The Best Things in Life Are Free (Agents)
By Doug Orth
Throughout the course of “full” free agency, NFL teams spent big and hoped bigger – often ending up disappointed in their investment. Certainly, not every team has landed the big fish that transformed their team from contender to Super Bowl champion in the way that Reggie White did for the Green Bay Packers in 1993.
The Cincinnati Bengals – since the advent of the current free agency model the NFL uses – have been neither the Packers nor the Washington Redskins, the so-called annual winners of the offseason. When combined with the draft disasters of David Klingler, Ki-Jana Carter and Akili Smith, it probably goes a long way in explaining why the team was unable to post a single winning season from 1991-2004. In fact, it is very difficult to identify more than a handful of free agents (or waiver-wire additions) that have given the Bengals more than one good year of service.
After much research, here is a list of the top-six free-agent signings (veterans only, including waiver-wire additions) Cincinnati has made in the 21-year history of the free agency model we are familiar with today:
6. CB Ashley Ambrose – Although his time in Cincinnati was short, Ambrose gave the Bengals something they hadn’t seen since their glory days of the 1980s – a game-changing cornerback. In 1996 – his first year after leaving the Indianapolis Colts – Ambrose embraced defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello’s system and intercepted eight passes en route to an All-Pro selection. Unfortunately for Ambrose, Dick LeBeau replaced Peccatiello at the end of the 1996 season and Ambrose was allowed to leave as a free agent two years later after somewhat disappointing seasons.
5. QB Jon Kitna – It’s easy to forget that Kitna – who retired after the 2011 season after four seasons of serving mostly as a backup – was once a long-time starting quarterback for a Bengals’ team that desperately one after Smith flamed out as quickly as he did. While his lack of elite physical tools ultimately led to the drafting of Carson Palmer in 2004, Kitna gracefully accepted his role as a backup the following year. Kitna deserves as much credit as any player for leading the Bengals in the manner he did during the early part of the Marvin Lewis era, doing his part to help Lewis stabilize what was a troubled franchise.
4. DT John Thornton – Much like the other players on this list, Thornton wasn’t overly productive but consistent upon his arrival in 2003 after three seasons with the Tennessee Titans. Most of “Big John’s” six seasons with the club were spent on a defense that ranked in the bottom half of scoring and total defense, but it is hard to blame him. Thornton made 88 starts at defensive tackle for Cincinnati, often posting solid tackle numbers at a position where players typically are unable to do so.
3. QB Jeff Blake – A sixth-round selection in the 1992 draft, Blake went from a castoff of the New York Jets in 1994 to a national phenomenon. Following a 0-7 start with Klingler that year, the Bengals put the rest of the 1994 season in the hands of their undersized signal-caller and the “Shake-and-Blake” offense was born. With Blake and his signature deep ball, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott almost immediately became one of the most feared receiver tag teams in the league. The Blake deep ball became such a big weapon that defenses began scrambling for answers, eventually leading to the resurgence of the “Cover 2” defense made popular by the “Steel Curtain” defenses of the 1970s. Once defenses made it next to impossible for Blake & Co. to strike quickly, the Bengals’ offense predictably struggled. Blake dealt with injuries after the 1996 season and left the team three years later once the Bengals committed to Akili Smith. In 66 career starts with Cincinnati, Blake amassed 15,134 yards passing and 93 touchdowns.
2. RG Bobbie Williams – Another key to the resurgence of the Bengals following the hiring of Lewis was the signing of Williams, who joined the team in 2004. Thanks in large part to the massive right side of Williams and RT Willie Anderson, Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson often enjoyed much success running power plays to that side of the formation. Williams played all 16 games six of his first seven seasons and was a highly-respected leader as well as a model of consistency for a team that often resembled a circus.
1. C/RG Rich Braham – Perhaps no player did a better job more consistently on the sorry Bengals’ teams of the 1990s and early 2000s than Braham. A third-round pick of the Arizona Cardinals in 1994, Braham was acquired off waivers in November of that same season. First at left guard and later at center, Braham became one of the few mainstays on an offensive line that was among the worst in the league for most of his time in stripes. Braham made 142 starts over his 12-year career in Cincinnati and was finally rewarded for his leadership and durability when the team ended their 14-year postseason drought in 2005.