Cris Collinsworth, the poet laureate of the first Bengals Super Bowl team, sees that they are opening their home schedule against the 49ers this Sunday (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530) and his network illustrator automatically clicks to that other Bengals-49ers game 30 years ago.
“You can’t help it. I’ve never watched it. I’ve never seen it. It wasn’t like ’88. In 1981, we were definitely the best team,” Collinsworth says of Super Bowl XVI. “But that doesn’t take away from the fact that 1981 was a magical time in Cincinnati. It was electric around here.”
The season gave birth to Bengaldom. The Jungle. Orange hair. Painted faces and posters.
“I look at this classy group of young guys and I have hope,” Collinsworth says of the team 30 years later. “I know that this town would be just like that again if they were to be successful ... I like what they’re doing. It was time to move on.”
Fittingly in this 30th anniversary season of those first AFC champions, Collinsworth, its rookie 1,000-yard wide receiver, and Ken Riley, its veteran cornerback finally reaching the big game after 13 seasons and 52 interceptions, are two of the headliners of the second Bengals.com Hall of Fame class.
Two-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie, who broke into the league two years after that first Super Bowl and never missed a game in the next dozen years despite a horrific broken leg, led the balloting that took place on Bengals.com during the spring and summer by appearing on 54.7 percent of the ballots. Riley, at 51.9 percent, and Collinsworth, at 48.1 percent, rolled into the Hall on the last two spots by easily outdistancing former Bengals head coach Sam Wyche’s 24 percent.
Sunday’s game marks transition as well as history. It is the Paul Brown Stadium debut of Bengals rookie quarterback
It is a game linked not only by two Super Bowls, but by coaching DNA. Bill Walsh, architect of the 49ers dynasty, got his start under Paul Brown in Cincinnati molding Anderson into the textbook quarterback of the West Coast offense. Walsh beat Anderson with a second generation Kenny in a third-year, third-rounder named Joe Montana, scouted by then-49ers quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche, a former Bengals quarterback and future Bengals head coach that would lose to Montana in the last 34 seconds of another Super Bowl.
When Dalton takes that first PBS snap, it will be from the latest printing of that Walsh playbook first used by Anderson and now expanded and revised by first-year Bengals coordinator Jay Gruden, a mere lad of three when Walsh first drew plays for Anderson in the winter of 1971.
Now it is 30 years after the 26-21 loss to the Niners, a time for reminiscing and rebuilding.
“Kenny Riley taught more about playing wide receiver than any coach I ever had,” Collinsworth says. “Every time I ran a route, he’d tell me how I could have made it better. And he didn’t have to do that. He could have just said nothing and made himself look good in practice against a rookie. But he was a real pro.”
Riley’s generosity is just one of the reasons why Anderson, calls them “a special group of guys. You’re not only talking about players, but coaches.”
“We had Hank Bullough and Dick LeBeau on defense,” Anderson says of once and future cutting-edge NFL coordinators. “And on offense we had guys like (future head coaches) Lindy Infante and on special teams Bruce Coslet and on the offensive line was a young guy (Jim McNally) who ended up making a name for himself around the league.”
Anderson plans to be there Sunday for just his second Bengals game ever as a fan after 16 years building a Pro Football Hall of Fame résumé at quarterback and then 17 seasons as an NFL assistant coach. Anderson, the Batavia, Ill., product, is on a Midwest reunion tour of sorts from his Hilton Head, S.C., home. He returned to his alma mater of Augustana College last weekend, where his number was retired, and now he’s in Cincinnati visiting his in-laws.
He’s looking forward to watching Dalton in person for the first time, recalling what he said back in April when he gave his blessing when Dalton asked for No. 14.
“He better play good,” Anderson repeated with a smile.
How long has it all been? There are two other reasons Anderson is in town. Dalton was born a year after Anderson retired and when Anderson turned on the game at his daughter’s home Sunday, he was a bit distracted. Kenneth Allan Anderson, 62, author of four NFL passing titles, had his first grandchild on his lap, 10-week-old Mia. In a few days he was headed to see two-week-old Hayden in Lexington, Ky.
“I watched the game, but Mia was my top priority, especially for the first half,” Anderson says. “I thought he did a good job Sunday. He’s young. He’ll learn. He looked like he belonged out there as a quarterback. He looked poised.”
There were no second looks at a No. 14 playing for the Bengals.
“You might say the two uniforms I wore were a little bit more traditional, so I didn’t notice,” Anderson says.
The Astroturf generation of ’81 has peeked at their iPad ancestors and likes what they see. Riley, drafted by Paul Brown in the second year of the franchise as a sixth-round cornerback out of Florida A&M, says they remind him of the early Bengals. Pete Johnson, the battering ram running back, reports from Columbus, Ohio, “I like the looks of the young quarterback.”
