Posted: 8:45 p.m.
Steve Sabol, the eye of the NFL, saw these Bengals long before anyone else.
Well, Sabol and Carson Palmer, the quarterback that audiences would soon see is their leader in spirit and stats.
Sabol saw the Bengals as a riveting subject because of their old-school owner, new-wave wide receiver and charismatic head coach with a no-name team on the rise. While Sabol went over his notes before he spoke to the team in the spring to tell them why NFL Films and HBO had chosen to chronicle them in their annual training camp documentary Hard Knocks, Palmer approached him.
"I know why you picked us," Palmer told Sabol. "Because we're going to be a good team."
"He was so confident, so matter-of-fact," Sabol said Tuesday. "I never forgot it all through the shooting."
It turned out both Palmer and Sabol were right. Not only did the Bengals break their franchise record and sweep their division, but they broke the Hard Knocks jinx and became the series' first team out of seven to make the playoffs while also enjoying critical acclaim.
Already two NFL owners have expressed interest to Sabol about being the next Hard Knocks team, unheard of, he says, pre-Bengals.
"We owe a lot to the Bengals. It's like breaking the Sports Illustrated jinx," Sabol said. "They proved you can be the subject of that kind of show and it's not a distraction, or an obstacle. Now when anyone turns me down, I can just show them what the Bengals did this season."
And more than NFL people have noticed. For the first time in the 48-year history of NFL Films, Sabol says that the '09 Hard Knocks series has them in consideration for a prestigious Peabody Award. The Peabody awards work in broadcast journalism, documentary filmmaking, educational and children's programming, and entertainment.
What Sabol has called "unprecedented access" allowed cameras to capture the tears of tight end Reggie Kelly when he was told his season was over with a ruptured Achilles, the frustration of a first-round contract holdout, and the joy of making the team for a rookie free agent like safety Tom Nelson.
"We've won 97 Emmys, but never a Peabody," Sabol said. "It's really an honor because it's more of an award for showing the human side of the subject, the impact on society and culture. I think that's a credit to what is going on there with (Bengals president) Mike Brown and (head coach) Marvin Lewis and the kind of access they gave to show that."
The irony of it all is that Bengals took drama to new heights after the cameras left on Cutdown Day.
They broke to a 3-0 start in the division with wins in the final 22 seconds. While two family members died, Vikki Zimmer and Chris Henry, they won their first AFC North title in four years with a new identity of run-first and stop-the-run-always. Three of their most active players on the suddenly hot defense are of Samoan heritage and had to deal with a killer storm that hit their homeland in September and endangered their relatives.
But the Bengals won't Knocks back-to-back.
"It would be a heck of a sequel, but the commissioner likes to spread the teams around and there has already been that interest from other teams," Sabol said of the slot for next season.
But the cameras are still rolling.
This week a crew from CBS' iconic 60 Minutes news show shot interviews with Domata Peko, Jonathan Fanene and Rey Maualuga about the tragedy in American Samoa for a story reported by Scott Pelley.
In two weeks, Sabol, the president of NFL Films, says their 12-minute piece on Zimmer's family airs on NFL Network and ESPN and he says, "By the fourth minute I was in tears. It is very powerful."
On Sunday at 9 a.m. on ESPN's "Outside The Lines," Henry's fiancée, Loleini Tonga, says that Henry jumped out of the back of the truck she was driving three weeks ago in the fatal accident in Charlotte, N.C.
The video clips show the trail of the kind of season the Bengals have had. But even before, Sabol knew he had plenty of drama.
"If they want to look back 100 years from now to see what it was like to be in the NFL in 2009, they would get it from watching those shows with the Bengals," Sabol said. "Everything is all there, from the interaction of management and coaches, the injuries, the pressure, what it takes to play and coach."
Here are Bengals.com's 10 most dramatic moments in what just might be the most dramatic season in Bengals history:
1. (A tie.)
Moments after the Bengals finish off the Ravens with Palmer's 20-yard pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left in Baltimore on Oct. 11 to give the Bengals a 17-14 victory and a 3-0 AFC North record, Lewis gives the game ball to Zimmer in the locker room in front of his son Adam Zimmer, the assistant linebackers coach for the Saints, and his father Bill Zimmer.
Less than 72 hours before, Mike Zimmer's wife Vikki died suddenly but he chose to coach the game with his parents and three children in the stands. His guys responded by holding the league's third-most prolific scoring team to one touchdown.
