Heading into the 1981 season, all the buzz surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals centered on their new-age tiger striped uniforms. The team switched from switched from a burnt orange helmet with the word BENGALS on both sides and solid colors to a bright orange and black helmet with six tiger stripes and the striped pattern continuing throughout the uniform sides.
Opponents mocked the uniforms, media members were puzzled and even the Bengals then equipment manager, Tom Gray, got sympathy cards from his counterparts. However, those criticisms quickly vanished as the '81 Bengals quickly established themselves as one of the best teams in the NFL with a high octane offense and an opportunistic defense.
Led by quarterback Ken Anderson, the 1981 Most Valuable Player and Comeback Player of the Year, the Bengals went 12-4 in the regular season and advanced to its first Super Bowl in franchise history. It was a season that quieted the skeptics and brought a new era of football to Cincinnati.
Digging deeper into the numbers, here are 10 surprising notes about one of the greatest teams in Bengals history.
1. Offensive Turnaround: One of the most important reasons for the Bengals' success was the offensive turnaround from the previous year. After ranking second to last in scoring during the 1980 campaign, the Bengals vaulted to third in the NFL at 26.3 points per game.
2. Taking Care of the Football: A significant factor for the team's offensive success stemmed from taking care of the football. The Bengals committed the fewest turnovers in the league with 24. The team also had the fewest interceptions (12) and second-least amount of fumbles lost (12).
3. Perfect In November: In five November games, the Bengals torched their opponents outscoring them 177-90. During that November run, the Bengals offense averaged 35.4 points and 408.6 yards per game. It led to the franchise's first 5-0 record in November and propelled the team into first place in the AFC Central.
4. Another November Note: The Bengals' 40-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers back on Nov. 8 was important in more ways than one. The Chargers finished the season 10-6. Had the Chargers won the Nov.8 meeting against the Bengals, each would have been 11-5 and San Diego would have owned the tiebreaker. That meant the infamous "Freezer Bowl" would not have taken place because the Bengals would have traveled to Southern California.
5. 'A' For Anderson: After shaking off a terrible game in Week 1 where he was pulled at halftime, Anderson's play the rest of the season validated his MVP credentials. Anderson completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions. What is most impressive about Anderson's 1981 season was how efficiently he played. Anderson led the NFL in passer rating (98.4), passing touchdown percentage (6.1) and lowest interception percentage (2.1). He also ranked second in the league in completion percentage (62.6), game-winning drives (2) and was third in passing touchdowns.
6. Pro Bowlers: For a team that boasted the third-highest scoring offense and racked up the second-most yards in the league, the Bengals only had four offensive players make the Pro Bowl. Joining Anderson from the offense was running back Pete Johnson, wide receiver Cris Collinsworth and tackle Anthony Munoz. Punter Pat McInally also earned his only Pro Bowl selection.
7. For What Its Worth:– Speaking of Collinsworth, he led all rookies that season in receiving yards and eight touchdowns. To reach the 1,000 yard goal, Collinsworth turned it on in the final two games of the season. At Pittsburgh he made eight catches for 90 yards. Then in the season finale at Atlanta against one of the league's best defenses, Collinsworth tore it up with five catches for 128 yards and a touchdown. One of those catches was a 74 yard bomb down the left sideline to extend the Bengals' lead.
8. Opportunistic Defense: Darius Phillips led the Bengals with four interceptions in 2019. The 1981 Bengals had three players with at least four interceptions: Ken Riley (5), Louis Bredeen (4) and Reggie Williams (4). It was part of a defense that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. Although the Bengals defense ranked 12th in total defense and 16th in turnovers created, the unit forced at least one turnover in all but one game that season.
9. Freezer Bowl Ice Chips: The "Freezer Bowl" easily is the most notable game in Bengals history. Cincinnati defeated San Diego 27-7 in the AFC Championship game in the coldest temperature in NFL history in terms of wind chill. The "Freezer Bowl" was one of the few games in NFL history in which the same team kicked off to begin both halves. Cincinnati won the toss and instead of receiving, elected to have the brutally cold wind at their backs to start the game. San Diego, trailing 17-7 at halftime, used its option at the beginning of the second half to receive the kickoff, resulting in Cincinnati kicking off to begin both halves, and in the same direction both times.
10. Super Bowl Notes: The Bengals 1981 season ended with a heartbreaking 26-21 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XVI. With both teams coming off of a 6-10 seasons a year before, it is the only Super Bowl to date between two teams who had losing records the previous season. Another fun fact, the Bengals-49ers game still holds the Super Bowl ratings record remains at 49.1. Other firsts from Super Bowl XVI included the first turnover on the opening kickoff after San Francisco's Amos Lawrence was hit by Bengals linebacker Guy Frazier and fumbled at his own 26-yard line and John Simmons recovered for Cincinnati. Collinsworth and tight end Dan Ross became the second pair of teammates to each have 100 yards receiving in a Super Bowl. Collinsworth had 107, while Ross had 104. Speaking of Ross, he recorded a Super Bowl record 11 receptions, the most ever by a tight end in a Super Bowl.