NFL Divisional Preview, Part 1

All the Answers

When the Bengals Were Good

It's hard to remember, but 25 years ago, Cincinnati fielded one of the most innovative and influential teams in NFL history

The Cincinnati Bengals have had several distinct eras. There was the epic fail of the 1990s, the lawless brigandry of the 2000s, and this decade’s slapstick haplessness in big games, Sunday’s follies being the latest example. As a die-hard fan, I’ve spent my entire adulthood despairing for my Bengals. To paraphrase Dean Wormer, inept, criminal, and choking is no way to go through life.

But there was another era that predated those Ages of Discontent. Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the Bengals lived on the sport’s cutting edge, and the Queen City was a hothouse of invention, a pigskin Edison Labs. Back in the 1980s, Cincy coaches, led by the ever-inventive Sam Wyche, unveiled strategic schemes that have become the foundation of the modern NFL.

In virtually every other aspect, football from 1988 might as well have been played with mastodon skulls for all it has in common with today’s sport. But the ’88 Bengals, the finest make ever to roll off the franchise assembly line, could step out of the DeLorean to take the field this Sunday and look startlingly up-to-date. Those Bengals helped give the league the no-huddle offense, the zone blitz, inside and outside zone-blocking schemes, and the general notion to spread defenses out to create mismatches — all building blocks of modern game plans.

But ask your average fan about those concepts, and he or she will talk to you about Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, the “Blitzburgh” Steelers, or Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis. The Bengals not only receive little credit today for their innovation, but they were also derided in their time as “wacky,” “mad scientists” playing “popcorn football” (the striped pumpkin helmets didn’t help). And of course, the team never fully benefited from its originality — others swooped in to reap the rewards.

History is written by the winners, and because of Montana-to-Taylor, the 1988 Bengals are mostly remembered for vaudeville — the Ickey Shuffle, backed by the SWAT Team, doing dance routines in the Jungle, with GNR blasting through the loudspeakers, 80-year-old Paul Brown prancing to the beat. Thanks to the innovations the ’88 Bengals dropped on the NFL, they went 12-4 and earned the AFC’s top seed. Quarterback Boomer Esiason was league MVP and dominated the statistical charts. But it was all undone by a single game decided in the final seconds.

“It used to bother me,” Wyche admits. “Sadly, there are no copyrights or patents in the football industry. But there are plenty of good ideas through history where the credit doesn’t go to the ‘idea man.'”

So before you watch this weekend’s playoff action, let’s take a moment to give the team its due. Lord knows, the franchise hasn’t (more on that in a bit).

It all started with a guy named Skeets.

The No-Huddle

Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah had the misfortune to dominate the 110-meter hurdles during the period when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Summer Games. If not for geopolitics, he’d probably own a gold medal as well as a Super Bowl ring. Bill Walsh signed the track star to the 49ers in hopes of finding another Bob Hayes. Alas, defensive backs didn’t have to hurdle anything to keep up with him. “Skeets” caught 43 passes and four touchdowns in three nondescript seasons in San Francisco.1

But Nehemiah was the inspiration for one of the most important offensive developments in football history since the forward pass.

During a practice in 1982, when Wyche was an assistant coach under Walsh in San Francisco, he noticed Nehemiah return to the huddle breathing like a racehorse after running a deep pattern. “C’mon, Skeets,” he yelled, “I thought you were a world-class sprinter!”

“I’m breathing heavy because I just sprinted 60 yards as fast as I can,” Nehemiah responded. “I’ll be breathing through my nose again in a minute.”

“He taught me a life lesson right then,” Wyche remembers from his horse farm in Pickens, South Carolina. “What if we played at a tempo that didn’t allow the time to recover? What if we snapped the ball 20 seconds after the defense was sprinting, instead of 30? We’d be playing a pretty tired defense. After a while, chronic fatigue would settle in, and the offense would have a decided advantage.”

Wyche dabbled in the no-huddle the following year, when he took his first head-coaching gig at Indiana University. A season later, in 1984, he found himself running the Bengals and unleashed the no-huddle on his team during training camp.

At first, the team used it only to gain a tactical advantage in certain situations, hoping to keep enemy defenses from substituting, or to catch them with 12 men if they tried. “We would run quick outs to the opposing sideline,” Wyche says, “hoping to entangle our wideouts with the defenders running off the field, so the refs, who hadn’t seen this sort of quick play, would have to call a penalty. The receiver on our sideline simultaneously ran a go pattern, and we scored unmolested several times when that defensive back would mistakenly run off the field.”

