Well, what rule can the NFL dream up now to stop the Cincinnati Bengals? No hip-hopping fullbacks? No striped helmets? Will the league decide to ban coaches who have rescued their careers from the remainder table?
Face it, the Bengals are going to be a tough nut to crack. It looked like the NFL overseers had put the Tigers in the tank for good on Sunday right before the AFC Championship Game at Cincinnati's Riverfront Jungle. The Bengals had been permitted to play an entire season with a no-huddle, all-befuddle offense, and they naturally assumed that they could run it against the Buffalo Bills. Then, an hour and 50 minutes before kickoff, the rule makers yanked it out from under them like magicians performing a bad tablecloth trick. What else do you need to do?
When you're dealing with the Bengals, you need to do more. Like figure out a way to legislate against heart. Like come up with a rule against a defense that forgot how ordinary it was. Like slap the cuffs on a ponytailed rookie running back with Gregory Hines feet and Earl Campbell shoulders.
Ickey Woods and the Bengals earned a trip to Miami by beating the Bills 21-10, before 59,747 striped natives, setting up an eight-years-later Super Bowl sequel with the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners beat them 26-21 in 1982.
January 16, 1989
"I've got one of those tiny AFC championship rings, and nobody comes to golf tournaments to peek at those little things," said Bengal receiver Cris Collinsworth. "They want to see that big Super Bowl ring, and I want one."
Though only an appetizer, the conference title was plenty tasty for guys like Bengal coach Sam Wyche, who went from 4-11 in '87 to 14-4 this season; for owner Paul Brown, who kept his pink slips in his pocket; and for quarterback Boomer Esiason, the AFC's MVP, who was so unloved last year that Wyche never had the offense introduced at home games for fear of boos.
It had been a wild week in Cincinnati. Buffalo coach Marv Levy complained that the Bengals' fans use too many air horns, and that the Bengals' no-huddle offense was, at best, unsporting. Wyche, in turn, assailed Levy's threats to have his players fake injuries to stop the hurry-up attack. Next, Oldsmobile unveiled a TV commercial starring Woods, his mother and the two-step touchdown dance known as the Ickey Shuffle. Finally, Bengal running back Stanley Wilson was arrested for relieving himself in a saloon parking lot.
The Bengals dismissed the Wilson incident—"It was piddly," Wilson actually said—and there were more air horns than ever. Woods, who gained 102 yards on 29 carries, performed his end zone arabesque twice, with a new "woo-woo-woo" (as he calls it) addendum, in which the right index finger gyrates in a circle and the hips swivel to the above-mentioned vocal accompaniment.
As for the no-huddle controversy, Levy's argument was that the Bengals' hurry-up offense is a device to confuse the defense into being penalized for having too many players on the field. It "violates the spirit of the rules," said Levy. Would his team resort to trickery to counter it, as earlier Bengal opponents had done? "We're not going to fake injuries," Levy said coyly, "but somebody might get hurt."
Enter NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and supervisor of officials Art McNally, who announced on Sunday morning that both teams had "agreed" to 1) not fake injuries and 2) not quick-snap to try to draw a yellow flag. How the officials were to ascertain 1) who was faking and 2) intent, was anybody's guess. Looks like they'll have to look at this up in the polygraph booth, Merlin.
Wyche's agreement to all this came as a surprise to Wyche, who had been using the offense all season. "I've had Art McNally call me and say, 'Sam, the quick snap is perfectly legal,' " Wyche fumed. "The heck with 'em. We'll play by their rules and we'll still beat 'em."
And so they did, with a bit of well-within-the-spirit-of-the-rules skulduggery. In the first quarter Woods ran for a one-yard touchdown, and Esiason hit James Brooks with a 10-yard scoring pass in the second. The Bills scored twice in the second quarter, on a nine-yard Jim Kelly-to-Andre Reed pass and a 39-yard Scott Norwood field goal. But by late in the third quarter, both defenses had become immovable. The Buffalo offense actually lost 12 yards in the 11 minutes after intermission, and the Bengals, with plus 7, weren't doing much better. With 4:00 left in the period, the Bengals had the ball on the Bills' 33 and were getting ready to punt. Wyche, looking extra disgusted, kicked the ground aw-shucks style and karate-chopped the chilly air in front of his chest.
Only that wasn't a whine, that was a sign—for "Bills punt," a fake. Backup quarterback Turk Schonert sneaked onto the field like a guy trying to tiptoe out on his wife for bowling night.
