Death is the only guarantee in life, and the game of football is not exempt from this reality.
There have been quite a few people associated with the game who passed away during a season. The impact of their deaths has varied throughout the history of the game, but most remember the teams that rallied in memory of their fallen comrade.
When the Washington Redskins lost safety Sean Taylor in 2007, because he was murdered, the team was struggling along at a 5-6 record. They dedicated the rest of the season in his memory and finished the year 9-7, which was good enough to make the playoffs. The Redskins clinched the berth by beating their arch rivals, the Dallas Cowboys, by 21 points. The same number which happened to be Taylor’s jersey number.
Chuck Hughes is the only player who actually passed away on the gridiron during a game. The Detroit Lions were 4-1 and hosting the Chicago Bears in the 1972 season. Hughes, a Lions wide receiver, had caught a 32 yard ball earlier in the game, but the Bears held a five point lead late into the fourth quarter. He died running a pass route, and the Bears ended up winning the game. Detroit never recovered from his death, and won just three more games the rest of the year.
The Minnesota Vikings reached the NFC Championship game in 2000, helped by offensive right tackle Korey Stringer’s first Pro Bowl year. He passed away on the practice field before the next season began, and the Vikings won just five games that year. This current season marks the first time the team has won 11 games since Stringer’s final season, and just their third playoffs appearance. They had made the playoffs five straight years up until 2000.
When Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jerome Brown died before the 1992 season started, the Philadelphia Eagles had their best overall statistical season since their 1980 Super Bowl season. Though they lost in the second round of the playoffs, most Eagles fans remember it being the last time quarterback Randall Cunningham led them to a winning season before his career experienced a temporary rebirth with the 1998 Vikings.
The Eagles are currently going through the emotions of trying to deal with another death in their family this season. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson passed away just before the season began. He was considered one of the best coaching minds in the game, and had sent players to 26 Pro Bowls in his ten years with the team. The Eagles are currently in first place in the NFC East with two games left to play. The team obviously misses Johnson, ranking 15th in points allowed, but is on a mission to finish this season strong in his honor.
There is no raw statistics to prove where a team has success or failure after death becomes a part of their locker room. Some teams crumble, while others have pulled together on a common bond of trying to make the season special so their friends are not forgotten.
Cincinnati went to San Diego this past Sunday with the burden of a heavy heart from the sudden and recent death of wide receiver Chris Henry. Needing the win to secure the AFC North crown, players could be seen visibly in tears during a pregame tribute for Henry. The Bengals wound up losing due to a last second field goal by the Chargers, their second straight defeat.
The Bengals have been a team that has relied on creating turnovers while holding onto the football themselves. Their +24 giveaway/ takeaway ratio is currently the best in the NFL. Running a well balanced team that is equally adept in the run and pass on both sides of the ball, the team is well built for a run deep into the playoffs. Their lack of postseason experience may be the one hindrance they will face.
But Chris Henry may provide them a focal point to assemble a unified front in their goal to get the Bengals the first Super Bowl trophy in the franchises history. Teams need momentum going into the playoffs, so it will be interesting to see how Cincinnati handles the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Jets in the final two games of the year. The sadness on Henry’s passing will still be there, but it is up to the entire Bengals roster to leave him a memorial that will last in the Queen City for years to come.