The 1988 Bengals live. They are 25 years old, but they are also 25 years young.
They were ahead of their time on a grease board slick with Xs and Os that belong on an iPad.
They no-huddled the NFL into the next era with a quarterback that orchestrated the line of scrimmage when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were in grade school. They zone-blocked the league back to the future and zone-blitzed defenses into cyberspace. Their 12-4 run, 8-0 domination at home, and heartbreaking Super Bowl loss turned out to be a snapshot of early 21st century football.
"We're disciples of Paul Brown, Sam Wyche, Dick LeBeau, Jim McNally," Solomon Wilcots says of his 1988 teammates. "What we're seeing today, the foundation of a lot of that is right there in little old Cincinnati."
The ancestors of the '88 Bengals are on display this weekend. Manning and Brady, the line-of-scrimmage sons of Boomer Esiason, battle again in New England. One member of the class of '88, cornerback Ray Horton, now the Cleveland defensive coordinator, matches his zone blitz against the master himself, LeBeau and his Steelers.
The '88 disciples are also spread across the NFL Bible, network and cable TV.
Wilcots, a second-year safety in the famed SWAT Team secondary, is an NFL Network pundit and CBS game analyst. Cris Collinsworth, who ended his career in '88 as the Bengals all-time leading receiver, has caught more than a dozen Emmys opining on the game and now presides over Sunday Night Football on NBC. Boomer Esiason, the NFL MVP that season who was the first pro quarterback to consistently mesmerize defenses at the line of scrimmage, is omnipresent on TV and radio as studio host, game analyst and talk show titan.
"We had smart coaches and smart players; that's the way Paul Brown wanted it: smart guys," Wilcots says of the Bengals founder who by then was the general manager.
"If that's one thing I'm proud about that team, it's that locker room we had," says Wilcots, starting with the honorable linebacker Reggie Williams. "Think about it. We had a sitting Cincinnati city councilman who could run a Fortune 500 company. We had a law school guy in Collinsworth. Stanford Jennings was a Furman guy. We had some interesting debates."
If they fast-forwarded the game, hit the rewind button back to an NFL spring meeting in the early 1980s when another head coach approached Cincinnati's Wyche unhappy about the no-huddle.
"I respected him as much as any coach in the league; he was a legend, is a legend," says Wyche, still not wanting to name him after all these years. "He told me, 'This is popcorn football. It's not in the spirit of the game.' You could have buried me right there. I was crushed. I was ready to die. If he didn't like it, if he didn't see any advantage to it, maybe it's wrong. But we stuck with it and everybody came around."
Little did they know 25 years ago the Bengals had the Dorian Gray playbook. They are the one team from their time that could pump their schemes into software and it would be like they haven't aged.
In Philadelphia, rookie Eagles head coach Chip Kelly couldn't be trying to set the NFL on its ear with his fast-break Oregon offense without Wyche turning the league upside down with the no-huddle.
In Cleveland, Horton is showing how relevant the zone blitz is by manufacturing a top five defense in his first season.
In Houston, the Texans have walked in the same lanes as James Brooks and Ickey Woods to become one of the league's most productive running games.
"The only difference is the players are 10 to 15 pounds heavier at every position," Wyche says.
Wyche, the 68-year-old creator of the no-huddle, toyed with the concept once he arrived as head coach in 1984 and appointed Bengals secondary coach Dick LeBeau as his defensive coordinator.
By 1988, the no-huddle was the team's base of offensive operation and an every-down diet of zone blocking cemented the running game as a counter to 3-4 defenses. At that time all teams had a hurry-up, two-minute offense, but no one had ever used it for most or all of the game with their entire game plan.
(Even when the Bills copied the Bengals the next year after they couldn't beat them and called it the K-Gun, Wyche was under the impression they only had about 10 plays.)
And while some teams were running behind zone blocking, no one was doing it all the time and no one had combined the inside and outside zones like offensive line coach Jim McNally and running backs coach Jim Anderson.
And before LeBeau would go on to perfect the zone blitz in Pittsburgh a decade later and after his defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, Hank Bullough, dabbled with the scheme in the early '80s, nobody was doing what Charles Richard LeBeau did in the late '80s. Dropping linemen, blitzing defensive backs, and playing zone behind it all with the signature call "Fulcher 2 Stay" for Pro Bowl safety David Fulcher.
Bengals president Mike Brown has always called that team "ahead of the curve," but the original ideas can get lost in the twist and turns in the road map of evolution.
"I have to remind those guys that it was Dick LeBeau that started all this," Wilcots says of the army of analysts that now break down the game.
He's thinking about ESPN's Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge, who so brilliantly do ESPN's matchup show every week, as well as Greg Cosell, NFL.com's scout.
