Inside The Drafting Of Isaac Curtis And How He Helped The Bengals Change The Game

Isaac Curtis ahead of the pack.
Isaac Curtis ahead of the pack.

Curtis will be a first draft choice … I feel he would really be something with a strong-armed QB throwing the ball to him. He scored a touchdown today when he had to jump with a cornerback in the end zone on a terrible, slow motor shot … Curtis is surprisingly physical. He's an effective blocker. I would be satisfied if he was our top pick."

From Bengals director of player personnel Pete Brown's Dec. 2, 1972 scouting report on San Diego State wide receiver Isaac Curtis playing against Iowa State.

Just 59 days later on the last Tuesday in January, Isaac Curtis had no idea it would be the Bengals on the phone when he answered it in his parents' home on North Fairlawn in Santa Ana, Calif.

Maybe the Browns. John Wooten, who played for Paul Brown in Cleveland and was an agent before becoming an NFL exec, told Curtis his old team was going to take him with the 16th pick.

That's all Curtis knew when the phone rang. Not one scout had said a word to him about what would take place after the informal gaggles had watched him practice in the East-West All-Star Game the month before.

But now here was someone from Cincinnati identifying himself as Bill Walsh telling him the Bengals had, indeed, made him the 15th pick in the 1973 NFL Draft.

"I never talked to anyone from the Bengals until Bill called and asked me when I could get to Cincinnati," Curtis says. "I told him, 'When you send me a ticket.'"

After that mid-week noon phone call, the ticket arrived and he punched it into a franchise legend that impacted the way the professional game is played today. When he announces the Bengals' second-round pick to the world Friday in the heart of prime time instead of by landline, he'll do it for a league that he helped open up and put into the Vegas footlights.

It is the April after the Bengals selected a player who turned out to be the greatest rookie receiver in NFL history when they took Ja'Marr Chase's 1,455 yards. His 18 yards per catch were the biggest haul by a Bengals receiver with at least 30 catches since another San Diego State rookie named Darnay Scott in 1994. Tim McGee in 1989 and Eddie Brown in 1988 are the other Bengals hitting at least 18 yards per catch with at least 30 catches.

That was before Isaac Fisher Curtis did it five times in the 1970s, none more stunning than that rookie season in 1973 he froze defenses with 45 catches at 18.7 yards per pop and nine touchdowns to lift the Bengals to an AFC Central traffic jam title with a 10-4 record.

"Wow. Wow," says Ken Anderson, that strong-armed quarterback the Bengals teamed with Curtis, of that first moment he saw Curtis run in that rookie training camp.

"He had size. He had world-class speed. He was not a sprinter that played football. He was a football player that was also a sprinter. There's a big difference … When you look at his rookie year and what he did he had the same kind of impact on the NFL that Jerry Rice did."

Mel Blount, the Steelers Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback who played Curtis twice a year in a duel that is immortalized in the NFL rule book, remembers that first season, too.

"Oh my God. He scared Bud Carson, our defensive coordinator, to death," Blount says. "We had the reels of film and he would speed them up to make him look even faster."

Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham, a rookie guard in Curtis' second season, didn't need a stopwatch or projector to know he had never been around anybody like this.

"He ran a reverse," Lapham says, "and I felt him go by."

As the Bengals archives show, scouting and due diligence were not exactly in slow motion in the prehistoric days before hourly mock drafts, virtual draft boards, live tweeting and Mel Kiper, Jr., roamed the earth.

It was the early '70s and speed killed as sports screeched with a new gen

eration of bigger and faster athletes. Just a week before Curtis' draft, a young, upstart heavyweight named George Foreman made stunningly quick work of champion Joe Frazier while the great Ali was about to bolt off the ropes. Lou Brock stole 118 bases. On Astroturf slick with speed, football began to breeze past baseball as the national past time. The hub of America's Team was Cowboys wide receiver Bullet Bob Hayes, known as the world's fastest human after setting world records in four different sprints.

In his second season creating the Bengals in 1969, Paul Brown sensed the moment and went looking for speed, signing 200-meter Olympic champion Tommie Smith despite the blowback from his Black Power salute on the Mexico City medal stand. Smith had played in high school, but a separated shoulder help doom the experiment and his career ended with just one catch for 41 yards.

But the seed had been planted and here came the 6-1, 193-pound Curtis.

"We should get him if we can in rounds 1-2. With a training camp behind him, he would be a starter for us. Has much better hands than Tommie Smith had after two years; as good as hand (s) as Bob Hayes when he came up … Explosive out of stance and take–off; runs like a track man but can catch."

