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Bengaldom At High Tide As Legends Ride Wave With Burrow's NFL Power Team

QB Joe Burrow warms up before kickoff of the Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday, January 15 2023.
QB Joe Burrow warms up before kickoff of the Wild Card game against the Baltimore Ravens at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio on Sunday, January 15 2023.

This very moment has to be the high tide of Bengaldom.

How could it not?

On Wednesday, the two-time AFC finalist Bengals open training camp on the Kettering Health Practice Fields after an offseason they have been a top five constant in the NFL power rankings in their bid to become the first team in 22 seasons of the AFC North to win three straight titles.

The week after that, Who Dey Nation travels to Canton,  Ohio, for their first Pro Football Hall of Fame selection in 25 years to hail the induction of Bengals Ring of Honor member Ken Riley.

And that caps a summer when two of the most recognizable and controversial players in franchise history made it to the Ring of Honor as Boomer Esiason and Chad Johnson came back home with all-out support for their team at the forefront of the NFL's Zooming '20s.

They'll slip into their Ring of Honor jackets at halftime of the Sept. 25 game at Paycor Stadium against the Rams in a Monday night rematch of Super Bowl LVI.

Could it get any bigger and better?

"It's awesome. It's a joy to see how far they've come from top to bottom, especially with the product on the field," said Johnson this week at the Ring announcement.

"Obviously, with the addition of Joe Burrow, me as a fan and fans of Cincinnati, you have to understand that we will be in contention every single year. Every single year, come hell or high water, regardless of what pieces might change offensively or whatever changes defensively. As long as we have Joe at the helm, we will always be in contention and have a chance at the Lombardi Trophy. That is a great feeling. That's a great feeling for me and it's a great feeling for the fans in Cincinnati."

Esiason, the old MVP and strike leader whose give-and-take with management defined the rough-and-tumble NFL of the 1980s, says Burrow's Bengals are in solid 21st-century hands.

"The great grand-daughters of the great Paul Brown are right in the mix and their mom has taught them well," said Esiason, who respected his boss so much he wrote 'P.B.' on his helmet when the Bengals founder died in 1991. "They're going to be great stewards of this franchise moving forward for many, many, many years to come … They've morphed into the century now of the NFL.

"They have one of the best stadiums in the league. And when they do win and they have great players like we did back in the '80s and during Marvin Lewis's time there, too, when they were winning with Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, you saw the fans come out and support the team and now the fan base is rabid because they have some of the best players at their respective positions in the NFL."

The good times are rolling. Lewis, who revived the franchise at the turn of this century to start his club-record 16 seasons and four division titles as head coach, is also back on the scene five seasons after coaching his last game in Cincinnati.

Along with several alumni, Lewis has been invited to the Hall of Fame induction and plans to attend the Riley reception. He'd also like to get back for Johnson's Ring ceremony, although his job as Arizona State special adviser figures to prevent it. That's why he wasn't here last year when his franchise right tackle and locker room anchor Willie Anderson went into the Ring.

"I think it's a cool thing. Last year Willie, this year Chad," Lewis said. "What a fine, fine player he was. How explosive he was, just making plays for us. I'll never forget the first time I took him and T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) to speak at a school and after they told me their stories I told them, 'You guys are lucky you're even in the NFL.'"

But another blast from the past thinks he'll be able to make the Ring ceremony. Grambling head coach Hue Jackson, the Bengals wide receivers coach who oversaw the two-time 1,000-yard duo of Johnson and Houshmandzadeh, constantly keeps in touch with both of them. Johnson calls him a father figure.

"I'll be there. For him? I'll be there. You have to get me a ticket so I can be on the field," Jackson said. "Because it's Chad. No question he's the best receiver I ever coached. But he's a more special person than people know. He's got beautiful kids, a beautiful soon-to-be wife. You get fired up about that for him. He worked at those things. They just didn't happen."

A rich team history intersecting with maybe the best team in history has struck a chord with old warriors like Esiason.

"There is a new emphasis on trying to reunite the older players with some of the newer players, the older fans with the younger fans. And it's great to be going in now because the team is so good and because they do have a great quarterback in Joe Burrow," Esiason said.

Just how good is this team right now? Johnson says Burrow and the current face of the NFL Patrick Mahomes will end up trading Super Bowl championships and it will all even out. Esiason says Burrow is "pressing," Mahomes as the league's best and says Burrow's offense is certainly on par with the Bengals 1988 outfit that broke records and trends with the no-huddle offense.

"They trust their quarterback to make the decisions at the line of scrimmage. Such synchronicity with his wide receivers. Whether it's Ja'Marr (Chase) or Tee (Higgins) or any of the other players that he is playing with now," Esiason said. "It shows you that Joe Mixon wanted to be a part of a winner by taking less money to stay there. And I think that speaks volumes to who this offense is, who the coach is and ultimately they know that they have a winning quarterback.

"I think that they throw the ball a lot better than we did. I mean, early in the season we threw the ball really, really well in '88 and we were throwing the ball down the field with Timmy McGee and Rodney Holman and Cris Collinsworth and Eddie Brown. Ira Hillary. We had a great stable of running backs with James Brooks and Ickey Woods and Stanford Jennings. We really had great players and most of all, we had the biggest offensive line in football."

There is so much talk now about being so close to winning a Super Bowl, the close calls seem even closer as Johnson recalls the 2005 AFC Wild Card at Paycor, where Palmer tore up his knee on the game's second snap.

"I think if Carson was able to stay upright and the situation didn't happen, we would have won a Lombardi," Johnson said.

"I don't think there's a player or coach on that team who doesn't believe that," Jackson said. "We were cooking with gas."

For the first time this week, Johnson admitted how much the last two games of 2009 hurt him—two losses to the Jets, the last one in a Paycor Wild Card Game. Six targets, two catches for 28 yards working against one of Riley's Hall of Fame classmates.

"I was going against arguably one of the greatest, if not the greatest outside Deion (Sanders), in (Darrelle) Revis," Johnson said. "And that's pretty much it. I played a very long time and that was probably the one instance I didn't do what I was supposed to do to help my team win."

But there are good times rolling on the river now. Lewis isn't thinking about some of the goofy antics. Instead, he remembers another Monday night at Paycor, this one in '04 when Johnson lit up another Hall-of-Fame cornerback as he beat Champ Bailey for a 50-yard touchdown, one of his seven catches for 149 yards.

"That run in '05, up in Chicago with the Riverdance, the big plays, he backed it up," Lewis said. "Part of his makeup was that childish persona of just wanting to play football. People ask me all the time. Was Chad a pain in the ass? No. Chad was great for so many years. It was all about football.

"He had nothing else and there were many nights when I would look up and he would be standing in my (office) doorway, 10 o'clock at night, because we were all he had … He was a guy that wanted to be good. And he worked hard. He was a hard worker."

Jackson and Johnson had their moments, but love conquers all.

"The thing about Chad," Jackson said, "is he wanted me to push him and prod him to be the best. The guy is special."

Bengaldom at high tide. The good old days are washing up with one of the best teams in the game.

"I look forward to seeing Chad on that night and celebrating our history together and hopefully watching a great team like the Cincinnati Bengals this year," Esiason said.