"I tell guys like that all time and now they tell me, 'You're right. Dick LeBeau is a genius,' " Wilcots said. "I'm not going to let them forget that we started it all. Now everybody has at least a zone blitz package."
Wyche, a quarterback on the 1968 inaugural Bengals coached by Paul Brown, the pro game's first innovator, had seen something in the two-minute offense back in the day. When he got his own coaching gig at Indiana in 1983, he thought something like the no-huddle could close the talent gap.
He always remembered what 49ers receiver and hurdler record-holder Renaldo Nehemiah told him while he served a stint in San Francisco under his old position coach in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh. Wyche was always amazed how a guy as fit as Nehemiah could be so winded after a route.
"Coach, I just ran 60 yards as fast I can," Nehemiah told him. "In five seconds, I'll be breathing through my nose again."
That helped to get Wyche thinking.
"The idea was if I can recover in 18 seconds from the previous play and it takes you 30 seconds to recover, when the ball is snapped at 22 seconds I've recovered and you haven't and I'm watching you wear down. I'm not playing the same team I played on the opening play," Wyche says.
"Then we found all the other things. We could prevent substitutions and lock the defense in coverages. They didn't have time to call exotic blitzes and the coverages were very predictable."
It became all about matchups and substitution. Back then, teams pretty much only subbed on third down and that's when the Bengals began going to the line quickly and not letting teams sub their nickel packages. Pretty soon they were doing that on all downs and eventually the league allowed the defense to sub if the offense did.
Wyche and the Bengals battled through the late '80s with the NFL on when and how to use it with the turning point coming in the '88 AFC title game at Riverfront Stadium against the Bills. The Bills said the no-huddle was illegal and the NFL suddenly agreed.
In a surreal conference call just hours before the game to go to the Super Bowl, Wyche and Mike Brown had to argue the ruling was against competitive balance because the Bengals had been allowed to use it all year. Wyche's point was it was just another strategy, like men in motion or an extra flanker.
The NFL backed down. The Bengals won. Now every team tries to catch a team subbing. If a defense wants to get set without blowing a timeout, it fakes injury. When you see a guy flop, that's vintage '88, Seattle lineman Joe Nash vs. Wyche.
But back then, it was Cincinnati's personnel that made it cutting edge.
"The one thing that made it possible that some teams had trouble with in the beginning is that we had a tight end in Rodney Holman that was as good a receiver as he was a tight end," Wyche says. "We had running backs in James Brooks and Stanford Jennings that could be wide receivers as well as running backs. And then you had Ickey back there who could play tailback or fullback when we had J.B. or Stanford wide. A lot of teams today recruit kids that can fit in that mold. Apparently the Eagles are going to be drafting people that fit into that mold."
(The Bengals just did with the second-round selection of running back Giovani Bernard, the closest guy they've had to Brooks.)
Watching from the other side of the ball, Wilcots was amazed. Once Wyche got the bugs hammered out and the '87 strike became a memory, defenses were deer in the headlights against the Bengals in '88. They would lead the league in offense through stunning versatility with Esiason passing well enough to be MVP with the league's No. 1 ground game.
"They couldn't match up with us," Wilcots says. "When we'd go empty in the backfield, who could cover James Brooks and Rodney Holman? Teams didn't want to see that. We'd go right down the field and score. Sam was a genius."
Other concepts have grown into the no-huddle. New plays, like the zone read and bubble screen, and a new formation, like the pistol. But the no-huddle lives. Everywhere. Wyche, now a volunteer assistant coach at tiny Pickens High School in South Carolina, just went through a season where all but one team in the league ran the no-huddle.
"The Eagles run different plays than we did like the bubble screen and they run different formations," Wilcots says. "But they do use it to lock the defense in to personnel. It's all born out of the no-huddle. Chip Kelly couldn't do what he's doing without the no-huddle."
And then, of course, there was the quarterback. Norman Julius Esiason.
"If we didn't have the quarterback, it couldn't have worked," Wyche says. "The no-huddle would have died right there because we couldn't execute it. Boomer has to get a lot of the credit."
This weekend, the spotlight is in New England, where Manning and Brady are going at it again in front of a media mob raving about their IQ and ability at the line of scrimmage. All things Esiason was doing 25 years ago. He'd get the play from Wyche's hand signal, call it at the line, and if he wanted to audible, he could. All on the run.
"Boomer was putting us in plays, formations. Everything. All at the line of scrimmage," says Jim Anderson, who retired as the Bengals running backs coach earlier this year after 29 seasons.
Jim McNally, the offensive line coach of that team who is now a Bengals consultant, has watched it all evolve up front.
"It's more advanced now. There's better video, more clinics, more experimentation. Everybody does it now," McNally says of the no-huddle. "I'm sure they're doing things we hadn't quite tapped. But, yes, Boomer was doing a lot of this stuff."
