Posted: 3 p.m.
With all the ballots counted, there is no surprise that the one thing the inaugural Bengals.com Virtual Hall of Fame class has in common is Paul Eugene Brown.
He is certainly the anchor of a group completed by 6,225 online votes in month-long balloting that closed over the Fourth of July. Brown, the franchise founder, joins two players he coached in the explosive long-ball tandem of quarterback Ken Anderson and wide receiver Isaac Curtis, as well as two high draft picks that played on teams Brown led to the Super Bowl as general manager in left tackle Anthony Muñoz and quarterback Boomer Esiason.
Brown and Muñoz received automatic berths as members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame while Anderson appeared on 71.5 percent of ballots to lead a field of 10 finalists. Esiason, who duplicated Anderson's feat as NFL MVP while leading the Bengals to an AFC title, came in second with 2,928 votes in being named on 47 percent of the ballots. Curtis, with 2,591 votes, edged cornerback Ken Riley (2,430) and wide receiver Cris Collinsworth (1,926) for the third and final spot.
Riley and Collinsworth are now the favorites for two of the three berths in the 2010 class. During this season the '09 class will be unveiled virtually with plaques, highlights and induction speeches by the living members.
In February fans pared a list of 32 names to 10. Following Collinsworth in the final vote were nose tackle Tim Krumrie (1,732), former head coach Sam Wyche (866), running back James Brooks (698), safety David Fulcher (598), and cornerback Lemar Parrish (442).
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They look to be the prominent names for awhile. At-large candidate Jeff Blake, a quarterback ranked behind Anderson and Esiason in many passing categories, isn't eligible until 2011, and multiple Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon and right tackle Willie Anderson don't make the ballot until 2012 and 2014, respectively.
Although Brown was elected to pro football's Hall of Fame in 1967 before even proceeding to make the Bengals the most successful expansion team in pro sports history in 1970, his accomplishments seemed to fade as the emerging media giant began to hit its stride slightly later with Vince Lombardi's trophy, Tom Landry's star, Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain, and the jaw of Miami's Don Shula.
But, as Esiason asked in a recent NFL Films feature on Brown, "They named a team after him. How many guys have that?"
And no one has started two NFL franchises like Brown. Which just might make his No. 4 ranking on a recent list of people that changed the game a tad too low. But the fact he's on the list at all shows the power of his career nearly 20 years after his death.
If there was any Bengal who symbolized Brown's vision of the modern game he helped develop from the close of World War II, it wasn't the two franchise quarterbacks or the Hall of Fame left tackle.
It was Curtis, the world-class sprinter the Bengals drafted in the first round out of San Diego State in 1973. A terrifying blend of speed and hands, Curtis helped vertically a sport Brown began to spread out with three receivers at the dawn of the 1950s with the Cleveland Browns. It was in Cleveland that Brown also created what are now staples of the NFL: The facemask, the playbook, the 40-yard dash, and the draw play, just to name a few.
"He was innovative; there was no question about that," said Curtis, who retired after 12 seasons as the club's all-time receiver with 416 catches. "Paul liked speed. And he liked big backs. When I got there, our offense was about as balanced as you could get. My rookie year, I had 45 catches to lead the team and (fullback) Boobie Clark had (45).
"He was such a great organizer. And he just had an eye for talent. A great eye for talent. He had good people around him. Good coaches, and he kept them. No one can ever doubt that Paul got the most out of every player he put on the field."
The organization of the Bengals is also a product of Brown's vision. He saw it as a family venture, a joint effort with sons Mike and Pete.
It was out on the scouting road that Pete Brown, the club's director of player personnel, heard about an interesting small-school quarterback named Ken Anderson. And it was Mike Brown, the assistant general manager, that first made the trip to Augustana College in Illinois and gave a strong enough thumbs-up that quarterbacks and receivers coach Bill Walsh made the next trip before the club drafted Anderson in the third round in 1971.
And it was Mike Brown that Wyche said wanted Maryland's Esiason so badly before the 1984 draft that Wyche remembers Brown telling him that of all the guys they coveted on the board, Esiason was the one he wanted by the time the day was over.
Esiason may have been fuming that he was still sitting there at No. 38 in the second round, but Brown was breathing a sigh of relief while Wyche was waiting and seeing.
There were no such dramatics when all three of them went to scout Muñoz in the 1980 Rose Bowl after his senior season. Muñoz had barely played at USC that year because of knee problems, but while others fretted the Browns were more than impressed. Mike Brown once recalled about that game that father and sons could only laugh at Muñoz's dominance. The Bengals were then ripped for taking an injury risk at No. 3 overall, a risk so big that it can now be seen in a life-sized Hall of Fame exhibit in Canton, Ohio.
Brown's pro career started by giving legitimacy to a fledgling pro league with crowds of more than 400,000 during a season in Cleveland. Esiason ended his pro career with the move into a network TV booth that beamed his faced into millions of homes.
But this inaugural class has a lot in common and can be summed up in one simple afternoon:
Dec. 9, 1973 in the next-to-last-game of the season at Riverfront Stadium against, of course, the Browns. The Bengals need to beat them to stay in the playoff chase.
Curtis, the rookie averaging an incredible 18.7 yards per catch, makes certain with three first-half touchdown grabs from Anderson.
Curtis can still hear the old man's voice after the game when he congratulates him.
"That was something special," Brown tells Curtis.
"You had to earn Paul's respect and it took time. And I think I did by the way I handled myself not only on the field, but off the field. Quietly. Professionally," Curtis said. "From that game on, I think we were always good."