As we head into the 20th season of Bengals.com, we offer the top 20 players the web site has covered since the 2000 season.
This list is already No. 1 on “The 20 Hardest Lists To Compile.” We’re not only using numbers, we’re looking at wins, longevity, and intangibles. The key word is “impact.” Welcome to Bengals.com’s summer release of “Mission Impossible.” (Years with the Bengals are in parenthesis.)
20. P Kevin Huber (2009-present) - He owns every Bengals punting record that counts. Period.
19. S Reggie Nelson (2010-15) - Here’s another high-impact guy even though he was here only six years. He intercepted Big Ben six times. That should get him on the list. Just on the 2012 interception alone, the one with 14 seconds left in the Wild Wild Card that set up the winning field goal that put the Bengals in and the Steelers out. But those weren’t the only big plays he always seemed to be around.
It won’t take you long to find Nelson in the middle of another one. Go back to Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham’s iconic 2013 call of cornerback Terence Newman’s 58-yard fumble return touchdown run that gave the Bengals a 34-30 lead over the Packers with 3:47 left. It came on right end Michael Johnson’s fourth-and-one stop of running back Jonathan Franklin at the Bengals 30. And it was Nelson that recovered it first. When he fumbled after six yards, Newman was there. Impact? Nelson had 23 interceptions in his six seasons, sixth on the club’s all-time list. The only safety ahead of him is the great Pro Bowler David Fulcher.
18. RG Bobbie Williams (2004-11) - Impact. Here’s another emotional leader who was key in the locker room. When he came out publicly early for Dalton in that first preseason, it was big. So was he. At 6-4, 345 pounds. Good guy and everybody was happy he got a ring with the Ravens. But that’s not why he made this list. He started 118 games for the Bengals and for nearly half of them he formed a massive wall with Willie Anderson and, along with center Rich Braham, allowed the Bengals to plant a flag in the division. And when Anderson left he offered ballast on the right side as the Bengals worked through finding another right tackle over the next three seasons.
17. NT Domata Peko (2006-16) - He was the middle man of some of the best defenses in Bengals’ history. When they finished in the top 10 four out of five years from ‘09-13, it was Peko who played the unselfish position to a tee. With 171 games, only Super Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie has played more games on the Bengals defensive front. And what he meant emotionally is incalculable. He teamed with Andrew Whitworth in ’11 to prevent the lockout from locking down the franchise and he always made sure his house was always open to any teammate on any side of the ball.
16. C Rich Braham (1994-06) - The extremely tough, smart and durable anchor of some of the best performances in Bengals history, including Corey Dillon’s NFL-record 278-yard day in 2000, Jon Kitna’s 401-yard passing day that took down the Steelers in ’01 and Carson Palmer’s magical 24-point fourth quarter in Baltimore in ’04. When Braham was at center, the Bengals always seemed to get room on the ground in the rough-and-tumble AFC North. He blocked for three club single- season rushing champions and from ’03 to ’05 the Bengals averaged 4.1, 4.2 and 4.2 per shot. When Braham suffered a career-ending knee injury in the 2006 home opener, the Bengals didn’t average more than 3.7 per until 2009.
15. LB Vontaze Burfict (2012-18) - He was headed to the top five before suspensions and injuries derailed his career after his first two brilliant seasons when was a pure difference-maker. His uncanny instincts even had coaches relying on him when they called signals. And there were times they didn’t mind he shook them off. A three-down player, he led the NFL in tackles and made the Pro Bowl in 2013. (Remember when he got on the plane to San Diego with a boot on his foot, got scratched early on the morning of the game, talked his way back into the lineup and made 13 tackles while playing 98 percent of the snaps?) But since that season he’s missed 35 of the possible 80 games. He may have played the greatest game ever by a Bengals linebacker in the 2015 Wild Card Game. But like his career so far, it was overshadowed by a player safety penalty on the next-to-last play of the game. If he played a decade earlier, they would have written songs about him instead of screeds.
14. WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (2001-08) - He’s one of four Bengals with at least 500 catches (507) and he set the season record in 2007 with 112 of them, good enough to share the NFL lead. He had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, a feat accomplished in club history only by Cris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, Chad Johnson and A.J. Green. And every catch seemed to be either a third-down conversion or a touchdown. His 37 career TDs are one more than Collinsworth and Darnay Scott and he trails only Chad (66), Green and Pickens (63), Isaac Curtis (53) and Eddie Brown (41) in club annals.
13. LB Brian Simmons (1998-2006) - Another one of the most underrated guys in team history. He was an Opening Day starter at two different linebacker sports in the Bengals.com era and like his defensive coordinator back then, Mark Duffner, said recently, he would have been a top ten pick this year with his high 4.5ish 40-yard times and 240 pounds. He did anything he was asked and was just as terrific in the locker room, a big-time leader as Marvin Lewis brought the franchise back. He also happened to make some of the biggest plays in the last 20 years.
