The year was a highly significant one for the Bengals, in both a football and a civic sense. On the football side, the Bengals moved into the NFL as part of the league's merger with the AFL. Paul Brown's quest in returning to pro football, following his ouster from Cleveland by Art Modell in 1962, had always been about re-joining the NFL. So when the Bengals began play in the AFL in 1968, it was key for Brown to know that the '70 NFL-AFL merger was already approved. There was much debate and controversy over exactly how the leagues would combine. The Bengals pushed strongly for a full merger, with the 26 clubs divided into two 13-team conferences. Other interests sought to keep the 16 NFL teams and 10 AFL teams in separate conferences of unequal size. But the full merger view prevailed, with the NFL's Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers agreeing to join the 10 AFL teams in the new American Football Conference (AFC). The remaining 13 NFL teams formed the National Conference. The Bengals were part of a four-team AFC Central Division, joined by Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the AFL Houston Oilers. Thus was born the twice annual "Battle of Ohio" between the Bengals and Browns.
The Bengals started horribly on the field, losing six of their first seven games, but they roared to life in winning their last seven and claimed the first AFC Central title at 8-6, by a game over Cleveland. The Bengals became, at that time, the youngest franchise (third year of existence) to reach the NFL playoffs. Baltimore squelched the Bengals 17-0 in the first round of the playoffs, but that Colts club would go on to win Super Bowl V, and Brown won the Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award. On the civic side, 1970 was the debut season for Cincinnati's dual-sport downtown stadium, which would be the Bengals' home through 1999. It was announced on Jan. 9 that the facility was officially named "Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium," but in popular usage the name soon became just "Riverfront Stadium." Though seating capacity for football varied, due to whether the Reds' home baseball season was still on, the new stadium roughly doubled the capacity of Nippert Stadium. The Bengals first played at Riverfront on Aug. 8, defeating Washington in a preseason game. The first regular-season game was on Sept. 20, a 31-21 win over Oakland, with QB and future Bengals head coach Sam Wyche scoring the new facility's first regular-season football points, on a five-yard TD run in the first quarter. The club averaged 58,251 home attendance in the regular season. The baseball Reds had begun their tenure at Riverfront with a game vs. Atlanta on June 30.
The Bengals went 5-0-1 in preseason and opened the regular season with high hopes of defending their AFC Central Division title. They started off with a 37-14 rout of Philadelphia at home, but they lost the next seven and finished at 4-10. The puzzling outfit stumbled despite outgaining foes by more than 25 yards per game and posting a plus-16 turnover differential. Six of their losses came by four points or less. QB Sam Wyche, who would become Bengals head coach in 1984, was traded in May to Washington, and Virgil Carter was the starting QB for most of the season. But Carter missed some time with injuries, allowing for the debut of third-round draft pick Ken Anderson, who immediately attracted notice as a prospect of great promise. Anderson could not turn the '71 season around, but it was the start of a 16-year career (longest in Bengals history through 2017) that would end with him holding all the team's major passing records at that time. The first of Anderson's career 197 Bengals TD passes was a five-yarder to WR Eric Crabtree in the fourth quarter of a 20-17 loss on Oct. 3 at Green Bay. On Nov. 28, the Bengals posted the first shutout in franchise history, 31-0 at home over San Diego. Regular-season home attendance was strong in Riverfront Stadium's second year, as the average of 59,266 would not be topped until the 2003 season at Paul Brown Stadium. Cincinnati's Dave Lewis won his second consecutive NFL punting title, averaging 44.8 yards.