Wyche says Esiason didn't do the dummy calls that Manning does, before looking to the sidelines. He's not sure, but his hunch is Manning is getting one final read from the sidelines before the snap on coverage or blitzes. Back in the day, Wyche says, most of the time Esiason wasn't looking at a full defense because it was still trying to catch up to the ball.
THE HIGHLIGHT ZONE
Whenever Esiason can, he always praises that '88 running game and the work of McNally and Anderson in taking zone blocking to another level. The Bengals were looking for a way to attack the 3-4 defense and ended up basically executing football ballet.
Instead of the traditional one-on-one drive blocking, the line would let the defenders go where they wanted to go and the backs would cut off them in plays you can still see today.
"There were teams who were doing zone blocking already; that's what Cleveland was doing with running back Kevin Mack," McNally says. "We were one of the first teams to combine the inside zone and the outside zone. We made the defenses go away from being a reading defense to more of penetrating in the gaps. Because big holes would open up in that 3-4. Everybody (on the defensive line) would be a little wrong, maybe reading one guy who went too far, and the back would make the cut."
Anderson says the combo of the inside and outside zone gives the defense an optical illusion on just exactly where the back is going. Woods (1,066 yards) and Brooks (931) used their vicious cuts to play off one of the best offensive lines of their era.
"We would flow and cut it up. They call it 18 and 19 now. We used to call it 28 and 29," Anderson says. "We tried to make it all look the same. The only difference with Houston is that when they run it inside or outside, you know if it's inside or outside."
Wilcots says has been analyzing the basics ever since.
"We were doing (zone blocking) exclusively in the running game and another thing no one was doing that we were doing back then is the zone stretch going play-action. What they're doing with (wide receiver) Andre Johnson in Houston," Wilcots says. "That's what (offensive line coach) Alex Gibbs did for years with John Elway in Denver. Baltimore this year moved from a man-to-man blocking scheme to zone and they're having struggles with it."
But not everybody is struggling. Pickens High zone blocked its way to more than 200 yards rushing per game this season.
"Before then, the concept had been to push the defense off the ball," Wyche says. "The zone scheme takes the defensive guy where he wants to go, but you take him there faster. You don't engulf him and the back is coming from a deeper starting point downhill, he sees the crack and hits it."
If the zone confounded defenses, the zone also confounded offenses thanks to LeBeau's fire zones. Although not as much. But the Bengals were still ranked 15th overall in defense (10th against the pass) and if Wyche was ridiculed at league meetings, Wilcots wonders the abuse LeBeau must have received.
"Here he was dropping a fat guy into coverage—a lineman—and rushing a little guy—a defensive back—and not only that, he played zone behind it," Wilcots says.
"It's the best thing you can do to confuse the protection scheme. While you're bringing more than they can block, it forces the quarterback to hold the ball. He has to hold the ball to read. There's nothing to read in man coverage. But you have to figure out where the zone is and while you're doing that you're getting earholed in the side of the helmet."
Like the no-huddle, it has evolved and there are different versions.
"Cleveland leads the league with 15 different players having a sack because Ray Horton is a true zone-blitz guy," Wilcots says. "All those other teams are sending the same guy. But it's a small version of the zone blitz. They only do a few things out of the zone blitz, where Horton does it all. That's why you find multiple sackers."
The offense got the headlines in '88, but the defense almost won the Super Bowl in that 20-16 loss. In the AFC title game and the Super Bowl, the Bengals held Hall of Fame quarterbacks Jim Kelly and Joe Montana to a combined three touchdowns and three interceptions.
"No question the zone blitz gave them problems," Wilcots says. "The 49ers didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter and we had only given them one until the last drive. Look at the next year when they played Denver and they scored 55 points."
The knock on that last 49ers drive that produced the winning touchdown with 34 seconds left is that the Bengals called off the blitz. Wilcots, who was taken off the field for that last drive in favor of the veteran Horton, said the Bengals blitzed once in that series and it was the right call on second-and-20 from the Bengals 45. On a play where three Bengals collided on wide receiver Jerry Rice, Rice went for 27 yards in the backbreaker.
"Perfect call at the perfect time," Wilcots says. "We just didn't execute."
The offense didn't either that day. The only Cincinnati touchdown came on Jennings's kick return. What McNally remembers is how good that San Francisco defense was.
"They had a great nose tackle (Michael Carter), big end (Kevin Fagan), and their defensive backs were really good," McNally says of a backfield that included Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.
If the Bengals didn't win the trophy, they won the legacy of the playbook.
"It's funny. You don't hear the announcers talk about it anymore," Wyche says whenever he sees the no-huddle displayed. "It's become part of the game."