By 1988, the no-huddle was the only offense Cincinnati ran. Running back James Brooks and tight end Rodney Holman would line up wide in spread formations to allow the Bengals to create mismatches without substituting. And Esiason, among the most brilliant ball handlers to ever play the position, faked tired defenses out of their cleats.

“One time we were playing Washington,” says Anthony Munoz, the team’s Hall of Fame left tackle, “and Dexter Manley split our double-team to tackle Brooks. He got up and started shouting, ‘You can’t run this way!’ I said, ‘You’re right! Look behind you.’ Boomer had play-faked and thrown a touchdown pass to a wide-open Eddie Brown.”

“We couldn’t have done it if we didn’t have such an intelligent team,” Wyche recalls. “Boomer was a genius at certain elements of the game, and was like General Patton when he had to be, just a total field general.” Esiason would always bend low after handoffs, either hiding the ball or pretending to, a cagey maneuver that forced linebackers to take an extra half-second to locate the ball.

Another key to the no-huddle’s early success was, of all things, videotape editing. Game films were traded around the league back then, but industry standard was to cut the play from snap to tackle, leaving out whatever a team did in between. Wyche took advantage, fooling opponents that were prepared for the Bengals’ plays but unready for their pace.

After some tinkering, the ’88 Bengals spun the no-huddle off into several subroutines. When Esiason yelled “Set Alert,” the snap would come as soon as the players were into their stance. There was the “Sugar” huddle (“You cuddled up to your loved one,” says Wyche), with the team loosely gathering two yards from the line, Esiason calling the play and the linemen “echoing” it to each other while in their stance. Then there was the “Walk-by,” with Esiason running to where the previous play ended and calling the next one as his teammates walked past him. The Bengals would then head for their positions as the defense was still unpiling.

The no-huddle’s benefits were so obvious it was a wonder it had taken nearly seven decades for teams to discard the board meetings that took place between every play. “I’ve always been a guy who asked, ‘Is there a better way?’ about everything,” Wyche notes. He found that going faster was the better way.

The Zone Blitz

Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams (57) during a game in 1988. (Photo by Al Kooistra/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Dick LeBeau is so closely associated with the Steelers that it may come as a surprise to learn he spent more time wearing black and orange than black and gold.2 After a playing career as a defensive back with the Lions and coaching apprenticeships in Philly and Green Bay, LeBeau came to Cincinnati in 1980, taking over as defensive coordinator in 1984.

LeBeau introduced a concept he called the “Spinner,” which aimed to confuse quarterbacks by preventing them from identifying exactly who was rushing the passer. Nose tackles would drop into coverage while cornerbacks blitzed. Some linebackers feigned a rush before backing off, others lined up as ends. Anyone could come at any time. The aim was to mess with quarterbacks’ heads, and zone blitzing has scrambled minds so well that it is a part of nearly every team’s defensive package today.

Because the Bengals played Houston and its “Run N Shoot” offense twice a year, and the West Coast offense had spread through the league, LeBeau needed ways to bring pressure without exposing his defensive backs. The Bengals didn’t have a Lawrence Taylor or Richard Dent, so they had to manufacture heat with some experimental chemistry.

“I was the early clay in Dick’s molding,” says Reggie Williams, the longtime Bengals linebacker. Taking advantage of Williams’s extraordinary intelligence (he was a psychology major at Dartmouth and became a Cincinnati city councilman in 1988, the only active player to double as a politician during the season in recorded NFL history), LeBeau began to tinker with and expand the Spinner (sometimes called the “Fire Zone”). When strong safety David Fulcher was drafted in 1986, the scheme really began to pay dividends.

“He was unusually gifted, and bigger than me,” says Williams of Fulcher, who was 6-foot-3, 240 — huge for a safety at the time. “He was so intimidating just standing there, he single-handedly forced opponents into certain formations, which we would then mess with by altering assignments. Fulch covered so much ground that it was easy to expand the zone coverages, and then I would go into the line and run blitzes from a three-point stance.”

Williams was basically the defensive version of Esiason — without Williams to enunciate and carry out LeBeau’s vision on the field, the Cincinnati zone blitz might have succumbed to crib death. “Just as a coach bases certain schemes around a player’s 40-yard dash time or physical strength, Dick built his zone principles around smart players,” Williams says.

