BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Bengals came into the 1981 season as the Bungles. They were coming off three straight seasons with a record of 14-34. The Sept. 6 season opener against Seattle drew what remains the smallest-ever crowd for a Bengals home opener on the river. And 13 minutes into that game, the quarterback was booed, benched, and boxed in by a three-man controversy.
But the Bengals went on to win that Seattle game, and before long, Cincinnati was in love -- rollicking and rolling with a hip, high-scoring team. The '81 Bengals went on to freeze out San Diego in the AFC Championship game before losing a heartbreaker to San Francisco in Super Bowl XVI. Paul Brown's marvelous brew of game-breaking players, coached by the hard-nosed Forrest Gregg, turned the Bengals faithful from a lonely hearts club band into one of the NFL's most rabid fan bases.
While Bengals Nation painted their faces, their team painted a masterpiece of balance. The third-highest scoring team in franchise history allowed the fourth fewest points in a 16-game season. The NFL's second-ranked offense rolled up 373 yards per game while the league's 12th-best defense held foes to 21 points or less in 13 of the 16 games.
They were remembered for winning the second coldest game in NFL history, beating San Diego out of the Super Bowl with a 27-7 victory that still stands as an ice sculpture in the city's memory bank.
But it overshadowed the hottest month in club history. The Bengals tore through November at 5-0 by outscoring foes, 177-90, and rolling up 411 yards per game on the way to their first 12-win season ever. They stunned their opponents early, piling up a a 121-34 lead in the five games, which included blowouts against the AFC West champion Chargers and a Denver team that won 10 games.
"The November to Remember," says guard Dave Lapham, now the Bengals' radio analyst. "We were a machine. Our two-minute drill was unbelievable. Every Friday afternoon it would run like clockwork and then on Sunday it would be the same way. We'd get in a game in the last two minutes of the half and I'd go into the huddle knowing we would score."
They had the Player of the Year in quarterback Ken Anderson, the Rookie of the Year in wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, the dominant offensive lineman of his generation in left tackle Anthony Munoz, and the Play of the Year when cornerback Louis Breeden returned an interception 102 yards for a touchdown.
In the fall of 1981, they were hotter than punk, cable TV, Reagan, and J.R. Ewing.
"It was probably our best team," says Bengals president Mike Brown. "The best team didn't win the Super Bowl that year. I'll always feel we were the better team. But not on that day."
Ken "Rattler," Riley, the elegant cornerback with the snakeskin durability, was one the captains of Cincinnati's first Super Bowl team. And he passes it down like an heirloom to this year's team that comes into the '01 season not all that different than their striped ancestors in '81.
"No one is going to feel sorry for you," Riley says. "It's like a cornerback and they keep throwing it on you. Make a play and make them stop doing it. You can talk about all the other things you want, but it's always up to the players to turn it around and step up and make it happen. That's what happened with us."
Anderson, now the Bengals quarterbacks coach, didn't feel sorry for himself when he opened the season with two interceptions and 10 incompletions in his first 15 passes before head coach Forrest Gregg benched him in favor of the third quarterback. Backup Jack Thompson was hurt, so Turk Schonert set the tone for the improbable season when he rallied the Bengals from 21 points down to a 27-21 victory over Seattle to the surprised delight of an intimate gathering of 41,177 that needed convincing at Riverfront Stadium.
But on Tuesday's off day, Anderson convinced Gregg to give him another shot the next week in New York against the Jets in a meeting that produced the NFL's Most Valuable Player.
"I asked him if he wanted to go back in there right away or come off the bench," Gregg says. "I told him not to give me an answer right away. I told him to go home and tell me in the morning, but Kenny said, 'I don't have to sleep on it. I want to play.' And you couldn't have asked for a better year from your quarterback."
Anderson, 32, revived a career that had been unraveling the previous two seasons, winning his third NFL passing title and first in six seasons when he threw just eight more interceptions and 29 touchdown passes the rest of the way.
Riley, in his 12th season, wasn't feeling sorry for himself, either, after general manager Paul Brown drafted Ray Griffin in the second round in 1978 and told Riley he was trying to replace him.
But Riley was still there in '81 on his way to 15 brilliant seasons and staked his claim to the Hall of Fame in San Diego that year. That's when he held future Fame receiver Charlie Joiner to two catches for 14 yards in the 40-17 victory in November over quarterback Dan Fouts' aerial circus that gave the Bengals home field in the Freezer Bowl.
"You hear all this talk abut zone blitz and disguising defenses nowadays," Riley says. "We were doing that back then. We did it to get pressure on the quarterback. We confused a lot of teams with that. P> " We blitzed a lot and that meant you had to be smart and disciplined because (the cornerback was) out there by yourself," Riley says. "We were showing Fouts man-to-man and then switching to zone and then the other way around. If you had to take away the inside, then you had to make sure that receiver went the long way to the outside."