The team rallied from the disappointment of 1971 to finish 8-6 for the second time in three seasons. It wasn't enough for a second playoff berth in three years, but Coach Paul Brown said at season's end that the Bengals had met his goal of becoming a "fully competitive" NFL franchise by Year Five. (The Bengals would back up those words by going 38-18 over the next four seasons.) Besides the drama of a playoff bid that ended with a loss to Cleveland in Game 13, the season's major storyline was the battle between veteran Virgil Carter and second-year Ken Anderson for the No. 1 QB spot. Anderson got Brown's nod in preseason, but Carter took the job back for Game 9 vs. Oakland, after Anderson had struggled in a 40-17 loss to Pittsburgh. Carter was injured in the Oakland game, however, and Anderson started Game 10, a 20-19 upset loss to a Baltimore team that had won only twice. Carter started in a Game 11 win at Chicago, but passed for only 120 yards with two INTs, and Anderson was reinstalled at No. 1 for a Game 12 win vs. the Giants. Anderson started the crucial Game 13 vs. Cleveland, but he was sidelined with an injury, and the Browns sealed a 27-24 win when Carter suffered an INT by LB Billy Andrews on a short pass to Cleveland's goal line with 0:36 to play. Anderson came back to start the play-for-pride season finale, directing a 61-17 romp at Houston, and Anderson would not again be seriously challenged until 1984, when at age 35 he was bothered by injuries and began to give way to Boomer Esiason. DT Mike Reid, Cincinnati's top pick from the 1970 draft, was the only Bengal named to the Pro Football Writers' first-team All-Pro squad, but rookie S Tommy Casanova also made a big impression and was voted by his teammates as the club's MVP. The 61 points scored at Houston stands through 2017 as a club record. It has been matched once since, in a 61-7 win vs. the same Houston franchise in 1989.
The Bengals claimed their second AFC Central title in the division's four-year existence, winning their last six games after a 4-4 start and claiming the crown over 10-4 Pittsburgh via conference-record tiebreaker. The Bengals' rivalry with the Steelers heated up in '73, with Pittsburgh QB Terry Bradshaw saying, "I'd really rather beat Cincinnati than anybody." The Bengals and Steelers split their two season meetings. In postseason, the Bengals lost 34-16 at Miami, which would go on to win Super Bowl VIII. It marked the second time in two playoff appearances that the Bengals were eliminated by the team that would go on to win it all. Though the schedule at this time remained at just 14 games, the Bengals missed by just 15 total yards having two 1000-yard rushers. Veteran Essex Johnson had 997 yards, and bruising 12th-round draft choice Boobie Clark had 988. Clark was named AFC Rookie of the Year. Through 2017, only six teams in NFL history have had two 1000-yard rushers in a season (Bengals not among them), and four of those instances came in 16-game seasons. The '73 offense was further improved by WR Isaac Curtis, a first-round draft pick who would go on to play 12 excellent seasons for Cincinnati. The NFL's rules on home television blackouts were changed for 1973, with blackouts lifted on games.
A break-even (7-7) season for Cincinnati included the individual highlight of QB Ken Anderson winning the first of his four NFL passing titles. He posted a league-best 95.7 rating, with 213 completions in 328 attempts (64.9 percent) for 2667 yards, with 18 TDs and 10 INTs. In a Nov. 10 win vs. Pittsburgh, Anderson set a Bengals record (still standing through 2017) for completion percentage, ringing up a 90.9 by connecting on 20-of-22. Through 2017, that's third-best in NFL history (minimum 20 attempts). CB Lemar Parrish led the NFL in punt returns, with an 18.8-yard average that remains through '17 as the franchise record. The Bengals were 7-4 through 11 games, but were still a game and a half behind first-place Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati lost its last three contests. The Bengals swept the "Battle of Ohio" series vs. Cleveland for the first time, winning 33-7 at home in the season opener and 34-24 at Cleveland in Game 5. The campaign was preceded by a tumultuous off-season.
Labor unrest roiled the league scene well into the preseason. The NFL Players Association called a strike, but not all players were on board, and most teams welcomed willing veterans into training camps. The Bengals were at the top in terms of veterans reporting to camp. Early preseason games were played with large numbers of rookies and other new personnel, however, and the Bengals offered fans refunds to those games. Most fans kept their tickets. The strike effort dwindled as preseason neared its end, and the regular season opened normally. Prior to preseason, the Bengals were in the thick of an NFL battle against player raids by the new World Football League, as they disputed the WFL Philadelphia franchise's signing of star LB Bill Bergey to a contract to begin in 1976, even though Bergey still was obligated to the Bengals through 1975. The Bengals lost that battle in court, but the decision wound up being moot. Bergey's offers from the unstable new league eventually fell through, and on July 10 of '74, Cincinnati traded Bergey to Philadelphia's NFL team, the Eagles, for first-round draft choices in 1976 and '77, plus a second-rounder in '77.
