One of the best things about last year’s NFL playoffs was the cute and cuddly Cincinnati Bengals. They went from living in the league’s bargain bin and wearing ugly jerseys accented by cartoonish tiger stripes — or maybe chili stains, we could never make out which — to the plucky and fun darlings crashing the NFL’s biggest party.
Their baby-faced coach gave off such regular dude vibes that he got carded at a bar. Their most clutch player was the kicker. Their quarterback resembled Macaulay Culkin. And his college buddy, the wide receiver, Griddy’d his way into becoming the Bengals’ best playmaker, as well as the NFL’s top offensive rookie.
That team, so freakin’ lovable. Its rise, so improbable. Who could resist this underdog story? Rooting for Cincinnati in Super Bowl LVI felt like applauding your neighbor’s kid as he starred in the role of Tree No. 2 in “Jack and the Beanstalk.” Especially when they were pitted against Stan Kroenke’s rent-a-championship Los Angeles roster representing everything that’s cynical and jaded in professional sports, we could all get behind the wholesome Midwesterners as the aw-shucks alternative.
But that was last year. The Bengals used to be a feel-good story. Now they’re just feeling themselves. Gosh, they’re sooooo annoying.
This keeps happening to our beloved underdogs. First, it was kale, that leafy hipster of the veggie section. We once loved how it was both healthy and cool, but then the superfood started appearing everywhere, from smoothies to Beyoncé’s sweatshirt, and lost its charming appeal.
Next, pickleball — that fun little exercise for grandma and grandpa. Too bad the sport has fallen in with the wrong crowd. These days, it’s the neighborhood tough running off tennis players from their own courts.
Now, it’s the Bengals. They keep winning games. That’s not the annoying part. They’ll make for an entertaining AFC championship rematch with Kansas City on Sunday. No one’s hating on their 10 consecutive wins. Just everything else about them.
Don’t they know that exposure to secondhand smoke can cause lung cancer? But kick rocks, surgeon general, says every Bengals player, probably, puffing cigars in an attempt to mimic the look of a champion after their wins. When they light up, they reek of unearned cockiness. Even though he has taken part in this particular celebration since college, quarterback Joe Burrow looks nothing like Red Auerbach or Michael Jordan. More like Kevin McCallister discovering his dad’s cigar stash after being left home alone.
When their resident front-runner, Eli Apple, finishes savoring his stogie, he then goes searching for more smoke. After Cincy beat the Buffalo Bills in the AFC divisional round last Sunday, Apple spent much of the following day taking victory laps around Twitter, retweeting his own highlights and trolling Josh Allen and Stefon Diggs as they began their early vacations. In one jab, Apple mocked Diggs with: “Cancún on 3” Maybe it would’ve been funny had he not added the heart symbol emoji — a gesture commonly associated with Bills player Damar Hamlin, who suffered a cardiac arrest and nearly died in a previous game against the Bengals.
In a follow-up tweet, Apple claimed he wasn’t making light of Hamlin. Still seems strange that of all the random emoji Apple could’ve used, the beach and palm tree, the cruise ship, the kale leaf, he chose the worst possible one.
And while Apple and his chesty teammates can’t stop providing bulletin board material — cornerback Mike Hilton renamed Kansas City’s stadium “Burrowhead” — they’re also wallpapering their locker room with the stuff.
Coach Zac Taylor, who still appears unable to grow facial hair, wrings every ounce of motivation he can from the everyone-hates-us narrative. Whether it’s the potential for tiebreaking coin flips or neutral-site games — how dare this billion-dollar industry make contingency plans?! — the once-forgotten franchise based in a midsize American city perfect for flying over now feels disrespected by the NFL. The Bengals are complaining about unfairness, then choreographing elaborate touchdown celebrations aimed at the league. Or smugly apologizing about ruining the NFL’s proposal for a conference championship game in Atlanta had the Bills won.
“We just keep screwing it up,” Taylor said sarcastically Sunday in his postgame troll. “I’m sorry.”
If only our favorite underdogs and upstarts could stay lovable forever. While championship dynasties dominate news cycles and genetically gifted athletes who come out of the womb ready to tear down backboards command our attention, it’s the little guys in sports who truly capture our affection. But inevitably, the magic ends. A part of us wishes they could be frozen in time at the exact moment of their surprising entry to the big stage, that they didn’t grow up and join lockstep with the mainstream that they had once overturned.
Those giant killers from the Saint Peter’s men’s basketball team were supposed to stay at their commuter school until they beat every top seed in March Madness ever — and not disperse for bigger jobs and the transfer portal for understandable reasons that have no place in fairy tales. The “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team should’ve remained young and heroic, the inspiration for Disney movies, not grown into voting adults, wearing Keep America Great hats while stumping for Donald Trump.
Every fad eventually fades, and real people evolve away from the fairy tales. Some growth spurts happen faster than others. The Bengals spent less than one year in their underdog Underoos before becoming too big for their britches.
Through the plumes of cigar smoke and flame wars on social media, we can barely recognize our favorite little guy story from a year ago. We liked them small and adorable and defying the odds. But they had to go and become the Goliaths of their division, the conference and, possibly, the NFL. That’s perfectly fine. Just too bad they think that arrogance goes well with those garish tiger stripes.