The first play the Cincinnati Bengals ran against the New York Jets on Sunday was a safety—for the Jets. The Bengals' second play was a fumble. Two plays later New York had a touchdown. Cincinnati's next offensive series ended with a blocked field goal, and just to show that it was no fluke, the Bengals later botched two extra-point attempts.
What did all these snafus mean? Nothing, because the Bengals, the only undefeated team in the NFL, won going away against a team that had come in at 3-1-1. They spotted the Jets nine points, settled down and blew 'em away by a score of 36-19. "We met the challenge," said linebacker Reggie Williams. "The challenge of years of abuse. We have been meeting that challenge all season.
"I'd go to meetings," continued Williams, who is a city councilman in Cincinnati, "and my fellow council members would use the Bengals as an example to make their points. This is what you don't want to do...this is how you can get in trouble—that kind of thing. We were the popular analogy."
The Bengals did go 12-4 in 1981 and reached the Super Bowl, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers. The next year they finished 7-2 in the strike-shortened season, and the Jets walloped them in the playoffs. Then came the big slide—three consecutive non winning seasons. A 10-6 record in 1986 gave the fans hope, but that was followed by last year's 4-11 debacle. Sam Wyche, who in 1987 was in the fourth year of a five-year contract, was No. 1 on everybody's list of coaches who wouldn't survive this season. He was an innovative guy who had studied at Bill Walsh University—three years as a player, four as an assistant—and he took the same cerebral approach to the game. But for some reason things hadn't turned out right.
October 16, 1988
For instance, Wyche's no-huddle, hurry-up offense, which he would run in the middle of games, was ridiculed. But in fact it had several assets: It kept the other team from getting a nickel defense on the field, it caused 12-men-on-the-field penalties when defenses tried to rush in substitutes, and it wore out the other guys. However, when you're 4-11, any sign of flamboyance is a target for jeers. And people who wanted to get at Walsh—but couldn't because his 49er teams won too many games—took it out on the next best thing, his protègè.
Wyche's critics had a fine time last year, when the 49ers beat the Bengals on a last-second pass after Cincinnati failed to kill the clock with a reverse. And when the Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers by three points in a game that ended with Cincinnati fouling up a field goal attempt, the Steelers' backfield coach, Dick Hoak, said, "Well, Wicky Wacky blew another one." Earlier this season Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in a game that featured two Bengal goal-line stands in the fourth quarter. The next day a brief item in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was titled NO WICKY WACKY.
Wyche survived because Paul Brown and his son, Mike, who run the Bengals, are not the kind of people to be stampeded by popular opinion. "I read where I was gone if we didn't beat Phoenix in our opener," says Wyche. "Hell, people said I had to win the Hall of Fame game to keep my job. Paul Brown went through some hell in Cleveland. He's a football person. He recognized the competence of our coaching staff. We'd been working for four years to get the team speed to where it could compete. We were almost there, and he could see it."
Wyche wasn't the only member of his family who suffered last season. Says his wife, Jane, "I used to try to get our daughter, Kerry, to sit with me in the special section. She'd say, 'No, I want to be downstairs with the people.' They'd yell stuff about Sam, and she and her brother, Zak, would yell back at them. Once she came up in tears. Someone had a nasty sign about Sam, and she tried to get him to take it down. The guy called her a slut—and worse. She was 14 years old, for gosh sakes."
Wyche's Tuesday press conferences became circuslike events. The media would needle him, and sooner or later he would say something spicy. WLW radio in Cincinnati would run a tape of the press conference in its entirety that same night. Fans couldn't wait. What was Wicky Wacky going to say now?
"I tried to shield myself from a lot of what was going on," says Wyche. "Our staff never worked harder than last year. Jane and I didn't go out much during the season. But I knew we weren't far from being a winner."
Now the Bengals are 6-0, and much of the credit must go to Boomer Esiason, who has been the best quarterback in the AFC—maybe in the whole league—this year. Esiason always was an opportunistic player, a down-the-field thrower, and he followed a fine season in 1985 with a Pro Bowl year in '86. He slipped in '87, when he threw more interceptions (19) than TD passes (16). He was pressing. "We used to call him Freddy Krueger, of Nightmare on Elm Street," says flanker Eddie Brown, "because he was wild. His passes sailed."
"You know how children can be cruel," says Wyche. "Last year a lot of cruel things were said in the locker room. Boomer's a very solid person. He does a lot in the community. He was trying to make things happen. He's as competitive as any player in the game. Now he's getting the ball where he wants it."