"I try to sneak in behind a wave of people, hoping nobody sees me," he said. Punter Lee Johnson stood in his usual position, waiting for the snap. Quickly, Schonert jogged from the blocking-back position to quarterback, took the snap and handed it to Wilson, who ran up the middle for six yards, a first down and a new face on a grim game.
"I guess we put a nice chess move against the Harvard grad, didn't we?" Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams said, referring to Levy.
Had they really put one over on him? The Buffalo coach insisted afterward that the Bills were in the right defense for a fake but didn't make the tackle. Bills punt-teamer Mark Pike disagreed. "They took us by surprise," he said.
Three running plays brought Cincy to the five. On second-and-goal Woods took a pitchout and was greeted by Bills linebacker Shane Conlan, who left an Ickey spot on the turf three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
At the same moment, far from the play, Bills cornerback Derrick Burroughs was losing the game. In the end zone Burroughs was applying a forearm facial to Bengal wide receiver Tim McGee. An official promptly threw Burroughs out of the game, and the flag gave the Bengals a first down on the four.
Burroughs was burned up by McGee's insistence on blocking him backward even on simple off-tackle running plays. Bengal receivers get $10 from a pool every time they knock a defensive back down, plus they knew of Burroughs's reputation as a hothead.
"Burroughs has a bad ankle," Collins-worth told McGee at one point. "Keep cutting him." So McGee did, and Burroughs kept retaliating with after-whistle pushes, taunts and fingers in McGee's face. Once, Burroughs held his cleat six inches above a laid-out McGee's nose and said, "I should step on your face."
"The referee kept warning him," McGee said. "He kept saying, 'I'm going to call you on it.' "
But when McGee blocked him on Woods's running play, Burroughs did his own quick-snap. "I was looking to see where Ickey had been tackled, and next thing I know, I'm getting a shot in the face.' " McGee said.
"You're out of here," said referee Gene Barth to Burroughs. The defensive back had just broken a Levy commandment: "Don't be dumb. Don't be dirty." What would have been third-and-goal from the eight was now first-and-goal from the four. Two plays later the Bengals had a 21-10 lead and Elbert Woods was tripping the light fantastic at The Sideline Theater.
Of course, the Bills still needed only two touchdowns in 14 minutes to win, but they came up short, partly because on this day quarterback Kelly was no Jungle Jim (14 for 30, 163 yards and three interceptions) and partly because Bengal safety David Fulcher knows how to read lips.
Two Buffalo series later, Kelly drove the Bills to a fourth-and-10 on the Cincinnati 17. Fulcher said later that he looked at the Buffalo sideline and saw a coach mouth the word post to running back Ronnie Harmon. Fulcher covered accordingly and intercepted Kelly's pass in the end zone.
"When you pressure him, Kelly doesn't read defenses all that well," said Fulcher. "He sticks to one receiver, and if he's not open, he kind of panics."
But Sunday wasn't all Kelly's fault. The Bengals' Bill-collectors defense had a lot to do with it, as did Cincinnati punter Johnson, who forced the Bills to start consecutive second-half drives at their own 13, 1 and 13. Levy has to accept some of the blame too. On the drive that began at the one, with seven minutes left in the third quarter and the AFC championship on the line, Levy ran three straight line dives. Boooooooring.
And then there was the thigh injury that hobbled Buffalo's supernova defensive end, Bruce Smith. Early in the game Smith was beating All-Galaxy offensive tackle Anthony Munoz (two sacks given up all year, going into Sunday) like a meringue, lowering the Boomer three times in the first nine minutes—two of those sacks were called back, one for a curious face mask call, though Smith grabbed nothing but Esiason's jersey.
But after Smith injured his thigh late in the first quarter, he was never quite the same and neither were the Bills, who were so testy after the game that two players, offensive tackle Joe Devlin and kick returner Erroll Tucker, got into a locker room shoving match.
The real difference, though, was the previously unremarkable Bengal defense, which has now allowed only 31.5 yards rushing per game in the playoffs. That defense is the reason why the Bengals are still alive, and why maybe, for once, the AFC team is not a surefire shoo-out (average score last four years. NFC 41, AFC 14) in the Roman Numeral Bowl.
"We're not going to the Bowl and look like Denver, no way," said Cincy defensive back Eric Thomas, referring to last year's 42-10 Bronco loss.
Or, as Williams put it, "We know that the AFC hasn't fared so well. But we've turned everything here around so far, we might as well turn that around too."
As the clock dripped to empty and the Bengals had their title, Wyche and Fulcher grabbed dueling Gatorade coolers and engaged each other in a furious ice-off. When it was over, they hugged each other in a freezing slush of pure joy, emotion and satisfaction. In that battle both seemed happy to lose.