In their final season with Paul Brown as head coach, the Bengals opened with six straight wins and went on to post an 11-3 record. Their .786 winning percentage stands through 2017 as the best in franchise history, and their plus differential in yards per game (81.2, on 361.4 offensively vs. 280.2 defensively) also stands as a franchise record. The team also set a franchise record for fumble recoveries per game (1.57, on 22 total). But two of Cincinnati's losses were to AFC Central Division rival Pittsburgh, and the Steelers took the division title at 12-2, setting up their drive to the Super Bowl X championship. The Bengals qualified as the AFC Wild Card team for the playoffs, but had to play on the road at Oakland, which also had finished 11-3, and the Raiders prevailed, 31-28, withstanding a Bengals rally from a 31-14 deficit. QB Ken Anderson won the second of his four NFL passing championships, with a 93.9 rating, and he was also named Dodge NFL Man of the Year, an award reflecting both athletic and civic achievement.
Attempts to revive the injury-plagued career of iconic QB Greg Cook ended on July 9, when the Bengals allowed Kansas City to claim Cook on waivers. Cook played in preseason for the Chiefs but did not reach the regular season with the club. The Bengals opened the preseason in the Hall of Fame game at Canton, Ohio, playing Washington on Aug. 2 on a day when the on-field temperature was estimated at 105, believed to be the hottest conditions ever (through 2017) for any Bengals game. Labor unrest forced the preseason to unfold under another strike threat, but it was averted just before the regular season began. The Bengals defense was strong despite the pre-training camp loss of Pro Bowl DT Mike Reid, who retired at age 26 to pursue a career in music. The last player still with the Bengals from the 1968 expansion draft, G Pat Matson, was traded to Green Bay on Sept. 10. Prior to the season, Paul Brown hired Kim Wood as the first "strength coach" in franchise history, citing the need for a more comprehensive year-round conditioning program for players. Wood would serve in the job through 2002.
On Jan. 1, Paul Brown announced his retirement as head coach, while remaining general manager and overall chief executive. Brown had coached 41 seasons at various levels of football, with a career including dominance at the high school level, a national championship at Ohio State, and an AAFC and NFL dynasty with the Cleveland Browns. Brown also led the expansion Bengals into the playoffs in their third season (1970), making them the "youngest franchise" in league history at that time to reach postseason. His overall coaching record was 342-126-15, for a winning percentage of .724. Brown named Bill "Tiger" Johnson, Bengals offensive line coach since the franchise's inception, as his successor as head coach. Johnson led the team to a 10-4 record, tied with Pittsburgh atop the AFC Central, but the Steelers won a tiebreaker (head-to-head sweep) for the division title, and the Bengals lost out to 11-3 New England for what was then a lone AFC Wild Card spot in the playoffs. The Bengals' .714 winning percentage is the highest (through 2017) of any Cincinnati team not to make the playoffs. The Bengals entered the final regular-season weekend tied with Pittsburgh at 9-4, but the Steelers clinched the playoff spot with a Saturday win against Houston. The Bengals were playing only for pride the following day when they swamped the N.Y. Jets 42-3 in what was to be the last Jets appearance by Hall of Fame QB Joe Namath. The Bengals acquired defensive end Coy Bacon in a March 31 trade with San Diego for WR Charlie Joiner, and Bacon contributed 22.0 sacks, still the Bengals record through 2017, and by a margin of 9.0. The team had 46 sacks, and its average of 3.29 per game is still the franchise record though 2016. Also still a record through '17 is the club's average yield of only 15.0 points per game. CB Ken Riley led the AFC with nine INTs. In the first round of the draft, Cincinnati selected HB Archie Griffin, the two-time Heisman Trophy winner from Ohio State, and Griffin went on to play for the Bengals through 1983.
