Apex

Twenty years ago.

Jan. 8, 1989.

The apex of Bengaldom. The summit of power and brains for a franchise founded by pro football's first innovator. The AFC championship game in which the Bengals dominated the Bills with time of possession and timeless fundamentals.

Twenty years ago.

It was 21-10 and Cincinnati ran the ball 50 times for 175 yards in shrinking a Titanic matchup with the AFC's top-ranked defense into a Sunday stroll.

The Bengals kept the ball 39:29, including the last, delirious 8:07 as Riverfront Stadium's 59,747 saluted the final 14 plays with vintage orange-and-black madness.

"That was," quarterback Boomer Esiason said, "who we were. We were a passing team until about midway through the season, but we became a running team with a Northeast, Midwest personality, and on that day it was at its best."

Esiason is now a football pundit with a son mulling the Georgetown University foreign service program.

Anthony Munoz is a grandfather.

Jim Breech is a grandfather 12 times.

Sam Wyche, father of the no-huddle offense, was sworn in this week as a Republican member of South Carolina's Pickens County Council.

But not for long.

"I'm changing to an Independent," Wyche reported Thursday, 20 years to the day he was carried off the Riverfront Stadium turf to the Super Bowl after tabling a resolution from NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Twenty years ago.


Bengals running back Ickey Woods does a little "Ickey Shuffle" on the sideline during Cincinnati's 21-10 1988 AFC Championship win over Buffalo. (Getty Images)
And yet Bruce Kozerski can still reach out and shake hands with the capacity crowd that stayed deep into the cold afternoon.

Or, as Breech remembered the entire day: "The hair stood up on the back of your neck. It was electric."

"All the people that left early could have been in one car," Kozerski said. "I was out there 20 minutes after the game and it was still packed with people yelling and screaming. The confetti was still coming down. The balloons were still floating. We were still floating."

Leave it to Kozerski to explain it all. The old center now teaches everything from Algebra II to honor calculus at Northern Kentucky's Holy Cross High School, a fitting career move for the brains of what was then the NFL's best offensive line.

"When you can run for three and four yards every carry," said Kozerski, who also serves as the head football coach, "you can do anything you want. As long as your defense slows them down, you're going to win."

That's how the Bengals won 20 years ago in a game of irony and ecstasy. Bills coach Marv Levy complained so loudly about the no-huddle, Wyche's fast-break offense designed to keep favorable matchups by not allowing the defense time to sub, that the NFL office tried to prevent the Bengals from using it.

Two hours before the game in the bowels of Riverfront, Wyche tucked a tape recorder under a towel and let some league officials have it.

"It was exactly an hour and 55 minutes before the game. I know; I got the thing on tape," Wyche said. "I told them, 'You're going to come in here and tell us we can't use an offense we've been using for five years and used this year to beat this team twice, then that is going to hurt the competitive balance of this game.' They came back in less than 30 seconds and said, 'You can use the no-huddle.' "

The irony, of course, is the Bills began using it under the guise of the "K Gun" operated by quarterback Jim Kelly in four of the next five Super Bowls.

"Yeah," Wyche said with sarcasm thicker than his offensive line. "They invented the no-huddle the next year."

Yet, "They had good offense before that, too, and the running game kept Jim Kelly off the field. And it was cold. The ball is tougher to grip and throw."

But the Bengals were the ones that had the no huddle 20 years ago and, boy, did they use it. Or more precisely, Esiason used it.

Bengals running backs coach Jim Anderson, the only player or coach left from Jan. 8, 1989, remembers how Esiason orchestrated it all at the line of scrimmage, starting with where the Bills stationed Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas.


Anderson
"Boomer was able to call audibles and checks at the line to make it work," Anderson said. "You saw that when he came back (in 1997 for 4-1 finish) with a completely different cast of characters. That's how proficient he was and we had running backs that fit it."

It was Anderson who coached the running backs through a myriad of steps making up the Bengals zone plays, which were punctuated by cutbacks that were as much feel as they were blocking and running.