By 1988, Williams needed every ounce of gray matter to succeed, given that he missed Wednesday practices — when the game plan was installed — to attend city council meetings. “I could multitask with the best of them,” he laughs. “I was trained in metric-based thinking at Dartmouth, trained in taking experiments from theory to concept and then to execution. Dick’s schemes put me right back in the psychology lab. It was great stuff.”

“Fulcher 2 Stay” became the signature Bengals zone-blitz call, in the same manner Doug Plank is forever associated with the “46” defense in Chicago. As Wyche notes, “The 46 eventually got figured out. Dick’s Spinner defense never has.” But while Plank is a romantic figure and the heart of book-length paeans to the ’85 Bears, only devout Bengals fans even remember Fulcher, let alone credit him for being a linchpin in a stratagem that changed the NFL. As for LeBeau, that Cincinnati’s archrival, the Steelers, have benefited the most from his brilliance is Shakespeare-level tragedy.

I hate Shakespeare.

Zone Blocking

Cincinnati’s contribution to the future of the running game is probably the least-remembered of its laboratory experiments, and the murkiest. While legendary offensive mind Howard Mudd is considered the father of the concept, it was his protégé, Jim McNally, who advanced the idea in Cincinnati. Indeed, McNally, Wyche, and offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet were well ahead of their time in terms of spreading out defenses for backs to career through.

Cincinnati (1988) WCO Install from ragin caucasian on Vimeo.

Check out this video. It is offensive concept heaven, so long as you can ignore the eerie resemblance between McNally and the Chris Farley SNL character Matt Foley.

Cincinnati’s spread concepts were a response to the 3-4 defenses that many teams had adopted to contain the West Coast offense and its quick passing. The Bengals saw opportunity in jujitsuing those defenses’ fast linebackers, designing plays that would use their pursuit speed against them.

“I loved it,” says Munoz over the phone from Cincinnati. “Whatever defense was played we could run against it.” Among the five or six best offensive linemen of all time, Munoz led an athletic group that could both mash in tight quarters and get out in space to stretch out the “box.”

“The backs had to take the ball to the feet of the linemen at their original blocking point,” Munoz explains, “then decide whether to cut back or try for the corner. Not many guys were capable of that. We had several.” Since running backs Brooks, Woods, and Stanley Wilson were so good at cutback runs, and had the great vision and patience required for the scheme, at times the Bengals were virtually unstoppable on the ground, especially against defenses that had been worn down by the no-huddle.

In late November the Bengals ran for 232 yards and four touchdowns against eventual AFC title game opponent Buffalo, which would force Bills coach Marv Levy to have his defenders start grabbing body parts to slow the pace. It was the second in a three-game stretch that saw the team rumble for more than 200 yards on the ground in each outing. In the divisional game against Seattle3 Ickey, JB, and the gang put up 254 yards rushing. I can still shut my eyes and hear Dick Enberg’s call after the umpteenth long gainer: “The Bengals, at will.”

They were held under 100 rushing yards once all season. Cincy led the NFL in rushing yards, average, and touchdowns, along with points, total yards, first downs, yards per passing attempt, and hours worked by opposing defensive coordinators.

“The perception is that somehow it is a finesse style,” Munoz says of the zone-blocking system. “It was anything but. I would come off double-teams and just blow out second-level tacklers.”

The scheme caught the eye of Alex Gibbs, who brought it to Denver in time for Shanahan to rescue John Elway from Bengals-style futility. “I remember when the Broncos won their first Super Bowl,” Munoz says. “John was miked during the game, so I could hear their play calls. The terminology and scheme was almost exactly the same as ours. I’m watching with my wife and calling the plays out to her before they ran.”

Shanahan’s Broncos and later Manning’s Colts would essentially eradicate Cincinnati from receiving any notoriety for its developmental role in zone blocking. Perhaps if Ickey hadn’t blown out his knee on the Riverfront Stadium concrete carpet in 1989, things might have been different.

Quarterback Boomer Esiason of the Cincinnati Bengals throws the ball during a game against the Cleveland Browns at Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Browns won the game, 23-16. For all their ingenuity, the ’88 Bengals seemed unlikely to translate their strategic breakthroughs into success. The 1987 season had been acrimonious, a 4-11 strike-shortened nightmare that set player against coach and player against player, the locker room riven by racial and labor dissension.

Wyche set a redemptive tone with a move that might have equaled his schematic wizardry. When the team reported to training camp in ’88, players were assigned a roommate of a different skin color. “It was less about racial harmony than about getting to know your teammates,” Wyche says. “Sometimes you can go half a season without knowing guys in the locker room unless he plays your position. So I tried to remedy that. The result was players got to know their roommate’s wife’s name, his aspirations after football, what’s important to that guy.”

