Changed quarterbacks every couple of years. Wasted high draft picks on lower-talented players. Signed players with a lot of baggage and wound up making excuses for their arrests. Fired the coach and started the cycle all over again.
Nobody could argue when one television commentator referred to them as the NFL's Siberia, a place where nobody wanted to end up if they could avoid it.
Look at them now.
The Bengals (11-5) have become a model of stability in a league where everything seems to change overnight. Up the interstate in Cleveland, the last head coach got run out of town less than a year after he was hired. While coaches and quarterbacks come and go in other places, Cincinnati is an example of how patience can succeed.
The AFC North champions have gotten to the playoffs for the third year in a row by keeping their head coach and coordinators and spending a lot of money to return the core of their team intact.
"To me, probably the most disheartening, saddest part about this level of football is too many CEOs and owners just toss coaches around like hotcakes and don't realize that the reason college football is what it is," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said. "Systems determine success and longevity. There's no coach on the face of this earth that can have a system in one year or two years. It takes years.
"And sometimes it takes resetting a system over a couple of years. We've done that here, and kind of cleaning house and saying all right, we had a couple guys here that we think we need to get rid of and let those (other) guys kind of become the leadership of this team."
This time, they've gotten it right.
Lewis readily acknowledges that on any other NFL team, he would have been fired after going 0-4 in the playoffs and posting a losing record overall in 10 seasons. In Cincinnati, he got an 11th season and another chance to win a playoff game Sunday against San Diego (9-7).
In the last three years, a lot has changed.
"All of the things that have been written all of the time and the shots taken, that's way in the past," Lewis said.
The Bengals still haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied for seventh-longest streak of futility in NFL history. They've emerged from their years of languishing as a down-and-out franchise by reaching the playoffs three years in a row for the first time in their history.
The turning point came after a 4-12 finish in 2008. Things were so bad that franchise quarterback Carson Palmer demanded a trade, insisting he would retire rather than stay in Cincinnati. Lewis' contract was up and he wasn't sure if he'd be returning, either. After several days of discussions with owner Mike Brown, he got a new deal with some new parameters.
Brown changed some of his team's operating philosophies. He stopped drafting and signing troubled players in hopes he could redeem them. Rather than letting star players leave when they were in line for big contracts, they began keeping them.
"We knew it was going to take a lot of change on everybody's part," Lewis said. "I got a chance to start over again here as a new coach."
The last four drafts have brought a treasure trove of talent—Jermaine Gresham, Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, Giovani Bernard. They took a gamble on a player with a trouble past by signing linebacker Vontaze Burfict as an undrafted free agent and it paid off.
The Bengals finished in the top 10 in offense and defense for the first time since 1989, and the coaches think the recent continuity is a big part of it.
"Having the players and they hear the same message from the first day I've walked in here until last week—I'm preaching the same message all of the time," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. "I think that's important to have guys that understand these things. Communication is a big part of football and the way I say things, they've heard it now for a few years."
A win on Sunday would end that long playoff drought and be a huge step in refurbishing their image.
"Now, the next hurdle is winning this game on Sunday," said Lewis, who is 90-89-1 with the Bengals. "That pushes to another hurdle. And the next hurdle."
Notes: The Bengals practiced at Paul Brown Stadium in snow Thursday with temperatures in the 20s and wind chills in single digits. They don't have a covered practice field, but have rented the University of Cincinnati's covered field from time to time. ... CB Dre Kirkpatrick was sick and didn't practice. LT Anthony Collins (ankle) and CB Terence Newman (knee) also were held out. Nine others were limited, including WR A.J. Green (sore knee). ... The Bengals got an extension until 4 p.m. Friday to sell out the game and avoid a local television blackout.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org