Surprised that the Cincinnati Bengals beat the Super Bowl champion New York Giants on Sunday? You wouldn't be if you had been at the Bengals' team meeting on the Monday before the game. Twenty-four hours after Cincy had been pounded 38-14 by the Los Angeles Raiders, a loss that dropped its record to 1-11, coach Sam Wyche began preparations for the game against New York by ripping into his team in a way that no Bengal player could remember Wyche's having done in his eight years as the head man. After three months of taking the power of positive thinking to the limit, telling the players how terrific their efforts had been, even though they were losing at a franchise-record pace, Wyche could take the Bengals' pitiful play no more.
Rather than follow the customary Monday regimen, in which the players split up by position and attend separate 90-minute meetings to watch film broken down from the previous day's game, Wyche ordered all the Bengals into one meeting room at Cincinnati's practice facility. For three hours, while everyone watched every play from the Raider game, Wyche ridiculed the defensive players for not hitting anybody, railed at players for not sticking to their weightlifting programs, screamed at all of them to start playing like winners, and so on.
Wyche even sneered at the Bengals' chances for future lucrative employment. Referring to the NFL's annual Plan B free-agent signing period, he yelled, "You guys think you're going to go out and make money in Plan B? Forget it! Tell your agents you're not playing worth anything, and nobody's going to want you!"
No one was spared—"Anyone in that meeting had to be sick to his stomach," said quarterback Boomer Esiason later—as Wyche ran back play after play of the 24-point defeat. Wyche had flared up on the sideline during games, but on this day he was spewing all the anger that had built up inside him during an unexpected horror of a season. Near the end of his harangue, Wyche hollered, "And we even had one guy eating a steak sandwich at halftime yesterday! Unbelievable!"
Indeed. Only three years after having nearly knocked off the San Francisco 49ers in one of the most exhilarating Super Bowls ever played, these Bengals were as low as a football team could get. With most of the main characters from that 1988 team—including Esiason, running backs Ickey Woods and James Brooks, wideouts Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, tackle Anthony Munoz, nose-tackle Tim Krumrie and defensive backs David Fulcher and Eric Thomas—still in the starting lineup, and with Cincinnati coming off a 9-7 season, which ended in the second round of the playoffs, who would have thought that the Bengals would find themselves slithering in the muck of the NFL cellar with the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Bucs?
"We started losing, and it grew like a cancer," said Esiason last Saturday night, with a tinge of anguish in his voice. "There are times I've felt like slitting my wrist. We've taken years to build our careers to a certain point, and we've absolutely torn them down in 13 weeks. It's been a total waste of a year."
It may have been necessary for the Bengals to hit rock bottom, as they did against the Raiders, for them to regroup and play their best game of the year on Sunday. Before a faithful crowd of 45,063 at Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati dealt a blow to the Giants' playoff drive, riding a 78-yard punt return by Mitchell Price late in the fourth quarter to a 27-24 victory.
Cincinnati's embattled defense, ranked last in the NFL, held New York to 69 rushing yards, and the heretofore feeble pass rush sacked Phil Simms three times in the final six minutes. Cincy's offense came to life in the second half, putting together scoring drives of 62, 58 and 53 yards to overcome a 17-7 deficit. As the clock ran down, Wyche shook the hand of every player and coach he could find on the sideline and then ran off the field grinning widely. The fans near the north end zone tunnel threw bouquets of encouragement instead of epithets, as they usually do. Wyche felt sort of goose-pimply. "These are nice moments," he said softly as he headed for the locker room.
O.K., the Bengals are now 2-11—their other win came by two points over the Cleveland Browns on Nov. 3—so that adds up to only two nice moments all season. Like the victory over the Browns, the defeat of the Giants was mere salve on a gaping wound. This is still an anachronistic organization, a family-store operation with a minimal front-office staff and a blue-collar practice facility—a team from the 1960s trying to be competitive in the '90s (box, page 62). The Bengals employ only one full-time scout; most NFL teams have about five.
On the field, the offense has lost the big-strike capability that was its trademark in 1988. The receivers are dropping passes; with five such flubs on Sunday, their season total rose to 71. And the defense can neither cover receivers (cornerback Lewis Billups played like a Fountain Square statue on Sunday) nor pressure the quarterback with any regularity. Cincy's first-round draft choice in '91, linebacker Alfred Williams, still isn't effective, and he doesn't inspire hope for future pass-rushing success when he says, "You almost have to be offside to get a good rush against these tackles. I almost have to be illegal to get to the quarterback." Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose unit has been ranked in the bottom half of the league six times in his eight years on the job, is still in place.
