After the Cincinnati Bengals surprised everyone, possibly excluding themselves, by winning their first three games, Coach Paul Brown said, "We're young and exuberant and we don't know any better." They are now a little bit older, a little bit wiser. Last Saturday night they lost a battle to the seasoned San Diego Chargers but they took a long step forward in the pro football war. The Chargers, a club bountifully supplied on offense, beat the Bengals 21-14 in San Diego Stadium, Brad Hubbert scoring all three Charger touchdowns, and they certainly deserved their victory. San Diego had lost to Cincinnati 34-20 just two weeks earlier, but this time it played with cold ferocity and with few lapses and it is a team to be reckoned with the rest of the season.
The Bengals, on the other hand, played with youthful abandon and zest and with the tendency of the young to err. It is extremely doubtful that they will win the AFL Western Division championship this year, but Coach Brown's kids will certainly be a force in the '70s, when the AFL and the NFL merge and Cincinnati is in a division with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Houston.
If Greg Cook, Cincinnati's dandy rookie quarterback, had been able to play the Bengals might have won. Sam Wyche replaced Cook, who has a bruised right arm, and Wyche isn't as accurate a passer or as elusive a target for on-rushing linemen and linebackers. Moreover, he hurt his right knee early in the game and couldn't set up properly or drop back with any facility. The Charger defenders caught Wyche six times attempting to pass and frequently harassed him into inaccuracy.
He completed only seven of 18, including a 62-yard touchdown pass to Bob Trumpy, whose wife thought he had been drafted by the Cincinnati Bagels. Wyche is a rather modest young man, and following the game he said, "You know, Greg has a kind of charisma that I don't have and he lifts the team. There had to be some doubt about my ability, and if there is doubt, then the team suffers."
Rick Redman, the five-year veteran who plays middle linebacker for the Chargers, confirmed Wyche's self-appraisal. "But I think we would have beaten them even if Cook had played," he said. "We were really ready and we made some defensive adjustments I can't tell you about that helped us in our coverage. But there's a difference in Cincinnati with Cook and without him. When they come out on a third-down play with Cook at quarterback they exude confidence. Tonight they didn't."
Wyche, who played two good games for the Bengals last year before being sidelined with a broken ankle, was not only bedeviled by the Charger rush, he was bemused by a sophisticated approach to the rush. Early on the Chargers blitzed often, their outside linebackers coming in hard. Pete Barnes, barreling in from his right linebacker spot, often overpowered the back who was supposed to pick him up and once or twice came in free. "They got blitz-conscious," Redman said. "Then we'd fake the blitz and make them keep the backs in to protect and then we'd drop off. That cut down on the number of receivers they had downfield and made the coverage easier."
Even so, the Bengals had opportunities to put the game out of reach and failed to capitalize on them. If there was one play that was to cost them the game it came early in the first period. Cincinnati had received the kickoff and moved for a touchdown in a splendid four-play burst. The big play here was a sweep by Fullback Jess Phillips that carried for 49 yards to the San Diego 26-yard line. Phillips caught the Charger line slanting the wrong way, with the linebackers clogged up in the middle, cut to the sideline and was almost gone. On the next down, Wyche completed a 10-yard pass, then called (or, rather, Paul Brown called) a bit of razzle-dazzle. The play was a reverse to wispy Wide Receiver Speedy Thomas coming to the left from his spread position. Thomas took the ball with most of the Charger defense running the opposite way and went 16 unmolested yards for the touchdown.
On the following kickoff the Bengals recovered a fumble on the Charger 35 and appeared ready to move in for the touchdown that would put them 14 points ahead and the Chargers in the position of having to play catch-up. But the defects of youth caught up with them. With third down and two to go at the Charger 27, Wyche (and/or Brown) called a play that had Phillips faking into the line and Paul Robinson, last year's AFL Rookie of the Year, taking a hand-off wide for a sweep. Phillips hit the wrong hole so that Wyche couldn't fake the hand-off, and a looping Charger lineman hit Wyche as he reached desperately for Robinson. The ball smacked Robinson on the hip, fell free and Charger Linebacker Jeff Staggs pounced on it and ran it to the Bengal 39. The Chargers went on in to score and tie up the game. And, mixing the passing of John Hadl with the running of stumpy Dickie Post and the 230-pound Hubbert (whose three touchdowns by rushing set a San Diego single-game record), they went on to win. "I just felt loose and easy and I went," said Hubbert, who had a knee operation last season. "I just had that good feeling."
So did John Hadl. "I'm glad we're through with Cincinnati," he said after the game. "Expansion team or whatever, they're too tough. They have a hellacious defense."
The feelings of the two teams before the game offered a marked contrast. The Bengals, notably relaxed and too young to realize that they weren't supposed to be 3 and 0 against veteran competition, weren't impressed by San Diego. Possibly the only member of the Bengal organization who was aware of how unlikely their accomplishment really was was wise old Paul Brown.