1. Five days after attending the funeral of Chris Henry in New Orleans, friend and fellow wide receiver Chad Ochocinco finishes off a 98-yard drive on a leaning backward six-yard touchdown catch with 2:03 left in the game to break a 10-10 tie with the Chiefs and give the Bengals their second AFC North title under Lewis on Dec. 27 at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Ocho flashes an index finger on one hand and five fingers on the other to celebrate Henry's No. 15. He then spots a poster of Henry in the front row and reaches up to touch its heart.
3. Palmer had hooked up with Henry for 21 touchdowns down through the years. He finds him with another perfect play when he goes to the microphone during the Dec. 22 funeral and quotes from a Lil Wayne song about growing up tough in New Orleans. His "What's up, Cuz?" imitation of Henry coming over to his locker is close enough to get T.J. Houshmandzadeh shaking his head saying, "Carson had him perfectly."
4. In the din of PBS on Sept. 27, the Bengals trail the Steelers, 20-15, and are looking at a fourth-and-10 from the Steelers 15 with 36 seconds left. Palmer goes to his last read, running back Brian Leonard underneath, and Leonard bolts for the stick and leaps for an extra yard that makes it an 11-yard play to set up Palmer's winner, a four-yarder to Caldwell.
5. Lewis puts it all on the line in Cleveland the next week in overtime on Oct. 4. The Bengals are looking at a fourth-and-11 from the Browns 41 with just 1:04 left. Plenty of time for the Browns to get a field goal if they throw an incompletion. But Palmer talks him into going for it and then takes off on a 15-yard scramble that results in Graham's winning kick.
6. On Nov. 15 at Heinz Field, the Bengals find themselves playing for the AFC North title because a win gives them a 5-0 record and a sweep of the Steelers and Ravens. Lewis calls it the most physical game he's ever been a part of and a child shall lead them. Rookie running back Bernard Scott scores the only touchdown of the game on a 96-yard kick return and becomes the third player from tiny Abilene Christian to score on an NFL return in the past two seasons as Zimmer's guys do it again. They stifle a Steelers attack averaging more than 380 yards per game on 226.
7. The Bengals can't even put away a 45-10 lead against the Bears Oct. 25 at Paul Brown Stadium without drama. Running back Cedric Benson has torched his old mates all day, complete with a one-yard touchdown run and Lewis gives him a curtain call early in the fourth quarter. They may have run him out of Chicago, but the Bears can't get him off the field.
Scott tweaks his leg and Benson has to go back and finish it off, and it turns out to be 189 yards on 37 carries, a record for a back against his old team.
8. In a season of clutch long drives, this one might be the one to remember.
Playing in the haunting shadow of the 87-yard Spike Strike that threatens to derail the season before it even starts, the Bengals desperately need a win in the second game of the season Sept. 20 at Lambeau Field.
With about five minutes left in the first half, they trail the Packers, 21-14, after Palmer throws his second pick of the game for a touchdown and face a third and 34 from their 17 with Green Bay thinking about a 28-14 halftime lead. Palmer throws a screen to tight end Daniel Coats for 23 yards before he fumbles and wide receiver Laveranues Coles alertly hops on the rolling ball for a first down.
Palmer then ties the game moments later on a five-yard touchdown pass to Henry with 1:24 left in the half of a game the Bengals go on to win, 31-24, and avoid going into the dreaded 0-2 hole with Pittsburgh coming to town.
Probably one of the top five wins in the Lewis era.
9. You know how they say openers always set tones? They got it right on Sept. 13 at PBS against the Broncos.
Palmer takes the offense on a 91-yard drive that takes up most of the fourth quarter as the Bengals take the lead, 7-6, with 38 seconds left. But when cornerback Leon Hall attempts to bat away Kyle Orton's desperation pass, he keeps it in play and knocks it behind him instead of into the sidelines. Somehow it falls into the unintended hands of Brandon Stokley racing for an 87-yard TD and the longest winning TD from scrimmage in the final minute of an NFL game.
And the season has been one big stomach churner ever since.
10. You can tell your grandchildren about a game that was started by Tom Brady and was decided by Ochocinco's extra-point in the Bengals' 7-6 preseason victory over the Patriots in Foxboro, Mass. Kicker Shayne Graham had tweaked his groin before the game started and Lewis gave in to The Ocho's pleas.
" 'Esteban' Ochocinco is back," he said. "The most interesting footballer in the world. Everyone has to remember, I've always said that soccer is my No. 1 sport. I think Ronaldinho would be proud of me right now."