During the regular season, Cincinnati coach Sam Wyche used a special phrase to help keep his Bengals calmly focused on the task at hand. "It's time to go to the office," he told them day after day as they rolled to a 12-4 record and the AFC Central crown. But the playoffs are different. For one thing, before Saturday's game against the Seattle Seahawks only nine Bengals had postseason experience. By contrast, 32 Seahawks—almost every veteran on the roster—had been in at least one playoff game. So last week Wyche added some new wrinkles to his psychological playbook.
He began wearing his Super Bowl championship ring—which he won in 1982, when he was quarterback coach of the San Francisco 49ers. He asked the Bengals with playoff experience to stand up. in a team meeting, and tell their cohorts what to expect. He closed practices to the public and the press. "Sam wanted us to concentrate on this game and this game only." said Tim Krumrie, Cincinnati's Pro Bowl nosetackle, the day before the game. "He wanted to hammer home: Win or die."
Saturday, when it was finally time to go to the office, the Bengals were all business. They outworked the Seahawks, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, and won 21-13. Cincinnati's attack, which ranked first in the NFL in total offense, rushing and 11 other categories, piled up 254 yards on the ground. "Our line totally manhandled theirs." said fullback Stanley Wilson. "I didn't have to make a decision on cuts until I got five yards into the secondary."
January 9, 1989
On its first possession, an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown march, Cincy served notice that it has the league's most dangerous offense. Wyche calls it the "attack" offense. Ambush would be a better word. During that opening drive, quarterback Boomer Esiason threw passes to five different receivers, including a 30-yarder to wideout Cris Collinsworth and a 23-yarder to wideout Eddie Brown, and handed the ball off to three different running backs. On top of that, Esiason hindered the Seahawks' ability to make substitutions by running more than half of the plays without a huddle.
Later in the first quarter, after Bengal cornerback Eric Thomas intercepted a pass by Seahawk quarterback David Krieg at the Cincy 25. Esiason darted onto the field—and again skipped the huddle. After calling the play from behind center, he zipped an 11-yard pass to tight end Rodney Holman. Nine plays later. Wilson ran through an Anthony Munoz-sized hole for his second touchdown.
The Bengals struck again on their next possession, making the score 21-0 on a one-yard run by fullback Elbert (Ickey) Woods, who would finish with 126 yards. The 58.560 fans in sold-out Riverfront Stadium, which has been nicknamed the Jungle, went bananas.
Cincinnati had planned to run against the Seahawks, who ranked 24th in the NFL against the rush, and, indeed, the Bengals built their three-touchdown lead by keeping the ball on the ground on 26 of their 37 first-half plays. "We knew they were a little bit light on the line," said Esiason after the game. Among Seattle's starting defensive linemen, 268-pound right end Jeff Bryant is the only one who weighs more than 260.
Meanwhile, Cincy's defensive line held the Seahawks to zero rushing yards in the first half and only 18 in the second. The Bengals ranked 18th in the NFL against the run, but last week they played like men on a mission. "We told ourselves we weren't going to let them run," said Krumrie.
The Seahawks, who won the AFC West with a 9-7 record, held Cincinnati in check during the second half, thanks in part to a series of mysterious knee and head injuries to Seattle nosetackles Joe Nash and Ken Clarke. Funny. Nash and Clarke always suffered these "injuries" in long-yardage situations. As a result, the clock would stop long enough for Seattle to get its nickel package—a fifth defensive back—onto the field, foiling the purpose of the Bengals' no-huddle tactic. All told, Nash had four injuries and Clarke two.
Wyche got so irritated that after one injury delay he waved his arms and screamed "Bull——!" across the field at Seattle coach Chuck Knox. Esiason suggested that referee Red Cashion penalize the Seahawks for unsportsmanlike conduct. "Come on, Red," Esiason said with typical sarcasm. "You'd think he'd be missing a ligament or a kneecap by now."
Knox wouldn't admit to any hanky-panky. "They were hurt," he said afterward. Nash refused to comment on his alleged injuries, but Clarke said, "That was just Football 101."
Seattle got back into the game early in the fourth quarter. With 13:24 remaining, a miraculously healed Nash recovered an Esiason fumble on the Cincinnati 31. Five plays later, Krieg threw a seven-yard scoring pass to fullback John Williams to make the score 21-7. The next time the Seahawks got the ball, they went 69 yards in nine plays for another TD. However, Steve Largent, the NFL's alltime leading pass receiver and Seattle's holder on kicks, mishandled the snap on the point-after attempt, and Norm Johnson's kick was wide. Johnson had converted 130 consecutive PATs. His miss left Seattle eight points behind with 6:05 to play.
"That took a lot out of them," said Woods. "If they'd made that, they'd have thought they had a good chance to come back."
Esiason, who was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press earlier in the week, wasn't particularly effective in the air—completing only 7 of 19 passes for 108 yards—but he didn't have to be. "It was kind of an ugly win," said the Bengals' offensive line coach. Jim McNally. "But I'll tell you, if you want to make it to the Super Bowl, you've got to run the damn ball."
Cincinnati, which had a 4-11 record last season, has pulled off the second-biggest turnaround in league history, surpassed only by that of the 1962 and '63 Oakland Raiders, who went from 1-13 to 10-4. The most obvious changes have been in Wyche's relationship with his players. For the first time in his five years with the Bengals, he's consistently fining players who don't follow his rules. More important, he's communicating better with Esiason. In years past they often butted heads on the sideline over what plays to call. Weathering the painful, strike-disrupted '87 season—"I was booed every time I went back to pass," says Boomer—helped Esiason understand what Wyche went through as a coach under fire.
Now, says David Fulcher, the Bengals' strong safety, "it's 'Whatever you want, Sam.' ...'Whatever you want, Boomer.' If a play works, it works. If it doesn't, it doesn't. We've all grown up in the past year. If there's any problem, anywhere, we address it—together." Which is just the way to get things done around the office, even during playoff time.