And the Bengals still have Wyche, the lightning rod for most of the blame heaped on Cincinnati by the fans and the press. But how much longer will Wyche be around? The game against the Giants was a referendum of sorts on him. For once he was not distracted by his passion for the plight of the homeless or by the controversial issues of women in the locker room and America's win-at-all-costs mentality. His focus was on football and coaching and regaining the respect of his players. On Saturday, he had said the game would speak loud and clear about the players' regard for him as a coach. If they didn't play hard, he said, they would be sending him a message about his prospects with the Bengals.
Cincy played hard, but afterward Wyche still wasn't sure if he had much of a future with the team. He has two years left on his contract, at about $500,000 per. However, four months after the death of his father, Bengal founder and NFL legend Paul Brown, Cincy general manager Mike Brown is faced with some big decisions concerning the team's future.
"There could be and probably will be a new coaching staff here next year," said Wyche after Sunday's game. "When I sit down and talk to Mike [after the season], we'll decide if our best chance to win is with me. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But I'm not going to be just listening. I don't want to be part of a second-best effort, just because my contract isn't up."
Wyche wouldn't comment directly when asked if he will demand more say in personnel decisions or if the Bengals need to get with the NFL crowd in areas like scouting and Plan B. All he would say was, "Successful coaches are ones who have a lot of say." It's clear, though, that Wyche wants Cincinnati to be more aggressive in all phases of personnel work.
Here's a perfect example. The Bengals were down to six healthy offensive linemen when Munoz dislocated his left elbow on Sunday. Faced with this situation, most teams would have a pro personnel scout calling available tackles right after the game to fly in for a Monday tryout. In Cincinnati's case, offensive line coach Jim McNally asked Wyche what he thought of bringing in journeyman Mike Withycombe, if McNally could find him. Fine, Wyche said. So McNally started phoning friends around the league to see if anyone knew how to reach Withycombe.
Brown refuses to talk about organizational changes he might be considering. "If you fail as completely as we have this year, you question everything you do," said Brown last Saturday, "but it doesn't mean we're going to change everything."
Pressure has to be building on Brown: Does he retain Wyche and keep the coaching staff intact, does he fire the whole lot of them, or does he fire only the defensive coaches, as is widely anticipated? With his father no longer reigning over the franchise as football swami emeritus, how does he go about reorganizing the front office? How does he come up with a plan that will enable the Bengals to acquire players who can help them while retaining those good players who might be tempted to move on?
The fact is, the competition will not end for the Bengals with their final game on Dec. 22; it will only intensify. With the possibility of six or seven coaching changes around the league after the season, Cincinnati will be in a fight to attract top coaching candidates. Further, if the Bengals become more active in the Plan B market, bidding wars may have to be waged. And with the draft promising to be among the richest in recent years, Cincinnati cannot afford to make mistakes—not after three consecutive subpar drafts and with nine first-stringers who will be older than 30 at the start of next season.
Here's one way Brown can bring his front office into the modern age. Take about 5% of the $32.6 million in 1992 TV revenue and spend it on salaries for four college scouts, a pro personnel director and a director of football operations—a veteran football guy to oversee the whole thing. The Bengals must upgrade their football brain trust, because some form of free agency looms, and they are ill equipped to deal with it.
It's a franchise at the crossroads, a franchise in dire need of modernization. We'll soon see if Brown intends to build a new superhighway or patch the existing two-lane road.
The Downfall Of the Bengals
In less than three years the Cincinnati Bengals have fallen from the top of the AFC, having reached the Super Howl after the 1988 season, to the bottom of the NFL barrel. While enigmatic coach Sam Wyche has been singled out for much of the blame, that's a bit too simplistic. These stats tell more of the Bengal story.
Where Have You Gone, Tommy Casanova?
The Bums' Rush
1. Francis-Williams, Bengals
2. Robinson-Phifer, Rams
3. Green-Mitchell, Falcons
4. Hunter-Jamison, Lions
5. Bickett-Thompson, Colts
Shuffling No More
From Boomer to Bust
AVG. YD. PER CATCH
CATCHES OF 60+YARDS
And We Haven't Even Brought Up Freddie Childress
Bob Dahl, DE
Donald Hollas, QB
Ron Carpenter, WR
Bernard Clark, LB
Mike Brennan, G
Erik Wilhelm, QB
Kerry Owens, LB
Rob Woods, T
To B or Not To B
PLAN B SIGNINGS