And he's doing it without losing distance. Against the Jets he followed those sorry first three series with a 60-yard touchdown pass to Brown, who finished the game with five receptions for 103 yards. After throwing an eight-yarder to Brown for another TD, Esiason found Tim McGee, the split end, for a 38-yard score. Esiason's 10 completions for the day averaged 22 yards.
He has thrown four touchdown passes this season for 60 yards or more—Brown and McGee both average more than 20 yards per catch—and still leads the NFL in rating points, which are keyed to percentage of completions. He has 15 TD passes and only three interceptions. "The great thing about Boomer is the way he can sense pressure and slide in the pocket to buy time until his receivers get open," says Wyche. "It's a knack."
Esiason is 6'5", 225 pounds, and when he decides to take off, he makes people pay. He scrambled three times on Sunday for 61 yards, lowering his shoulder each time. No slides.
Esiason is only one of Cincinnati's offensive weapons. For years the most solid part of the team was the offensive line, which featured Pro Bowlers Anthony Munoz and Max Montoya, who are in their ninth and 10th years, respectively. The line is even better now. "I've never put grades up on the board like these," says line coach Jim McNally, as he points to a row of numbers. The new star is 6'6", 290-pound right tackle Joe Walter, who's also known as John Law because of his long arms. In his last three games Walter has not allowed Reggie White, Howie Long or Mark Gastineau a sack.
The Bengal linemen can also go shoulder-to-shoulder and, as McNally says, "mush it" down the field with drive blocking. In two of the last three games the ground attack has produced more than 200 yards. The Bengals put Sunday's game away in the fourth quarter with a 14-play, 89-yard TD drive that took 7:45 off the clock and featured only two passes—for one yard. James Brooks, Cincinnati's fine all-purpose back, was out with a broken hand, but 232-pound rookie Ickey Woods rushed for 139 yards on 30 carries.
The Bengals have always had offensive firepower. What used to hurt them the most were defensive lapses, particularly late in games. "We were always a statistic-oriented defense," said Williams. "We figured, well, if we hold a team to X number of yards and X average per rush, we should win X number of games. Now the only stats we keep are turnovers and points allowed."
In the 21-14 opening-day victory over Phoenix, Cincinnati twice held the Cardinals on first-and-goal from the one-yard line, and the Bengals' new pass-rushing star, Jason Buck, sacked quarterback Neil Lomax at the end. A four-point win over Philadelphia the next week ended with a fourth-down pass by the Eagles' Randall Cunningham sailing incomplete in the end zone. Against the Steelers, right cornerback Eric Thomas intercepted a pass on the Bengals' eight to preserve a five-point victory. Cincinnati mushed past the Cleveland Browns with 213 yards rushing, and in a 45-21 rout of the Los Angeles Raiders two weeks ago, the Bengals piled up 496 yards of offense.
The offense and defense contributed equally to the win over the Jets. The Bengals had 402 yards against the AFC's top-ranked defense and held the No. 2 offense to 226 yards. Buck. a 255-pound speed rusher, constantly pressured quarterback Ken O'Brien, whose longest completion was 15 yards. He was repeatedly forced to go to dump-offs and short passes off a quick drop.
When Wyche talked about improving team speed, he meant the secondary. Thomas, who endured some shaky games as a rookie starter last year, is the blazer. He claims he ran a 4.27 40 in camp this year. Dick LeBeau, the defensive coordinator, says Thomas was "pretty close" to that time, and adds that he has four cornerbacks—the others are Lewis Billups, the starter on the left side; nickelback Rickey Dixon, Cincinnati's first pick in this year's draft; and Daryl Smith, who's on injured reserve—who can go 4.35 or better. Free safety Solomon Wilcots is the ball hawk, and 6'3", 228-pound strong safety David Fulcher is the big thumper. "He's bigger than most linebackers," says LeBeau. "I doubt whether there's another strong safety like him."
The Bengals are a storehouse of talent—eight first-round draft picks and seven seconds were in uniform on Sunday—and now they have come together. What's more, Wyche hasn't given up on his no-huddle offense, which got Cincinnati two 12-men-on-the-field penalties on TD drives. The Jets complained about one of them—while 12 players were still standing out there. "They're arguing, and I'm counting," said Munoz. "I'm not a math major, but I got 12 every time. We had to smile at that."
Indeed, 1988 has been nothing but smiles for the Bengals.