Hank Bullough coordinated the defense with the help of a secondary coach destined to change the way they played defense in the next decade. Former cornerback Dick LeBeau, who retired with the third most interceptions of all time with 62, took what he learned in '81 and later as the Bengals Super Bowl coordinator in 1988 to high-profile success with the zone-blitzing "Blitzburgh" Steelers of the 1990s.
"We were doing things with scheme that were ahead of the curve," says Mike Brown. "Both on offense and defense."
LeBeau, the head coach of the '01 Bengals, leads Riley to look in the mirror at '81 and the similarities between Gregg and LeBeau.
"I'm confident Dick is going to succeed because guys respect him," Riley says. "He's like Forrest. If you're not going to do the job, he'll find someone who will."
Lapham, in his eighth season, had had enough of the playground.
"Dick has the same thing going for him that Forrest did," Lapham says. "Forrest would stand up there with the Super Bowl rings dripping off his fingers that he got playing for Lombardi and we listened to every word. We bought into what he was saying because we knew he wasn't asking us to do any more than what Lombardi asked him to do.
"Dick can stand up in front of these guys and get them to listen," Lapham says. "He's been to the Pro Bowl, played 14 years, set a record for most consecutive games (171) by a cornerback. He's asking them to do only what he did."
If Collinsworth's speed, Anderson's revival, and the defense's aggressiveness put the '81 team over the top, then something must be said for Gregg's sheer force of personality. When the Packers' Hall of Fame tackle came to Cincinnati before the 1980 season, Riley actually pondered retiring. He wasn't sure he wanted to play for a man who had spawned some tough tales during his stint as the Browns head coach in the mid-1970s.
"Forrest came in at the right time," Riley says. "We were a young football team. We needed that strong arm of strict discipline. We were talented, but there were people getting in trouble. He didn't have to say very much. His reputation in Cleveland preceded him. We had heard so much about him."
Munoz remembers how Gregg delegated the defense to Bullough and the offense to Lindy Infante and the management of the team to himself. And how he pushed the right buttons to ignite the November push after a dreadful 17-7 loss in New Orleans on Oct. 25.
"Forrest made the point that we hadn't done anything yet," Munoz says. "We were only 5-3 and we were coming off a 6-10 season. We still had something to prove."
Riley recalls, "That's when the leadership surfaced. That's when guys came together and stepped up. On defense you had guys like Jim LeClair and Reggie Williams and myself always talking. The players have to do it for themselves. No one else will."
Gregg says his main job as the head coach was to monitor the mental health of his team instead of getting immersed in Xs and Os, and he thinks he had just the right combination of youth and experience. Collinsworth was teamed with the leading receiver in team history, Isaac Curtis, in his ninth season. The cerebral Lapham played next to Munoz, who says Lapham "helped me with the mental part of it, always talking with me."
Riley worked opposite Breeden, a fourth-year player emerging as a force of his own. At linebacker, LeClair was in his 10th year and Williams in his sixth.
"I don't know if you get chemistry from winning or if you win because of chemistry," Lapham says. "All I know is we had it. That offensive line was probably as close as one I was ever on."
Anderson says that didn't mean they were going out every night together, either: "We weren't all that close off the field, but we were close in the locker room."
Plus, they had some talent. Three of them have legitimate cases to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, yet they hardly get mentioned:
_Anderson is the only man to win back-to-back NFL passing titles in two different decades in 1974-75 and 1981-82.
_Curtis' career yards per catch average of 17.1 is longer than six Hall-of-Fame receivers, including the newly elected Lynn Swann of the Steelers. Curtis played more seasons than Swann (12-9), caught more balls (416-336), caught more touchdowns (53-51), and had a yard longer on his average.
_"Rattler," Riley played 15 seasons and finished with 65 interceptions. The trio ahead of him and the man behind him on the all-time list are all in the Hall.
"Small market, small town. We didn't get the attention," Riley says.
Lapham: "I have no idea. Probably because we didn't win the Super Bowl. In my mind, Isaac might have been the best player at his position we ever had. If he played in New York or Chicago, he would have been a household name."
Anderson credits the offensive line for helping him re-capture his public standing, which had been put in jeopardy by the 1979 selection of Thompson as the third pick in the draft. One local scribe wrote before the '81 season that Anderson was washed up. Then came the Opening Day disaster, and a 32-year-old was staring at the end.
"I'm sure there was a lot of pressure out there on him," Gregg says. "There were people booing him. There were signs saying play Jack instead. I'm sure he didn't like it and wanted to do something about it. I knew I wouldn't have liked it if that was happening to me."
Just how Anderson started the season's second game in New York against the Jets is subject to striped lore. Legend is Gregg all but anointed Schonert the starter after the opener, but then Anderson fought for his job in a meeting with Gregg on the off day and convinced him to give him another shot.
The lore is spiced by whispers Gregg and Anderson weren't exactly board members of each other's fan club. But today they say there had been no definitive decision and that it was worked out in that Tuesday meeting.
