Infamous Finishes

Published 2:57 am Tuesday, September 15, 2009

CINCINNATI — The temptation is to write it off as a once-in-a-lifetime bolt of bad luck, a moment so surreal that it could never happen again. Sort of like hitting the lottery and then misplacing the ticket.

‘‘It’s unreal,’’ Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Domata Peko said, referring to his team’s latest brush with blush. ‘‘It’s once-in-a-blue-moon stuff.’’

Around these parts, there always seems to be a bad moon rising.

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Brandon Stokley’s 87-yard touchdown reception with 11 seconds to play on Sunday added to a bumper crop of infamous finishes. Cornerback Leon Hall tipped Kyle Orton’s desperation pass directly to Stokley, who had a clear path to the end zone for a 12-7 win that will haunt the Bengals for a long time.

‘‘You know, you don’t feel good,’’ coach Marvin Lewis said Monday. ‘‘It’s kind of like a kick you-know-where.’’

Not the first time they’ve been kicked. With apologies to Apollo Creed, these guys really are the masters of late-game disasters.

‘‘I swear there’s a curse,’’ Bengals radio broadcaster Dave Lapham said.

The Bengals (0-1) have thrown away a Super Bowl, wasted playoff chances by botching simple plays, given away regular-season games with unmatched inventiveness — a left-handed pass by a right-handed quarterback, an offensive lineman decking his own running back, a coach deciding to run the ball instead of taking a safety.

Where to begin?

Start at the top.

When they reached the Super Bowl in the 1988 season, they lost running back Stanley Wilson to a drug relapse on the eve of the title game, then had cornerback Lewis Billups drop a potential game-clinching interception on San Francisco’s final drive, which culminated in Joe Montana’s touchdown pass with 34 seconds to go.

How about 2005, when the Bengals were one of the hottest teams in the AFC? On Carson Palmer’s first pass of a playoff game against Pittsburgh, Kimo von Oelhoffen crashed into the quarterback’s left knee, shredding it. The Steelers won the game and went on to win the Super Bowl, too.

There were the ones that cost them a shot at the playoffs. In Denver three years ago, they botched an extra point that would have sent the game into overtime and, possibly, sent the Bengals to the playoffs.

Perhaps the all-time worst came in the second game of 1987, when coach Sam Wyche decided to try to run out the clock with 6 seconds left deep in his own territory rather than take a safety with a six-point lead. James Brooks was stopped short on fourth down with 2 seconds left — enough time for Montana to throw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice for a 27-26 win.

There have been many such moments. Like the time running back Corey Dillon was headed for a go-ahead touchdown in the closing minutes against Tennessee, before pulling guard Matt O’Dwyer ran him over short of the goal line. Or the time that Gus Frerotte threw a decisive interception in Cleveland with his left hand — he’s right-handed. Or the time …

As former Bengals offensive lineman Willie Anderson put it after a shocking 1992 ending, ‘‘Things happen to us that shouldn’t happen in the NFL. It’s hard to believe.’’

Of course, other franchises have mind-boggling moments. Up the road in Cleveland, they even have pet names for their tortured endings: ‘‘Red Right 88’’ (the play call that led to Brian Sipe’s end-zone interception in a playoff against Oakland), ‘‘The Drive’’ (John Elway leading the Broncos 98 yards in an AFC title game) and ‘‘The Fumble’’ (Earnest Byner losing the ball only yards from the end zone during another playoff loss to Denver).

One difference is that with most other franchises, there are good moments that offset the bad ones and soften the sting. Not in Cincinnati, which has only one winning season in the last 18 years.

Maybe it’s self-perpetuating.

‘‘Teams that have had some recent success find ways to be on the right side of those,’’ said Lapham, a former Bengals offensive lineman. ‘‘And teams that haven’t had success wind up on the wrong side of those. Maybe it’s subconscious. It’s almost like they find another way to lose one. I thought they had exhausted every way.’’

The one on Sunday broke new ground.

All Hall had to do was knock the ball down. Instead, he brushed it with his left hand, sending it flying upfield in an end-over-end tumble. Instead of following the ball, the safeties converged on Brandon Marshall, who was the intended receiver, and left Stokley unguarded as the ball fell right in his hands.


Hall didn’t care to watch the already infamous play when he went home on Sunday night to spend some time with company. Turn on the TV, and there was no way avoiding it.

‘‘I ended up seeing it five, 10 times,’’ Hall said.

They see it a lot in Cincinnati.