"I had no idea we would have this kind of record this early," he said at breakfast in San Diego's Stardust Motel the day of the game. "I thought the early schedule would kill us. It seems to me that in the old days Bert Bell [the former NFL commissioner] used to work out the schedule so that the strong teams played each other early and the teams that weren't so strong were matched so that the suspense went on for at least the first half of the season. But we opened with Miami, then we get San Diego, Kansas City, San Diego, the Jets, one after the other—three of the best teams in the AFL four times in four weeks. Even Miami should be a stronger club than we are. You don't expect to beat veteran teams in your second season."
Sid Gillman, the only coach the Chargers have had in the 10 years of their existence, agreed wholeheartedly. Gillman is an outspoken admirer of Brown, but he wasn't reconciled to having lost the first Cincinnati game. "Paul is a great coach," Gillman said after the Chargers had gone through their final pregame workout. "He's in the Hall of Fame and he belongs there. All you have to do is look at his record. But no second-year team belongs on the field with a club that has been in operation for 10 years. You don't have time in two seasons to accumulate the talent, you don't have the experience you need."
In defense of Gillman, a fine coach in his own right, the Chargers operated under the nearly insuperable handicap of a lame-armed quarterback in their two losses. John Hadl had been slow recovering from a bruised elbow that he got in an exhibition game against the Rams, and he didn't throw well. Behind Hadl is Marty Domres, a promising rookie from Columbia, which despite its sorry record always seems to have a first-rate quarterback, but Gillman looks on rookie quarterbacks with the traditional suspicion of all pro coaches—except, perhaps, Brown.
"The kid is as smart as they come," Gillman said of Domres. "He's got the size and he'll have the arm. Right now his arm isn't quite strong enough, but it will be. Hadl had the same trouble when he came up. He used to throw the ball end over end, and our receivers were making diving catches. Now he puts a tight spiral on it. But it wasn't until the game last Sunday against the Jets that he could throw comfortably. I was scared silly that he was through, but we gave him a shot of cortisone and the elbow responded." Hadl completed 19 of 31 passes for 281 yards and three touchdowns in San Diego's 34-27 victory over New York.
Hadl wasn't the Chargers' only cripple. Ron Mix, the All-Pro offensive tackle, missed most of the first three games with a pulled calf muscle. Before the Cincinnati game he went gingerly through the motions of practicing with the special teams—punting, kickoff, placekicking—then stood on the sideline. Mix is a thoughtful man who wears hornrimmed glasses and looks as intellectual as it is possible to look when you're 6'4" and weigh 260.
"I've been brainwashed all these years," he said, smiling. "Why, for six weeks now I've finished every game fresh and fit and able to take my family out for a nice dinner. My paycheck has been there anyway. Look at what I've been missing!" He looked slyly out of the corner of his eye to see if his audience had bought the put-on, then grinned. "I don't mean that," he said. "I'll go if I can. I played four plays last week. I'll try for eight against Cincinnati." (As it turned out, he didn't get into the game.)
The Chargers are a team with a number of superstars; the Bengals, obviously, are not. "Nobody on this team is getting rich," said Jess Phillips. "We're lean and hungry. And the lean and mighty shall win."
One who won't be hungry long is Greg Cook. A remarkable rookie who is leading the AFL in passing, Cook came to the Bengals from the University of Cincinnati, and his initiation into the pros has been made easier by the fact that Brown sends in the play calls via messenger guards, as he did with the Cleveland Browns. But Cook's college coach did the same thing, so Greg is used to it. "Paul Brown is 61 years old and at the peak of his career," Cook says. "Who am I to argue with him about calls? I'm just very happy to play for him—and, besides, we agree about 90% of the time."
Cook should be back this week when the Bengals play the Jets in Cincinnati, and it wouldn't be surprising if he outshines Broadway Joe. The Chargers play the Dolphins in Miami and Hadl is definitely hale. Against Cincinnati he threw the ball 27 times and completed 17 passes for 238 yards, and when he missed he was close.
"Hadl was tough," said Bengal Defensive Tackle Bill Staley. "We had a good rush. We were getting in, but he throws quick. Sometimes he threw with someone on him and the pass was still on target. He's great."
"He had great targets," said John Guillory, a rookie cornerback who had the frustrating job of trying to cover Lance Alworth and Gary Garrison. "You can't cover Alworth and Garrison all night. They beat us bad on a couple of crossing patterns early and then we got overcautious."
"We made mistakes," said Paul Brown. "You expect a young club to make mistakes. Alworth and Garrison caught a lot of passes on us, but they catch passes on a lot of people. But we played hard and we never quit and I think this is a fine young group of men. I was proud of them. You don't like to lose, but we didn't lose any pride in getting beat tonight. The Chargers were fired up. They knew we were for real."
So does the rest of the AFL.