TDBH: Bengals survive chaotic final seconds to stop Namath on doorstep

Posted Nov 17, 2017

This Day in Bengals History - November 18, 1973

In the most chaotic ending in franchise history the Bengals stay in the thick of the AFC Wild Card race today when Jets quarterback Joe Namath sees what he thinks are two touchdown passes taken away in the final 39 seconds and Bengals linebacker Bill Bergey stones Jets running back Brice McCain on the half-foot-line on what turns out to be the game’s final play for Cincinnati’s 20-14 victory. Namath can’t get another play off with five seconds left when he doesn’t get a handle on the snap and the Jets are called for illegal procedure as the game ends in a hail of flags with the Jets seething that the Bengals came charging across the line too soon. Weeb Ewbank, the 66-year-old Jets head coach who has announced this is his last season, outruns referee Bernie Ulman to the Riverfront Stadium tunnel and screams, “You’re no good.”

“When you see Wilber, tell him we were lucky,” says Bengals head coach Paul Brown to the writers after the Bengals come so close to blowing a 17-0 lead, using Ewbank’s given name. “I don’t want to disparage the fact we won, but to let a thing get into the shape we let it get into, we earned the stuff you saw at the end.” The Bengals don’t see Namath until 4:49 left in the game because he’s been out the last two months with a separated shoulder. But Ewbank turns to his future Hall-of-Famer when Al Woodall is knocked dazed and Namath starts to work his magic with 1:49 left and the ball on his own 21. Even though Bengals defensive coordinator Chuck Weber has installed the new fad “nickel,” defense with five DBs for this game just in case Namath appears, Broadway Joe wakes up the echoes. He hits tight Rich Caster for 21 and 14 yards and then somehow floats a 39-yard knuckleball on which wide receiver Eddie Bell makes a diving catch at the Bengals 11 with 49 seconds left. Namath then whistles what looks to be the winning pass to Caster at the side of the end zone, but the refs say he isn’t in-bounds. Then on fourth-and-10 with 34 seconds left, Namath finds Caster again for what looks to be TD on a pass over the middle. But the refs rule him short, a foot away, and the Bengals offense has to run off the field because they give the Jets the first down.

That’s when Bengals defensive end and captain Royce Berry goes offsides for a penalty that puts it on the half-foot line. But he also calls the game’s last timeout and Bergey says it wins the game because it enables the Bengals to get organized enough to take the nickel off the field and run on their goal line defense that includes the Pro Bowler Bergey. Namath must think the nickel is still on the field because he calls a run to 212-pound running back Brice McCain away from Bengals Pro Bowl tackle Mike Reid. “It gave the Stallion the chance to come in and make the last tackle,” Bergey jokes. “I honestly don’t think we could have stopped them if we stayed with five little defensive backs. We all played it the way we were supposed to. Royce kept McCain from going outside, (linebacker Ken Avery) took a step to the left and then came back to help me. No way McCain was getting through us.”

After the game Berry is still shaking his head about Namath’s rousing Riverfront welcome when he appears on the field. “That was nice of our fans,” Berry says. “But when he completed his first pass they kept cheering. I was looking around wondering what the hell was going on.” In the end, so was Joe Willie. He offers an expletive and says, “He (Caster) was in both times.”

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