For any quarterback vitally interested in enhancing his reputation with 72-point headlines and TV spots, there are more appropriate teams to command than the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom Ken Anderson, 26, has toiled in low-profiled excellence into his fifth—and thus far undefeated—season.
Other signal callers with less impressive passing credentials have earned more glowing tribute. Fran Tarkenton is lauded for his swashbuckling style, Joe Namath for his deadly arm and Ken Stabler for his regal grace under pressure. In contrast, Anderson has received the kind of acclaim usually reserved for a shoe salesman while enduring a myth that is none too flattering. Beyond the borders of the Queen City, he is merely the on-field extension of Paul Brown, who, after 44 seasons in the game, is still calling plays from the sideline.
The tactic has been unfairly bum-rapped since Brown, when anyone last thought to look, still has won more games than any of his peers, against whom he is now unleashing one of the most complex—and most efficient—offenses in the NFL. Brown's sideline huddles, however, have diluted the esteem due Anderson for his exceptional performances.
"People think he's some kind of computerized, transistor robot," says Bill Walsh, the Bengals' quarterback coach, "but you watch him play and he finds ways to move the ball and to innovate with audibles. He creates opportunities. It's a mistake to assume he's just basically taking orders and complying with them."
Ironically, Anderson's pinpoint passing is at least partly to blame for the transistor theory, since his completion rate and his low yield of interceptions reflect an accuracy that seems more programmed than practiced. Last season, as almost no one but readers of the NFL guide will recall, Anderson won the passing championship by completing 213 of 328 tosses for 2,667 yards and 18 touchdowns. Along the way he suffered only 10 interceptions, the fewest by any starting quarterback over a full season. It was the third straight year he had posted the lowest percentage of interceptions. This season, with the Bengals off to their finest start after beating Cleveland, New Orleans, Houston and, last Sunday, New England, Anderson has completed 69 of 108 tosses for 965 yards and eight touchdowns, with only one interception.
"At the moment," says Walsh, "I would say that he's the most effective quarterback over a 14-game season. I think Namath's the greatest quarterback in a given game to beat a team that has to be beaten, but Kenny—from the standpoint of 14 games, staying power against the rush, efficiency and everything that goes with it—is the best."
If so, few expected as much when Anderson came to the Bengals as the team's third-round draft choice in 1971. For one thing, he had gone to tiny Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. which was not exactly in the habit of scheduling Notre Dame. Anderson entered Augustana on a basketball scholarship but received most of his grant-in-aid through a federal program assisting exceptional math students.
"My son Pete heard about Anderson through some good reports from our scouts," Brown says, "but you rarely give much attention to that caliber of competition because it's such a tremendous jump." Brown, however, sent Walsh to Augustana for a closer look, and when Walsh reported back in glowing terms, he decided to draft the youngster.
While Brown is impressed with Anderson's size (6'2½", 211) and speed (4.7 for the 40), he waxes warmest in discussing Anderson's intellect and his all-American-boy personality. "To begin with, he's extremely bright," Brown says. "And he's got common horse sense and good judgment. Every guy on the team likes him. He's their bell cow."
Brown adds, "And he's so well adjusted as a person. You know what his parents do? They take a vacation in July and they rent a lake cottage near Wilmington [where the Bengals hold training camp] and spend their days watching Kenny practice. That's really nice. It's Americana."
For his part, Anderson says, "I think I'm a good quarterback. I've still got things to learn but I feel comfortable out there now. I've become more disciplined. I know our passing game better and I know where everyone's going to be. I think I'm making better decisions about who I throw to. I wouldn't classify myself as a superstar, but I think I'm as good as any other quarterback in the league."
As for his extraordinary statistics, Anderson says, "They're nice to look at and make you feel good, but some weeks you have to complete 17 of 22 to win and you can't do that every week. You're also going to have the games when you're seven of 22, but if you hit the right seven, you'll win."
Walsh, among others, expects Anderson to keep hitting often this year. "You never know when a player's progression will slow or stop," he says, "but Kenny's hasn't stopped yet. We think he will be better this year because he'll stay with his primary receivers longer to get more yardage out of the abilities of Isaac Curtis and Chip Myers. It may mean a few more interceptions, but I think it will mean more points."
Curtis is a receiver who deserves staying with while he flies down field. With his 9.3 speed and improved knowledge of defensive backs, this season Curtis has caught 16 Anderson passes for 321 yards and four touchdowns, each of which has been followed by his patented, behind-the-helmet ball drop.
"Curtis is a great delight," Brown says. "It's in character for him to do that with the ball. No fanfare, no jumping up and down or spiking it. He's a very gentle person and he just gets rid of it."
Curtis can get rid of worry, too, as Anderson found out in New Orleans earlier this season. "We had a short-yardage play called and when I came into the huddle, I just couldn't get it out," he says. "My tongue was tied. Finally I called the play but we came out in the wrong formation. But we scored a touchdown anyway. Isaac got it. He's a nice guy to go to when you're in trouble."
Anderson suffered only momentary stress last Sunday when the Bengals scored a 27-10 victory over winless New England, but the occasions when he could go to Curtis were stymied by the Patriots' double coverage. Only on a New England blitz was Anderson able to connect with his fastest receiver for a 45-yard gain that set up Cincinnati's first touchdown. With Curtis in check, Anderson adjusted by throwing to Chip Myers and Charlie Joiner, a pair of reliable veterans who combined for nine receptions totaling 136 yards.
Anderson, who completed 16 of 31 for 265 yards and a touchdown, was at his peak in the third quarter when he took his mates on a dazzling seven-play drive covering 83 yards. The march ended with Essex Johnson scampering 12 yards into the end zone after Anderson had completed three of five passes for 57 yards. Less than a minute later the Bengals put the game out of reach when Linebacker Al Beauchamp recovered Sam Cunningham's fumble at the New England 37-yard line and Anderson threw a touchdown pass to Joiner.
Despite some close calls when he had to thread the needle on passes to Myers or found Bruce Coslet in a swarm of defenders, Anderson again enjoyed an interception-free afternoon. Even so, he rated the game as one of his lesser efforts. "We wobbled around for a while," Brown said, "before we discovered that the best way to attack their 3-4 defense was to run right at it." In so doing, the Bengals churned out 174 yards rushing, tops for the season.
If the team stays healthy, as it assuredly did not a year ago, Cincinnati will be a stern test for everyone, including Oakland, whom it meets this Sunday at Riverfront Stadium.
"Our opponents aren't going to be able to double-cover Isaac all the time or we'll just do what we did today," Walsh said. "Our other receivers are quality people, too, and you can't forget about them."
Nor the quality guy who's throwing to them.