“In the first couple of years nobody knew who we were and we snuck up on a lot of people,” says Riley, who gets the Bengals every week in his native Bartow, Fla., via DirectTV. “These guys look young and hungry.”
Collinsworth, the Howard Cosell Monday Night favorite who grew up to tell it like it is well enough to win a dozen Emmys, is bullish on his Bengals.
“I like what the Bengals are doing,” Collinsworth said. “It was just time to move on. Chad (Ochocinco) was a great player and so was Carson Palmer, but it was time to move past the players that didn’t want to be there. Now they’ve got a young team that’s playing hard and is enthusiastic to the point of being lovable.
“I’m a fan. It’s so easy to beat up on the Bengals. Especially Mike Brown. But in 1981, Paul (Brown) was pretty much in San Diego by then and Mike built that team as much as anybody.”
Mike and Pete Brown urged their father to draft the centerpiece of that team 10 years before when they lobbied for a guy not as unknown as everyone thinks out of Augustana in the third round. Mike Brown has called Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Muñoz the best player in franchise history, but says Anderson is the most important.
“The year that Kenny had in 1981 I would put up against anyone,” says Dave Lapham, his left guard in ’81 and best friend who has become the voice and conscience of Bengals Nation as he works his 26th year as the club’s radio analyst. “I’ve never seen a quarterback be more accurate. He would lead receivers into completions and not into trouble. Every time in 1981 whenever anybody came back to the huddle, they knew he was going to put the ball where they wouldn’t get blown up and could make a play.”
The MVP was almost a DNP in the second game of 1981 after getting pulled in the opener at Riverfront Stadium that backup Turk Schonert pulled out against Seattle. The next day Anderson was driving home from work and heard on the radio he might not start that Sunday against the Jets at Shea Stadium.
Livid, Anderson called the offensive coordinator, Infante, and asked him why he couldn’t have been told when he was there. Infante said it hadn’t been decided and urged him to call head coach Forest Gregg and Gregg told him to come see him Wednesday morning.
“He told me, ‘I just want to know one thing. Do you want to start?’ ” Anderson said. “I told him right away, ‘Yes.’ And he said, OK, that’s all I wanted to know. You’re starting.’ Well, that wasn’t too hard.”
Cleary Gregg, the hard-bitten Lombardi disciple, had doubts about his star’s resolve. Anderson had been used to that, ever since 1979 when the Bengals tried to replace him by drafting Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson with the third pick.
“Any time they draft your so-called replacement, I think you get competitive,” Anderson says. “For a few years before that, I was supposed to be washed up. But the players in front of me and around me got better and I got better. I kind of joined them and I think we all complemented each other.”
This is why Anderson holds up two fingers of caution. He’s the epitome of the roller-coaster ride at the position. In 1975 he was at the top of the profession. In '79 he was done. In 1981 he was hailed as the best at his craft.
“He’s played two NFL games,” Anderson says of Dalton. “Two. There are going to be ups and downs. The key for a young quarterback is to learn from your mistakes and don’t make them again. And he looks like that kind of guy.”
Anderson responded to Gregg’s doubts with a tough-as-nails 252-yard effort in Shea in which he passed for two touchdowns in a 31-30 win over the Jets and the magic began. The hints of the offense’s versatility were there. Collinsworth and tight end Dan Ross combined for only three catches at Shea, but wide receiver Isaac Curtis, now more of the wily vet instead of the terrifying speedster, had another 100-yard day while running back Archie Griffin caught a touchdown and ran for a touchdown, and Johnson, the man called “The Incredible Hulk,” rumbled for a 33-yard pass out of the backfield.
“Cris really helped take the pressure off Isaac,” Anderson says. “We had a lot of weapons, that’s for sure. When Isaac came into this league, he had as much as an impact as Jerry Rice. He was great.”
Collinsworth hasn’t had a chance to study much of Green in the pros, but he has watched college tape and says, “Hopefully he can become a cornerstone. He’s certainly extremely talented.”
Collinsworth also has hopes for Dalton after he won 42 of 49 starts at TCU.
“I loved him coming out of college,” Collinsworth says. “He’s a perfect guy for that team to like. He’s smart, he’s tough, he’s a good player who looks like he can win games.”
Lapham, who called Green’s how-did-he-stay-inbounds five-yard TD catch in Denver, thinks Green is a Curtis-Collinsworth hybrid.
“In all three cases they’re everything you want in a receiver,” Lapham says. “Isaac wasn’t as rangy as Cris, but Green is as rangy as Cris. Straight line, Green isn’t as fast as either of them, that’s probably the biggest difference. But as far as hands and making contested catches and all of that … he’s long like Cris, runs routes like Isaac.”
Curtis (53) and Collinsworth (36) combined for 89 touchdowns. Green has two after the tight-rope TD in Denver and Lapham says, “I think it’s the first of many.”