Bengals scout Frank Smouse's Sept. 29, 1972 scouting report on Curtis after watching film vs. Oregon State and North Texas.

The only draft number Curtis had on his mind when his first Bengals questionnaire arrived while he still attended the University of California was his lottery number assigned by the President of the United States.

It was 1971 and the Vietnam War still raged as he filled out the form Pete Brown sent out from the club's Riverfront Stadium offices. Draft number? Curtis printed, "193," courtesy of his Oct. 20 birthday in 1950.

The other numbers were much more comfortable and one was one of the more familiar in college sports.

For his 100-Yard Dash Time (in shorts), Curtis jotted that spectacular career-best "9.3." Timed by? "NCAA track officials," in the biggest meet of the season.

40 Yard Dash Time (in shorts)? "4.4." He had no time in football pads, but when asked to circle what he considered "your TRUE SPEED,"  "Great," was the only word that could be considered on a list of "Great Fast Good Average Slow?"

After all, you're looking at the handwriting of guy who at one time or another beat the members of the 1972 100-meter Olympic team: Robert Taylor, Rey Robinson and Cal teammate Eddie Hart.

He didn't need a 40 time in pads because guys like fellow receiver Charlie Joiner still remember it from that first training camp at Wilmington College. Joiner, who stacked 24 years of NFL coaching on top of 18 Pro Football Hall of Fame seasons as player, says "it

might have been the fastest 40 I've ever seen in a football uniform."

Tucked away in the Bengals archives is a newspaper item no doubt clipped by Pete Brown:

"The Bears, sparked by football player Isaac Curtis, who has run the 100 meters in 9.3 this year, upset the Spartans in the 440 relay in their dual meet winning in 39.9."

"I was playing running back at Cal. I had been mostly a running back all the way up in junior and high and high school," Curtis says. "I didn't really like the way I was being used. I was more like a blocking back. I went to them and said I thought wide receiver was a better position for me. They didn't listen. Going to San Diego State was a great opportunity to be coached by Don Coryell. Air Coryell."

The 1972 season Curtis spent in San Diego turned out to be Coryell's last before he turned the NFL on its ear with his wide-open passing game as a head coach for the Cardinals and Chargers with a good deal of help from what would be known as the "Isaac Curtis Rule."

The Bengals had no problem tracking Curtis from Cal to San Diego in his new position. He filled out another questionnaire. His parents ("Mr. and Mrs. Isaac F. Curtis") still lived on North Fairlawn. His dad's occupation was still "painter." A former military man, he was a painter at the El Toro Marine base while also painting houses and cars on the side.

Pete Brown also sent questionnaires to opposing coaches and got this one back from Long Beach State's Chuck Boyle in urgent, flowing black magic marker:

"Great runner who has developed into a super pass receiver. As good at his position as Buchanon was as a DB." Next to "intelligence-alertness," Boyle wrote, "Good _ has truly applied himself."

"Buchanon," was Willie Buchanon, a San Diego State defensive back the year before who the Packers had taken with the seventh pick and was finishing an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year season.

"Explosive performer with great speed can win games. Has speed to get deep has moves – great hands (pulled one in on a come back in the rain, spun free and scored) could move into the starting lineup first year and be a great performer. Must be considered in the first round."

Bengals scout Robin Brown's report on Curtis from Sept. 23, 1972*, against North Texas.*

A few weeks ago, Bengals president Mike Brown broke away from his 2022 draft notes for a few nostalgic moments and went back into 1973. The reunion with the scouting reports of his late brothers brought a wide smile. Pete had been the eyes and ears of the Bengals draft room for 50 years before his 2017 death. Mike recalled how his older brother Robin, an Arizona businessman, scouted "off and on," for the team before dying of cancer in 1978 at age 46.

He admired how both had nailed Curtis.

"I would say that one was as good as it gets. That was a very good opinion there," Mike Brown said of Robin's work in red pen. "Pete writes a good report. You can see his personality come through when you read his. Amusing the way he wrote it."

There were other reports, too, from linebackers coach Vince Costello and former secondary coach Tom Bass scouting the West Coast for the Bengals. Costello fretted that Curtis, like Tommie Smith, might be a project and could struggle with the physicality of the game after playing just one season at receiver.

But that would be countered by Curtis' intelligence and the kindness of veterans such as cornerback Ken Riley. After throwing him passes in practice, Ken Anderson watched Riley school the rookie on how he could run it better.

"All Vince was doing was trying to alert you of the possible short suits," Mike Brown says. "Isaac did have some trouble with the bump and run, but looking at these reports, it's obvious he was a great player. We've had great receivers here. You can see it now with Chase, (Tee) Higgins and (Tyler) Boyd. Chase has made play after play you have to see to believe and Higgins isn't much different. He makes a lot of plays in a different style but effective. Both are 1,000-yard receivers. Boyd has been and hope he is again. Very effective.