"And we did it," Kozerski said, "with a 180-pound back and a rookie."

A 230-pound Ickey Woods, the 1,000-yard rookie running back, went for 102 yards on 29 carries. The great trivia question from that day is that Esiason was the third-leading rusher with 26 yards on seven carries and that he didn't throw for much more than that with 94. Stanford Jennings had 29 yards on two carries and fullback Stanley Wilson had 29 on five carries. James Brooks, the 180-pound scatback who would soon become the Bengals all-time leading rusher, had just six yards on seven carries.

Indeed, the team that averaged a gargantuan 4.8 yards per carry during the season, managed just 3.5 yards in the title game. But that was after they got just 49 yards in the first quarter and were stoned on no yards on the first three carries of the second quarter.

Anderson remembers how they were able to make the adjustment.

"Ickey was a tough man to bring down. A big, strong man," he said. "They were really pursuing us to the outside and Ickey did a great job deceiving it like it was going wide and then he'd cut it back inside.

Power and percision.

"Fifty runs and we only threw it 20 times?" a shocked Wyche asked. "I must have been sick that day."

No, but he did have offensive line coach Jim McNally in his ear and the headset of offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet urging them to keep running the ball.

"When you've got a guy like Jim McNally behind you pacing, it's tough not to run it," Wyche said. "It was the type of thing where we knew we could get four yards, and if we got stopped on one we just figured we'd get it the next time. And we had a big offensive line for the time. We looked a lot different late in the game than we did early because we wore teams down."

Ask them all now and they will tell you the offensive line was the heart of that team. Ray Oliver, the club's current assistant strength coach, worked some Bengals training camps during that period when then-strength coach Kim Wood was helping him get into the game.

"That line had a military presence," Oliver said. "Not arrogance, but they knew that the guy on the other side of the line knew they were going to be in a battle for 60 minutes. They knew. But the big thing? The guys they were playing against knew it."

As Esiason has said ever since that season, it was the run that set up his lethal play-action passes, the ones that made him NFL MVP. That's how Munoz stared down Bills defensive end Bruce Smith in their Hall of Fame matchup 20 years ago. Smith, the NFL's all-time sacker, had two sacks early. But the Bengals kept running at him.

"He was definitely one of the best players I ever went against," said Munoz, who should be joined next month by Smith in Canton. "The big thing with Bruce was to take away his athleticism. He could run down plays from the back side. Whenever we played them, we would pretty much try to run it at him."

It is Esaison and Munoz that can talk about the play-action pass in almost mystical terms. It is, after all, the defining play of the '88 team.

"When you drop back to pass, you usually don't hear anything," Esiason said. "It's not like a running play when you hear the pads and the helmets cracking."

"Even though it was a pass," said Munoz, still one of Cincinnati's first citizens as the head of one of the region's most active charitable foundations, "we would still engage and you could hear the popping and the grunting. And, a lot of times, the safety and the linebackers, when they heard it, their instinct was to play the run."

"We would just go over the top of teams," Wyche said. "Three of the best ball handlers of all time had to be Boomer, Joe Montana and Steve DeBerg. They just made the ball disappear."

The guy who almost disappeared that day was Breech, the franchise's all-time leading scorer. Two weeks later he came within 34 seconds of winning Super Bowl MVP, but on Jan. 8, 1989, the team just needed him for three extra points. An insurance salesman for the Hauser Group, one of the most passionate sports fans ever still follows the Bengals from suburban Liberty Township.

"I don't know," Breech said, "if I've ever seen running backs that fit a scheme so well. It was almost like it was a perfect fit."

That's the way Esiason remembers that day and the crowd and the dominance a year after a controversy-riddled, strike-filled 4-11 season.

"It was like a perfect storm and it was the closest team I've ever been on," Esiason said. "The fans were unbelievable. They were great. And considering it was less than 12 months after what happened. They did more than embrace us. It would be a great sociological study."

Twenty years ago and they were at the head of the class.

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