So does Riley, who saw the play down in Bartow and called it “unbelievable. I don’t know how he got his foot down.” But he also keeps an eye down on the corner and likes
“I think he’s got pretty good fundamentals and technique,” Riley says of Hall. “To me, that’s what it’s all about. If they start picking on you, you intercept a few balls and they start staying away from you. Lemar and I split up after a long time and we kept playing. Leon just has to keep doing what he’s doing and playing his game.”
Lapham also sees similarities with Dalton and Anderson when it comes to poise and brains.
“Kenny’s got Andy’s strengths but they’re a cut above,” Lapham says. “Kenny threw with more velocity, no one was more accurate, and he was a better athlete than people think. But Andy does those things well, too. They both study the game and are gym rats. Andy’s probably a little more fiery when it comes to personality, but I think he’d be a heck of a coach if he wanted to get into it like Kenny did.”
There were a lot of coaches on the field in ’81, where the Riley-Collinsworth relationship was the rule rather than the exception.
“Good guys. We didn’t have guys that did touchdown celebrations and all that,” says Jim LeClair from Mayville, N.D., a swarming contradiction in the center of the defense as the ferocious born-again middle linebacker. “We were all for one on that defense.”
Collinsworth helps out his sons’ teams at the perennial Northern Kentucky power Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Ky., another example of how the ’81 team has stayed a fabric of the community. It is Highlands coach Dale Mueller’s quote about not knowing what a team is really like until 25 years later when the players have settled down in life that has Collinsworth capturing why the ’81 Bengals were so good.
“We had smart, solid guys all across the board,” Collinsworth says. “Look what these guys have accomplished in life. Anthony Muñoz. Lapham. Louis Breeden, Isaac. Kenny Anderson. The list goes on and on.”
LeClair is just coming off a four-year stint as mayor of Mayville, N.D., proudest of the fact that he’s got the town council of the 3,000-person community back in line. He’s trying to transition from the insurance business to running a horse ministry for underprivileged children and is in the process of looking at farms for potential sites.
Riley coached and became the athletic director at A&M and is now a high school administrator near his hometown. Curtis, Breeden, Riley’s young sidekick on the other corner in ’81, and Pro Bowl left guard Max Montoya became successful Cincinnati businessman. Muñoz has become iconic for his tireless work in the community. Lapham is one of the top college and pro analysts in the nation. Collinsworth’s dozen Emmys purr for themselves. Running back Archie Griffin returned to his alma mater of Ohio State as a long-time athletic department administrator and ambassador for the state and school. Johnson, who works in sports promotions, is a fixture on the Ohio celebrity tour.
After signing autographs at the Little Brown Jug fair in Delaware County the Sunday of the opener two weeks ago with former Bengals running back Ickey Woods, they drove back and Woods was screaming and kicking at the radio during the game.
“I told him,” Johnson says, “if he broke it he’d have to pay for it.”
But the pain of Super Bowl XVI lingers for them all.
“We were the best team in football that year,” Riley says. “There’s no doubt in my mind."
"They say I got the ball four times in that goal-line stand," Johnson says of the turning-point moment when the Niners stuffed the Bengals on the 1 three straight times early in the third quarter leading 20-7. “Yeah, I wish I did. All I know is if I got the ball eight more times in that game we would have won and I would have been a millionaire.”
Johnson got the ball 14 times that day in Pontiac, Mich., (twice in the stand) for 36 yards, proof that long before
“I like the way Cedric runs," Johnson says. “I like to think that I did it all. They used me out of the backfield a lot catching balls. On the goal line, we never ran behind Muñoz and I could never figure out why.”
Anderson puts a lot of it on himself. There were four turnovers and he had two picks, the first he believes was a killer that ended the game’s first drive in the red zone. Asked about the urban legend that the throw wasn’t his fault he said, “I threw it, so it’s on me,” showing why his teammates loved him.
“I was talking to Dwight Hicks last year and he told me what happened,” Anderson says of the 49ers free safety that got the interception. “He dropped off the guy he was supposed to be covering in the slot for some reason. He sensed something with Isaac and that’s who I was going to. We ran some kind of pick play for him and Hicks wasn’t supposed to be there. I didn’t expect him to be there.
“They talk about the goal-line stand, but it never should have got to that point. You make four turnovers, you’re not going to win any Super Bowls.”
The pain even cracks through Collinsworth’s cellophane pipes as he remembers his own fumble after the catch in the first half.
“We were the better team but not that day,” Collinsworth says. “So many mistakes. We played so well that year and had our worst game in the biggest game. If I had one do-over in my career, that’s it. My biggest regret is that we cost Kenny and some other guys a chance at the Hall of Fame by losing that game.
“It grates on your soul.”
But there is another Bengals-49ers game on the way. It doesn’t mean as much to some as the one 30 years ago. But it does for the new generation stalking a home win.
“That would be nice to see,” Riley says.