Gregg said he mentioned to Paul Brown that he was thinking of going to Schonert in New York and while Brown said he understood, he told Gregg he might want to re-think using Anderson because a bigger, mobile guy was needed against the Jets' vaunted "Sack Exchange," pass rush.
"Kenny said he was ready and wanted to start and that's what I needed to hear," Gregg says.
But the hotel van driver taking his offensive line to Shea Stadium wasn't ready. In the middle of U.S. Open traffic, the guy took them to Yankee Stadium and by the time he got them to Shea, they had just 10 minutes to dress for warmups.
All week the line had been busting Anderson about his interceptions and they told him, "Just tell us what side you're throwing to so we can cover."
Anderson figured in the face of the Jets' big pass rushing ends, Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau, Infante would call a few running plays to get him settled. But the first call was a quick pass to running back Archie Griffin and Anderson was thinking, "Here we go."
"I told those guys, 'All right, it's pass so cover to the (right)," Anderson says.
No need. He hit his first three passes, 22 of 34 for the game for 252 yards , two touchdowns and just one interception in a 31-30 victory. Not to mention one career saved and one Super Bowl run started.
"To me," Mike Brown says, "that game turned the season."
The line held up. The Jets sacked Anderson four times, but Klecko got past Munoz just once.
"He was as tough as I ever played," Munoz says. "I know when the game was over, I was glad. He liked to lock up your upper body."
If Gregg was looking for a tough quarterback-leader, he got him that day. Anderson finished the season as the team's second-leading rusher with 320 yards as the bootleg became a key weapon for a diversified offense.
"What didn't we have?" Anderson asks. "We had a 1,000-yard running back who ran you over with Pete Johnson. Danny Ross was a 70-catch a year tight end. Collinsworth was sneaky fast, Isaac could still run, and we had a fast third receiver in Steve Kreider (37 catches, five touchdowns off the bench) who could also produce.
"Plus, we were one of the first teams that had receivers run option routes and we really hurt people with that," Anderson says. "We go out to San Diego and you know they'll double cover Cris. What happens?"
What happened is that at age 30, Curtis came home to catch eight balls for 147 yards and a touchdown.
But no one remembers that game back on Nov. 8, because two months and two days later the teams met in history at the Freezer Bowl.
On a cool day, Anderson can still feel in his fingertips the effects of somehow completing 14 of 22 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns through an Arctic wind.
"You'd look at him between plays putting his hands in his pants to keep them warm and then he'd throw a perfect ball," Munoz says. "I don't know how he did it. Amazing. And it looked like Fouts was trying to throw through glue. It wouldn't go anywhere."
Chargers owner Gene Klein met with Mike Brown before the game suggesting they phone commissioner Pete Rozelle to postpone the game. Brown, who can still read a thermostat and stat sheet, refused to make the call.
Meanwhile, Gregg, who played in the coldest game ever in Green Bay 14 years before in the NFL championship game, told them how it would feel. Lapham can still hear the words.
"I told them they weren't going to like it," Gregg says. "I told them to think of it like it was going to the dentist. You don't like it, but you have to do it because it's necessary. My dentist didn't like that and he got me back for it later."
For the Chargers' great passing game, scoring was like pulling teeth. It was a psychological rout once the Bengals offensive line came out for warmups wearing no sleeves. Riley says he made the suggestion to the defensive line after recalling Steelers center Mike Webster doing the same thing a few years before.
"I suggested it mainly because Big Hands Johnson was a grabber," Lapham says of the Chargers lineman, "and I wanted him to have as little to grab as possible, so I didn't want the sleeves. And it was good psychologically."
The Bengals got warm two weeks later at the first indoor Super Bowl ever, but they went cold in the 26-21 loss to San Francisco in Pontiac, Mich.
The team that had a whopping plus-13 turnover margin during the season was minus-3 against the Niners in losing the ball four times. They became the first team to lose a Super Bowl with the most yards, 356-275.
The game is remembered for the Niners' goal-line stand in the last two minutes of the third quarter that preserved a 20-7 San Francisco lead. The Bengals had three chances to get a yard, but the usually powerful Pete Johnson got stuffed twice on second and fourth downs, and running back Charles Alexander got dropped for no gain after catching a pass in the flat.
It has led to 20 years of might-have-beens and would-haves.
"I think," Gregg says, "if Charles had squared his shoulders after catching it, he would have scored."
The dome noise foiled one of Johnson's runs.
"(Receiver) David Verser says he missed an audible and he ran right by the outside linebacker," Lapham says. "Pete made a great run just getting back to the line of scrimmage."
They figure the entire season had been a great run, anyway. Maybe even more for what it meant off the field.
"When I got to Cincinnati the year before, it was all Reds," Munoz says. "You hardly knew there was a NFL team here. But that year brought everybody out and made it a football town, too."
Anderson calls it the year, "our fans came of age. The Jungle was born. It was a special time."
So special that 20 years later the taste is still so sweet, everyone wants another bite.
"When a team is winning like that," Lapham says, "there's nothing like a game at home."