Head coach Bill Johnson posted a second straight winning record (8-6), but the team missed the playoffs, one game behind AFC Central champion Pittsburgh. The Bengals logged a huge win in Game 15, beating Pittsburgh 17-10 in a Saturday afternoon contest at frigid Riverfront Stadium (temperatures hovering between five and 10 degrees). The game left the teams tied for the division lead, and the Bengals were assured of winning a season-end tiebreaker, based on better point differential in their 1-1 season split with the Steelers. But on the final weekend, Pittsburgh won 10-9 over San Diego, and the Bengals fell 21-16 at Houston. The Oilers tied the Bengals' 8-6 record and officially took second place in a tiebreaker, but Houston also missed the postseason. The Bengals rallied into contention after a 2-3 start that included a season-opening loss to underdog Cleveland, the first time the Bengals had lost in a season opener played at home, following six straight wins in that situation. On Nov. 13 at Minnesota, QB Ken Anderson and WR Billy Brooks teamed up for a 94-yard TD pass, which stands through 2017 as the longest pass play in franchise history. The season ended the NFL's 17-year run (1961-77) of playing a 14-game regular-season schedule.
The Bengals and the NFL played the first year with a 16-game schedule, and it was a long 16 for Cincinnati. QB Ken Anderson missed the first four games with a broken bone in his right hand, and Bill Johnson resigned as head coach following an 0-5 start. Among the first four games, Cincinnati's losing margins included one point (vs. Kansas City), three points (in overtime at Cleveland) and two points (vs. New Orleans). Johnson was replaced as head coach by Homer Rice, who had joined the staff for '78 as quarterbacks coach. The team dropped to a 1-12 mark before rallying to win the last three games. The Bengals closed the year with a 48-16 rout of Cleveland, a 32-point winning margin that stood until 2015 as Cincinnati's largest in the Battle of Ohio series. Prior to the season, CB Lemar Parrish and DE Coy Bacon were traded to Washington for the Redskins' first-round draft pick in 1979 (used to select RB Charles Alexander). Two Pro Bowlers, TE Bob Trumpy and S Tommy Casanova, retired prior to the season. On July 26, Paul Brown's eldest son, Robin, died of cancer at age 46, and Paul Brown had to cancel plans to be the presenter for Weeb Ewbank at Ewbank's Pro Football Hall of Fame induction. The Ben-Gals cheerleaders were in the news in '78. They attracted considerable new attention, going away from their "malt shop" look to a more revealing uniform, described at the time as "chic, smart and sexy, but not vulgar."
Fullback Pete Johnson powered his way to 15 TDs, a club record at the time. But the team finished 4-12 in its only full season under head coach Homer Rice, who was released the day after the Dec. 16 season finale. The team struggled despite a plus-15 mark in turnover differential (44 takeaways, 29 giveaways). On Dec. 28, Rice was replaced by former Cleveland Browns head coach Forrest Gregg, who resigned as head coach of the CFL Toronto Argonauts to take the job. During the season, controversy flared over the publication of "PB: The Paul Brown Story," an autobiography written by Brown in collaboration with sportswriter Jack Clary. The book included lengthy and explicit criticism of Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, who had fired Brown as Cleveland head coach after the 1962 season. Modell made a formal complaint to the league office, charging Brown with violating league policy on public criticism of other teams' management. Brown eventually was fined $10,000 by Pete Rozelle, whose appointment as NFL Commissioner in 1960 had been spearheaded by Brown. After paying his fine, Brown told reporters, "I have sent (Rozelle) his check, but I stand by the book as written. His (Rozelle's) action is not based on any judgment on the facts I have presented." Prior to the season, on Jan. 17, the Bengals created the coaching staff's first full-time position in charge of special teams, hiring Frank Gansz. On Nov. 14, after an injury to C Blair Bush, C Bob Johnson was coaxed out of retirement and played the remainder of the season. Johnson was the team's original No. 1 draft pick in 1968, and when he hung up his cleats for good after the '79 season, it marked the final departure of the last player who had been on the inaugural '68 club. On Sept. 23 vs. Houston, Bengal Chris Bahr kicked a 55-yard FG, which would stand alone as longest in franchise history for 33 years, until Mike Nugent tied it in 2012.