the Bengals led, 14-7, on their way to a 27-24 win.
Then came Nov. 16.
"There was nobody on that team that didn't think we weren't going to win that football game," says Simmons, who lived through 2-14 the year before. "That's what Marvin did for us. He had us believing."
Kitna, the journeyman quarterback who engineered an NFL Comeback Player of the Year season that year 18 years before Joseph Lee Burrow, can remember that day "like it was yesterday … It was awesome to see that energy in the stadium. The place went nuts when we scored.
"It seemed to be the start of something new."
Darrin Simmons, the Bengals current special teams coordinator, was in his first year, and even as he prepared for Bengals-Ravens on a short week, his memory is long on this one.
"They were rolling as a team, but we were coming on. We could feel it coming on a little bit. Everybody could sense it. Everybody could feel that," Darrin Simmons says. "One of the most significant wins we've ever had here. Maybe the most and we've had a lot of them. Certainly for the previous regime. That was the one that made everyone believe we could play with these good teams and win. It changed the mindset that we could win those big games."
Twenty years later and the architect of it all can still smell the blueprint. Marvin Ronald Lewis, in the last weeks of the season at Arizona State where he's a senior adviser, remembers the soaring confidence of his team. He sensed it was working and he was convinced that day, but not by the score.
Lewis remembers Corey Dillon, the Bengals brilliant running back who always spoke his mind, approaching him on the sidelines in that ferocious fourth quarter. An injury would limit Dillon to six carries for 21 yards that day and he watched Rudi Johnson break out with 165 yards, 54 of them on the last-minute dagger as the sellout crowd chanted "Rudi, Rudi." Dillon wanted to tell Lewis something.
"I can't remember what Corey said," Lewis says, "but it was something like, 'Hey, it looks like we've got it now.' To have one of our best players we had who was unfortunately injured to believe in everything we had going on, that was big."
(This was during the period when assistant director of public relations P.J. Combs would sweep through the post-game locker room alerting media, "Rudi Johnson to the interview room. Rudi Johnson to the interview room," after he had barely carried the ball his first two seasons and Willie Anderson would pause at his locker, turn his head and say, "Listen to that. Rudi Johnson to the interview room.")
Lewis chuckles the chuckle. He liked to call the games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh "two-chin strap games." But this was not a two-chin strap game. He'll tell you this was "The Shovel," game.
"He would tell us how he'd worked in the steel mill (in Pittsburgh) with his father," Anderson says. "And his father would tell him, 'Don't look at the clock. Just keep shoveling. I got the clock. Just keep shoveling.'"
After the game as Anderson held court with the media, a shovel leaned against his locker he had obtained from security.
"Don't worry about the score. Just keep playing," Lewis says now. "There are going to be ups and downs and good plays and bad plays. Just keep shoveling. Don't look at the score."
They know now that Lewis was digging roots. In Marvin We Trust would turn into the Marvin Era of 16 seasons, seven playoff berths and four AFC North titles.
"Listen, I know Marv takes some hits because of what he didn't do, but I think people have to sit back and realize what he did do for not only the team, but for the organization," Brian Simmons says. "Marvin is a transformative figure. I know they have a backlog of players for the Ring of Honor and coaches like Forrest Gregg. But I think he deserves to be in."
Darrin Simmons, the last link to Lewis, is Zac Taylor's assistant head coach and Taylor has taken him on quite a ride that has included a Super Bowl stop. He remembers 20 years ago and that first big crowd and how it was the first time he'd been associated with anything like it.
"(Lewis) modernized the way we did day-to-day operations, the way we played our football. He changed everything," Darrin Simmons says.
Simmons, one of Lewis' first hires, has become the most-tenured kicking game coach in the league as well as one of the most respected. He traces it back to Nov. 16, 2003, when the Chiefs came in with the greatest special teams weapons of the age.
"We controlled 'The Human Joy Stick,' for the most part," Kitna says of the frightening Dante Hall.
Hall came into Paycor sniffing an NFL record. He had already returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns that season. But all Simmons can remember Hall doing that day is getting tackled on a return inside the 20 after linebacker Khalid Abdullah slipped a block and then flinging the ball to the turf for a 15-yard penalty.
Abdullah was one of eight different Bengals to have tackles in the kicking game that day, and it was the Bengals punt returner who out-Danted Hall. Wide receiver Peter Warrick, otherwise known as P.Dub, was Cincinnati's first draft pick of the century and he was still trying to get his footing in the NFL when he ran into history on the fourth snap of the fourth quarter.
The yeoman Bengals defense was just shoveling, allowing only two field goals as the Bengals clung to a 10-6 lead. When Warrick went out to return the punt he told T.J. Houshmandzadeh, "I'm going to seal it with a kiss." Then he broke the Chiefs' heart on a 68-yard touchdown he skated down the middle.
"That was a really, really proud game for me. I felt it solidified me a little, too," Simmons says. "About what I was and wanted our guys to be. Doing things the right way and here could be the result."
But Warrick was just getting started. Now up, 17-12 with 6:05 left in the game, Kitna caught him in a one-on-one down Elm Street for a just-as-stunning 77-yard touchdown strike as noise engulfed them.
Lewis: "After he said he couldn't run."
"Peter had a great game," says Kitna, sounding like the Cincinnati high school head coach he is now at Lakota East. "They were covering everyone else inside. They left him one-on one with outside leverage on a deep post. No safety in the middle of the field. Not a great throw. It should have been more inside. We hadn't thrown that kind of ball to him all year. As a quarterback you're thinking, 'It better work.'"
The most relieved man in the building had to be Chad Johnson. He knew his coach was livid. After he caught seven balls for 72 yards, he apologized to Vermeil. But today, no one seems mad.
"His teammates had his back," Darrin Simmons says. "The head coach said it the night before the game. He told Chad, 'OK, you wrote the check, now you have to cash it.' And everybody did."
Anderson: "Chad was just saying what the team felt. We were playing with confidence. We knew we had the talent. We just had to put it together. Chad said what we felt like. He never would have said that the year before."
When Lewis handed out the game ball in the din of the Bengals locker room, the Bengals were 5-5 and after the Ravens' loss in Miami were in first place in November for the first time in a dozen years. He presented a ball to Bengals president Mike Brown and broke into tears, 'He does everything for you guys."
Brown had also done everything for Lewis, hiring him when teams like the Bills and Browns left the NFL's most decorated defensive coordinator at the altar in the years before. Brown, who says he's not a collector of game balls, made sure he kept this one and still has it in his bedroom.
Lewis may have made his wife mad because he was so emotional about football. But 20 years later, it really doesn't surprise Anderson.
"I saw Marvin get so mad at halftime once,' Anderson says, "his nose started bleeding."
"To see Marvin give the game ball to Mike, it was weird to me. But I was thinking, 'This is something different. This may be something real.'"
It became real enough that, 20 years later, it has Anderson thinking. He's a Ring of Honor member who has served as Ruler of the Jungle and if he gets asked to rule again, Anderson wants to change septers.
"Take a shovel up there," Anderson says, "and tell them, 'This symbolizes the re-birth."