"Isaac was the guy you put in there with Chase. Isaac had great hands and even more speed than Chase. He didn't have the physical running ability Chase has, but Isaac made plays you would have to see to believe. He was a great player. We probably felt about Isaac the way we feel about Chase today."

"Tremendous speed while at full stride. Fastest receiver evaluated –Can get to ball thrown beyond him. Unique body control for man of his speed

Hard worker Has Natural Instincts Extremely good blocker – tough… 1) tremendous speed 2) Agile-Exc body control-Nimble 3) Good hands-concentration"

Bengals quarterbacks/receivers coach Bill Walsh's Dec. 27, 1972 scouting report on Curtis from the East-West All-Star Game.

In the line for "Consider Him In Draft Round 1 2 3-4 5-6 7-9 10-13 14-17 Free Agent No," Walsh circled 1.

Like Coryell, Walsh helped use the "Isaac Curtis Rule,' to his devastating advantage in the next decade when Paul Brown's scheme morphed into the "West Coast Offense," that was the centerpiece of his three Super Bowl titles with the 49ers in the '80s.

The Isaac Curtis Rule has now become the Golden Rule in the 21st century NFL: "A defender is allowed to block a receiver within five yards of the line of scrimmage. After the initial yards, any contact will be considered holding, which is a five-yard penalty and an automatic first down."

But in 1974, when founding competition committee member Paul Brown insisted upon it, it changed the game and his marvelous rookie receiver was at the heart of the argument. Before the rule, defensive backs like the monstrously strong 6-3, 205-pound Mel Blount could do anything they wanted.

"They could hit you anywhere on the field. They would run you out bounds down field," Curtis says. "You'd be 15 yards down field and the cornerback would roll up on you. Or the corner would hold you up and here would come an outside linebacker cutting you. I didn't complain because that's the way the game was played. I was happy when it was changed. It made the game better and opened it up, but it took a while to take hold, too."

Mike Brown says he and his father had talked about the rule before Curtis arrived. Now the argument was so stark on film, particularly after head coach Don Shula's Dolphins roughed up Curtis in the '73 playoffs and bludgeoned to him for one catch and nine yards.

"That's when (running back) Essex Johnson went out on the first series," Curtis says of a major knee injury. "It seemed liked at that point they said, 'All we have to do is take out Curtis.'"

Mike Brown: "We thought it went beyond Isaac, but he was the best example of it. We wanted to open up the passing game. The passing game had been curtailed. The problem was, teams couldn't protect and the receivers could get free. They opened up the game and let offensive linemen use their hands and arms and on the outside you could only bump and run within five yards and not all over the field.

"We talked about it a lot. We wanted to open it up and get the passing gamer going like the NFL had historically had it and the rule change did."

Ken Anderson won back-to-back NFL passing titles in the first two years of the rule as Curtis, Joiner and Chip Myers took off in the rough-and-tumble AFC Central. In '75, Blount's Steel Curtain Steelers won it at 12-2, but the Bengals were 11-3 and the Oilers were 10-4.

"I mean, every game in the (division) was so close and tough," Blount says. "We went after Curtis pretty good … They say I'm the reason they changed the rules, but a lot of it is because of what was going on in the AFC (Central) between Cincinnati and the Steelers.

"They changed the rules and we won (four) Super Bowls after that. We made the adjustment. I think the guys like (Steelers quarterback and receiver Terry Bradshaw and Lynn Swann), they just went wild and unleashed a whole new offense on the league. It was beautiful to watch."

The same thing was happing in Cincinnati, where Lapham says watching Curtis hooking up with Anderson deep "was poetry in motion. It was majestic."

It eventually ended up changing the draft, too. Imagine in 1973 that four running backs, two tight ends and a guard went before Curtis, the first wide receiver taken. In this century, there have been only six drafts a wide receiver went with the 15th pick or later.

Now?

"Isaac," Lapham says. "would be a top five pick all day, every day."

Joiner has to laugh at the scouting reports that wondered if Curtis' long-legged strides would hurt his route running. Even Walsh called his "pass patterns average."

"You don't draft Isaac Curtis to run and short intermediate routes," Joiner says.

Curtis reached Friday night's draft podium in 49 years and 9.3 seconds.

"When I went to Cincinnati," Curtis says, "it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Ken Anderson. Charlie Joiner. Ken Riley. Bill Walsh. Paul Brown."

A look into the Bengals 1973 draft book would suggest the feeling is mutual.

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