Thursday, January 9, 2014

When the Bengals Were Innovative and Winners

Rob Weintraub:
The Cincinnati Bengals have had several distinct eras. There was the epic fail of the 1990s, the lawless brigandry of the 2000s, and this decade's slapstick haplessness in big games, Sunday's follies being the latest example. As a die-hard fan, I've spent my entire adulthood despairing for my Bengals. To paraphrase Dean Wormer, inept, criminal, and choking is no way to go through life.
But there was another era that predated those Ages of Discontent. Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the Bengals lived on the sport's cutting edge, and the Queen City was a hothouse of invention, a pigskin Edison Labs. Back in the 1980s, Cincy coaches, led by the ever-inventive Sam Wyche, unveiled strategic schemes that have become the foundation of the modern NFL.
In virtually every other aspect, football from 1988 might as well have been played with mastodon skulls for all it has in common with today's sport. But the '88 Bengals, the finest make ever to roll off the franchise assembly line, could step out of the DeLorean to take the field this Sunday and look startlingly up-to-date. Those Bengals helped give the league the no-huddle offense, the zone blitz, inside and outside zone-blocking schemes, and the general notion to spread defenses out to create mismatches — all building blocks of modern game plans.
But ask your average fan about those concepts, and he or she will talk to you about Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, the "Blitzburgh" Steelers, or Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis. The Bengals not only receive little credit today for their innovation, but they were also derided in their time as "wacky," "mad scientists" playing "popcorn football" (the striped pumpkin helmets didn't help). And of course, the team never fully benefited from its originality — others swooped in to reap the rewards.
History is written by the winners, and because of Montana-to-Taylor, the 1988 Bengals are mostly remembered for vaudeville — the Ickey Shuffle, backed by the SWAT Team, doing dance routines in the Jungle, with GNR blasting through the loudspeakers, 80-year-old Paul Brown prancing to the beat.
Oh, how I remember those days.  Sam Wyche was way ahead of his time (and not in the ironic way I talk about the International Harvester Scout and American Motors cars being ahead of their time).  I distinctly remember Marv Levy going to the league and getting them to ban the Bengals from using the no-huddle offense in the AFC championship game, even though they'd been using it all season:
Two hours before the AFC Championship was set to kickoff, the league office called the Bengals and told them if they went no-huddle, they would be hit with a 15-yard flag every time it happened. The Bengals won anyway 21-10.
Wyche told Sports Illustrated after the game, "The heck with them, we play by their rules and we still beat them."
It took Wyche four years to perfect it, but it paid off with a Super Bowl run.
Levy would take the no-huddle offense he hated (probably because he didn't think of it), modify it into the Jim Kelly led K-Gun, and go to four Super Bowls with it. [Fuck you, Marv Levy]
Wyche was fun to have around, even though his teams were maddeningly inconsistent.  But his last season in Cincinnati was the first in a horrific streak of ineptitude which overshadowed that tremendous 1988 season.  And when Wyche was fired, Mike Brown demonstrated his utter classlessness:
On December 24, 1991, just three years after the Bengals' Super Bowl appearance, Wyche was fired by owner Mike Brown, who had taken over the team upon the death of his father, club founder Paul Brown, four months earlier. Controversy erupted when the Bengals claimed Wyche had resigned, relieving the team of any future payments, but Wyche stated he was fired. [Fuck you, Mike Brown]
A little under two years after the Bengals loss in Super bowl XXIII, the Reds won the 1990 World Series.  Those were the professional sports highlights of my life.  It's been pretty ugly since then.

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