By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
Published October 9, 2005
The Bengals are 4-0.
Okay, say it again.
The Bengals are 4-0.
It takes a while for the concept to sink in. For so long, this team was the symbol of NFL ineptitude. A long string of nonwinning seasons, 14 to be precise, turned Cincinnati into the league's running punch line.
Talk about a turnaround.
The NFL's worst team in 2002 is 20-16 since coach Marvin Lewis took over in 2003, and has won six straight dating to last season.
One of four unbeaten teams, Cincinnati is enjoying its best start since 1988, when Sam Wyche, Boomer Esiason and rookie Ickey Woods shuffled the Bengals to the AFC title and Super Bowl XXIII.
"I'm proud of our football team, and to be sitting here 4-0," Lewis said.
That the Bengals are among the league's best offensive teams is not terribly surprising. They are third in total offense (384.8 yards) and fifth in scoring (26 points). Quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Rudi Johnson and receiver Chad Johnson are among league leaders.
Palmer, the former No.1 overall pick from Southern Cal, has been especially sharp in his second season as a starter, his 112.2 passer rating second in the league behind Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger. The patience the franchise showed in allowing Palmer to observe during his rookie season is paying off.
What is surprising is how well the defense has played and how thoroughly Lewis has expunged the losing culture.
Cincinnati has 17 takeaways and four turnovers for a league-best plus-13 turnover ratio. In 36 games under Lewis, the Bengals are 13-1 when they have an edge in turnovers.
Also, they have scored 53 points off turnovers, more than half of their 104 total.
Granted, the Bengals have not faced quality opponents. Their wins are over the Browns, Vikings, Bears and Texans, teams with a combined record of 3-10. But Cincinnati is playing with confidence.
And with good reason.
In the franchise's 38 seasons, only twice before has Cincinnati been 4-0, in 1975 and 1988. It made the playoffs both seasons. And, since 1990, when the league expanded to the 12-team playoff format, 35 of 43 teams to start 4-0 made the playoffs, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.