Before you start belting out “Kumbaya,” know that perhaps the most important healing moment came during a massive brawl.

On the Friday night before the Bengals opened the ’88 season against the then-Phoenix Cardinals, a large group of players, including all the rookies, attended a birthday party at a nightclub across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. “Coming off such a poor season, we didn’t have much respect in the city,” says Williams, who proceeds to tell a story he says has never been told publicly.

Also in the club that night was a large group of University of Cincinnati football players, one of whom blatantly propositioned the wife of a Bengals player. She walked away, but the Bearcat, backed by his teammates, followed her, repeating his lewd come-ons.

Then Ickey Woods stepped in.

The rookie running back was several weeks from becoming a cultural icon, but he had already impressed his Bengals teammates by being “one heck of a tough dude,” as Williams put it. Woods “physically impeded his progress, let’s just say,” laughs Williams. Some shoving ensued, but it wasn’t until the Bengals left the club en masse and encountered the lingering Bearcat contingent that a donnybrook broke out. Club management arranged for the team to leave via a back exit, but the team, led by its city councilman, preferred a show of force.

As Williams waded into the crowd, it parted “like the waters of the Red Sea — it was like I had a force field around me,” he recalls. Once he was through, however, the other Bengals were jumped by a couple dozen college players. A note of awe remains in Williams’s voice as he remembers the moment. “I’m seeing all these haymakers getting thrown, guys protecting their wives, my teammates as vicious and angry as I’ve ever seen them — and I was totally untouched.”

At one point, Williams got to his car and a teammate he won’t name got in the back. The door was flung open, and the player was coldcocked right in the backseat. “He had a shiner the next day,” Williams says. “Several players had scars or bruises.”

“But we won the fight,” he notes emphatically.

Galvanized by the near-riot, Cincinnati beat back the Cardinals with a pair of goal line stands, one on the game’s opening drive and another as time expired to ensure a 21-14 victory. Cards quarterback Neil Lomax complained afterward of the Bengals’ defensive schemes: “I can’t explain in words how completely frustrated I am.”

Everything flowed from there, right up until two hours before the AFC Championship Game against the Bills, when, incredibly, Wyche was informed that the league planned to penalize the Bengals 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct every time it went without a huddle.

The league’s position was that since Levy had said he would fake injuries to slow the scheme, the integrity of the game was on the line. Wyche responded by asking the Cincinnati front office to remind then-commissioner Pete Rozelle of the gambling implications of telling a team it couldn’t run its base offense two hours before such a heavily bet game.

“They left to call Rozelle,” Wyche says. “Twenty seconds later, they were back, saying we could run the no-huddle.” Cincy rolled past the Bills, 21-10, to earn a spot in Super Bowl XXIII. Shortly thereafter, Levy’s Bills were using the no-huddle (called the “K-Gun” for quarterback Jim Kelly) to win four consecutive AFC titles.

All that remained for the Bengals to take their rightful place in history was to win the Super Bowl. But from the time Cincy landed in Miami, ill omens abounded. First, the team was confined to its hotel for two days as a racial incident sparked a riot in the Overtown section of the city. “I just came out of seeing Mississippi Burning,” said Bengals defensive back Solomon Wilcots at the time, “and came to see Miami burning.”

Then Wilson relapsed to the cocaine addiction that has bedeviled him throughout his life.4 “We were in our post-dinner meeting,” says Williams, “the final time the team would get together as one before the game. A cameraman from Cincinnati brought in footage of Stanford Jennings’s new daughter, born a couple of days before. He looked through the eyepiece to see his little girl for the first time. It was a very warm moment, with lots of love in the room. Then Sam comes in looking shaken, and told us about Stanley, and the warm feeling just evaporated, replaced by total shock.”

Wilson had been found naked in the bathroom of his hotel suite, deep in a coked-out haze. Munoz refers to the moment as “an emotional bomb.” Wilson managed to make it even worse by bolting out the front door of the hotel as Bengals management was escorting him away from the team, not to be found until the Monday after the game.

“The whole mess created a surreal cloud over the team,” Williams remembers.

Come game time, Wyche discovered to his horror that the field at Joe Robbie Stadium was a sandpit with a thin layer of grass on top, the result of a moisture-suctioning system accidentally being left on.