In the ’01 upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, Simmons ended Baltimore’s 17-play drive at the end of the first half when he grabbed a deflected pass in the end zone in a 21-10 win. In Carson Palmer’s first PBS start in ’04 in the first home prime time game since seemingly Edison, he fueled the win by scoring their only TD on a 50-yard pick-six in a 16-13 win. The next season in what amounted to the division title game in Pittsburgh, Simmons intercepted Ben Roethlisberger on third-and-14 in a 14-14 game in the second quarter and took it 16 yards to the Steelers 22 to set up a TD that gave them a 21-7 half-time lead in a game they won, 38-31.
Ideally, his 1998 draft soulmate, linebacker Takeo Spikes, would join him on the list. But with just three years on Bengals.com, it’s hard to leave off guys that were on the site twice as long.
12. RE Justin Smith (2001-07) - Smith never made a Pro Bowl in Cincinnati before making five of them in San Francisco as a defensive tackle. Although, he had 43.5 sacks in 111 games for the Bengals and 43.5 sacks in 110 games for the Niners. But he was extremely underrated here. He missed only one game in seven seasons and it was his first. He not only played every week, he played every down. He never came off the field. His play-time stats were staggering, near 95 percent plus or so every year. And at the beginning of the season, you could write in his stats. He averaged six sacks and 67 tackles. Amazing consistency.
11. RB Rudi Johnson (2001-07) - He had to sit behind Corey Dillon for two and a half years, but when he got his shot, he was more than ready. He broke Dillon’s franchise record for rushing yards in a season once he got the full-time job in 2004 and then promptly did it again the next season. Some of the Bengals’ biggest wins in the last 20 years were secured with Paul Brown Stadium chanting “Rudi, Rudi, Rudi,” in the fourth quarter. Like the 165 yards in the ’03 win over the unbeaten Chiefs, the 202 yards in the 58-48 video game win over the Browns in ’04 and in Detroit in ’05 in front of a heavy Cincinnati contingent when his 117 yards stole the clock in the division clincher. Nothing flashy. All he did was gain yards from ‘04-06 and never carried less than 337 times in any of those seasons. The closest any Bengal has come to that since is Cedric Benson’s 321 in 2010, the last time a Cincy back carried 300 times in a season.
10. QB Carson Palmer (2003-10) - Maybe the most talented quarterback the Bengals ever had, except for Greg Cook. An overall No. 1 pick and Heisman Trophy winner from USC, he was a pure gunslinger and zipped the Bengals into the near elite with his unbelievable arm that brought them their first division title in 15 years with a 2005 season straight out of Peyton Manning. Even when his knee was blown up to end that season on the second play-off snap of his career, he came back in 2006 and went to the Pro Bowl again and should have been Comeback Player of the Year. He also should have been in the playoffs again, but a missed chip shot field goal on the season’s final play cost him a game-winning drive, a fourth-quarter comeback and a Wild Card berth. Three years later for the most improbable Bengals’ division champions ever, Palmer authored half of the 10 wins with game-winning drives.
9. LT Andrew Whitworth (2006-16) - When he moved to left tackle for the 2009 opener, he ended up protecting the blind side of two different quarterbacks through six post-season runs and three AFC North titles. Whitworth’s massive 6-7, 330-pound frame, combined with laser intelligence, sent him to three Pro Bowls as a Bengal. A rock on the field and in the locker room, he and Peko kept the team together during the 2011 lockout and the Carson Palmer holdout. Whitworth’s insistence they’d be fine with Dalton and his leadership in those uncertain days is a major reason head coach Marvin Lewis’ re-boot worked so well.
8. LE Carlos Dunlap (2010-present) - Dunlap is another current player on the verge of securing an all-time franchise record. With 72.5 career sacks, the seventh most in the decade (more than Cam Jordan, Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Quinn), he’s 11.5 sacks from breaking Eddie Edwards’ sack record of 83.5. His rep as a breathtakingly athletic closer is as huge as his wingspan. Just ask the Colts. In 2011, he swooped in to recover a fumble with 2:22 left (caused by Nelson, of course) well beyond the line of scrimmage and rambled 35 yards for the TD to make it 27-17. Six years later with the Bengals trailing the Colts by six in the middle of the fourth, Dunlap deflected and then picked off a Jacoby Brissett pass and returned it 16 yards for the TD that held up for a 24-23 win. Forget the DB-like, 56 pass deflections. How about the number of passes he has simply altered?
7. QB Andy Dalton (2011-present) - Quarterbacks are judged, primarily, on wins. That means Dalton has to be somewhere in the top ten as the winningest Bengals quarterback of all-time. The first rookie quarterback since the merger to throw at least 20 TD passes and win nine games, Dalton has led the Bengals to the playoffs five times, once more than Carson Palmer and Boomer Esiason combined, and once more than Ken Anderson. He’ll pass Anderson this season for most TD passes in franchise history and try to improve his hold on the club’s career passer rating record of 88.8, ahead of Carson Palmer’s 86.90.
6. CB Leon Hall (2007-15) - The best cornerback who didn’t make the Pro Bowl. A crime. When the Bengals selected South Carolina cornerback Johnathan Joseph No. 1 in 2006 and Michigan’s Hall No. 1 in 2007, they started going to the playoffs. They were the team’s co-MVPs when they swept the division in ’09 with the NFL’s No. 4 defense fueled by their mammoth coverage skills. Then-defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer coveted Hall’s versatility because he could seamlessly move him from the outside to the slot and back again at his whim.