“The field was coming up in chunks,” he remembers. “JB and Ickey were long striders — they would plant and bend, and 18 inches of turf would fly up.” He ruefully added that Wilson’s lower running style would have prospered amid such conditions.

The shoddy turf not only slowed the Bengals, it left players vulnerable to injury. Everyone remembers Cincinnati nose tackle Tim Krumrie’s leg exploding, but the 49ers lost left tackle Steve Wallace to a broken leg under similar circumstances early on as well.

The combination of the field and what Munoz calls San Francisco’s “aggressive slants and just plain old good players” slowed the Bengals’ high-octane attack. But the zone-blitz defense was keeping Joe Montana in check and out of the end zone until the final 15 minutes.

“When it really counted, for all our offensive greatness, we almost won the game on defense,” says Williams.

Almost.

Contrary to popular memory, even that of many Bengals who played in the game, cornerback Lewis Billups did not drop an easy interception just before John Taylor caught the game-winning touchdown with 39 seconds left. The crucial flub came earlier, at the start of the fourth quarter, with the Bengals ahead 13-6 and San Francisco in the red zone.

“I could see in the huddle Lewis was devastated, and the team was shell-shocked,” Williams says. “I always think about that moment, and ask, ‘Could I have done better?’ I know I could have, should have, called timeout to get our minds right. But I didn’t.” Jerry Rice beat Billups for the tying score on the very next play, setting the stage for Montana’s drive into history.

What happens if Billups holds the ball? If Williams calls timeout? If the field is properly watered? If any of a dozen other things happen?

Perhaps the ’88 Bengals would be remembered as a truly unique and important team in NFL history, rather than as stage dressing in Montana’s Canton clip reel. “If you win a title, you get remembered,” says Munoz, too proud or too pained to finish the thought.

Instead, the legacy of the team, for all its achievements, is tinged with sadness. From Wilson’s addiction and legal troubles to Billups, who was in and out of jail after football and was killed in a car wreck in 1994, and on to Woods, whose destroyed knee would need replacement, and who was forced to become a door-to-door steak salesman to make ends meet. Then there’s Williams, whose right knee is so ravaged from football and an infection called osteomyelitis that has eaten nearly three inches off his leg that the limb may have to be amputated. (Fortunately, Williams told me the prognosis is good to keep his leg.)

Almost as painful is how the Bengals have treated the lone team in the last 25 years to make any of its fans proud. Wyche was forced out after the 1991 season, told he was fired but publicly said to have resigned so the team wouldn’t have to pay a million-dollar buyout. That led to Esiason demanding a trade, David Shula being hired (disastrously) as head coach, David Klingler being drafted (disastrously) to play quarterback, and on down, ever deeper into the sewer. LeBeau was later named head coach of a deeply dysfunctional team. He floundered, only to land in Pittsburgh and make several Super Bowl trips.

This season, even as the Bengals were going unbeaten at home for the first time since 1988 (until Sunday, of course), there was no reunion ceremony honoring the silver anniversary of the best team in franchise history. In the bigger picture, there is no Ring of Honor to remember past greats, no alumni group assembling the former Bengals to become a presence around the team, no recognition of the only Belle Époque Cincinnati has ever seen.

“The people in charge of the team aren’t wired that way,” Williams says of the Brown/Blackburn family contingent that runs the Bengals. “They have been very harsh to their former players, they are the most litigious of organizations. There is certainly more the team can do in terms of being empathetic to its former players, who gave so much for them.”

Last Sunday would have been the natural moment to gather Boomer and Cris Collinsworth and Ickey and Munoz and Reggie and Fulcher, to get some winning karma going, and maybe bring that team and the world it made back into national focus.

Instead, the same old Bengals showed up and botched yet another playoff game, while the ’88 Bengals watched from afar, somehow anonymous despite the outsize number of them who yak about football every Sunday.

The Bengals will never escape their history until they can embrace their history. Perhaps the best recipe for success would be to rehire Wyche, who says he would “go back to the NFL today — just dial 1-800-CALLSAM.”

Lord knows, if anybody can invent a way to make Andy Dalton a franchise quarterback, it’s Wyche. It would hardly be his biggest contribution to football in Cincinnati and beyond.


Robert Weintraub is the author of The Victory Season: The End of World War II and the Birth of Baseball’s Golden Age and The House That Ruth Built. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Slate, CJR, the Guardian, and many others.

Filed Under: NFL, Cincinnati Bengals, Teams

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