And his biggest plays came in the biggest games. His 17-yard pick-six for the first score of the day gave them their only touchdown in the 13-10 win over the Steelers that put them in the 2012 playoffs and two weeks later his 21-yard pick-six gave them a 7-6 lead over the Texans in the Wild Card Game. His 26 interceptions as a Bengal are fourth on the team’s all-time list.
5. RB Corey Dillon (1997-03) - He played just four seasons on Bengals.com, but from 2000-02, he was the leading reason to watch a team that was in the process of winning just 12 games. Despite three different Opening Day quarterbacks and a paralyzed passing attack that averaged 5.6 yards per throw, Dillon put his head down and had his three best Bengals seasons, including his 2000 club record of 1,435 yards that included a pair of 200-yard games and the greatest game of all-time to that point.
4. WR Chad Johnson (2001-10) - Never mind from 2003-06 he joined Jerry Rice as the only receiver to lead his conference in yards four straight seasons. Never mind he went to seven Pro Bowls. Never mind only Terrell Owens (11,176) and Torry Holt (10,959) and had more yards than Johnson (10,783) during his ten seasons with the Bengals. He was a reality TV show and Twitter tsar long before Odell Beckham and Antonio Brown and helped the league tap into a new generation of fans.
Say what you will about his distractions and his blow-up at halftime of his first play-off game in ’06 and his trade demand of ’08 and how he exasperated Palmer with his routes. But the guy never meant to be divisive or mean or blow himself out of town with a scorched earth policy. He was just trying to have some fun. Looking back on it now in the rubble of OBJ and AB and Le’Veon Bell, the initial thought is we could use some of that now.
3. DT Geno Atkins (2010-present) - With 71 sacks in 137 games, he’s the most decorated Bengals defender in history with seven Pro Bowls in an era he and the Rams’ Aaron Donald are the most dominant inside pass rushers in the league. We’ve seen him take apart games, from the 2012 win in Pittsburgh that put them in the playoffs, to last year’s rout in which his three sacks exposed the Raiders offensive line in Cincinnati’s lone December win. With .52 sacks per game, Atkins, like A.J. Green, is looking at the Hall of Fame. If he plays in 40 games over the next three seasons at the same pace, he’ll have 92 sacks, fourth on the all-time tackles list behind John Randle (137.5), Warren Sapp (96.5) and Steve McMichael (95). That’s Canton.
2. RT Willie Anderson (1996-2007) - The best right tackle of his era, period. While the Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors complain about the glut of offensive linemen from his time, they have flat out missed the best right tackle. Anderson had unbelievably quick feet for a 340-pound man that made him the nemesis of the speedy pass rushers that populated his generation. And there wasn’t a better run blocker in the game. This is what we saw him do:
In 2000 he just punished people as Dillon followed him to 4.6 yards per carry for a team that averaged less than five yards per pass attempt. That same year he blanked “The Freak,” Jevon Kearse twice. Fast forward to 2006, when no one can remember Anderson allowing a sack in a season he shut out Carolina’s Julius Peppers in the middle of his 13-sack year. He also blanked another 13-sack guy in Baltimore end Trevor Pryce, as well as the Ravens’ 11-sack rusher Adalius Thomas and Terrell Suggs’ 9.5 sacks. Anderson remembers facing all three in the two games the Bengals split with Baltimore, going against Pryce on first down and Thomas and Suggs flopping on third down.
As we wrote in stating his Hall of Fame case (again) in February of 2017, “He also solved the flopping Jared Allen and Tamba Hali in Kansas City in the opener the Bengals won on the road, a duo that went on to rack up a combined 15.5 sacks that season. Anderson blanked two more ’06 double-digit sackers at Paul Brown Stadium in San Diego’s Shaun Phillips (11.5) and Oakland’s Derrick Burgess (11).”
1. WR A.J. Green (2011-present) - The problem is, he makes everything look so easy that you forget how truly great he is. Seven Pro Bowls great. The man not only takes over games, he wins them and he’s done it in a variety of ways. Whether it’s hauling in a 77-yard bomb as the clock ticks under five minutes (the 2014 opener in Baltimore) or diving on a 13-yard grenade last year in Atlanta to blow up the Falcons with seven seconds left. When he scores his eighth TD this season, he’ll have the most TDs in Bengals history. Nice decade.
Despite missing what amounts to 15 games in the last three years, he’s still just 93 yards from 9,000 career receiving yards. His 80-yard per game average is fifth among active receivers and if he plays until 36 at that same pace for six more seasons averaging 13 games, that gives him more than 15,000 yards. That’s Hall of Fame. Plus, he’s got that great down-home and humble Summerville, S.C., personality that single-handedly killed the image of the diva receiver. He’s been the best player in the franchise’s best stretch ever and don’t underestimate the impact of that personality.
A look at some of the best images from the Bengals.com era that the site has covered over the previous 20 years.