It is Friday night. Sept. 6, 2002.
It is 34 years to the day the Bengals played their first game in San Diego. With a charcoal sky seeping into Sept. 7, and the bengals.com clock twinkling near midnight over their practice field, the Bengals are just hours away from starting their 35th season against those Chargers inside Paul Brown Stadium.
But it is yesterday, today, tomorrow. It is 1968, and 1977, and 1988 and 2000. It is ageless and timeless.
It is the Bengals' Scrimmage of Dreams. As the bushes ringing the practice field rustle like corn in the field, it is the Bengals' 35th anniversary team offense vs. defense as voted by the fans on bengals.com.
The way they were in their prime.
Who wins? Fans voted for the players, so they may as well vote for the winner on a night that may have unfolded like this:
A man in a drop-dead classic brown suit and porkpie hat who carries a yellow legal pad and a briefcase that founded two NFL franchises and a profession, emerges from behind a bush and calls for the lights. They are all coming out from behind the bushes now, following Paul Brown to the middle of the field.
There are his offensive captains, Willie Anderson, Corey Dillon, and Anthony Munoz, and behind them comes the defensive leaders. Tim Krumrie, Takeo Spikes, and Ken Riley.
It is Munoz before the bad shoulders. Krumrie before they put the rod in his leg. Riley halfway to 65 career interceptions. It is Dillon, Anderson and Spikes now, which is why the game is Friday night and not Saturday.
"At least a day's rest for them before the opener," P.B says.
"Sam, take the offense down there and run a few plays," Brown says to Sam Wyche. Then turning to Dick LeBeau, he says, "Dick, take the defense over here and go over some of these formations. We'll meet back here in 20 minutes for the scrimmage."
P.B. arches an eyebrow at Wyche. "Take that towel off while you're at it, Sam," he says. "There won't be any media at this one, never mind women media."
Wyche looks at an offense without
Ken Anderson and James Brooks and a defense without Bill Bergey and Jim LeClair and knows the core of the internet's readership is the younger generation. But he also knows the fans have put together a heck of a team.
"We would have won week after week with these guys," Wyche says. "No one ever would have got fired."
There will be about 40 plays, just like at Wilmington or Georgetown. The offense, quarterbacked by Boomer Esiason, can score six points for a touchdown, three points for a field goal and one on an extra point. The defense, anchored by Krumrie, Brian Simmons, and David Fulcher up the middle, can get one for forcing a field goal, two for forcing a punt, and five points for forcing a turnover.
The offense is heavily favored and it is P.B.'s kind of offense. A fire-and-fall-back quarterback. A rugged, but speedy running back in Dillon who can run in any weather and on any surface. Maybe Ernie Davis if he had lived.
Two fast and resourceful wideouts with sticky hands in Isaac Curtis and Cris Collinsworth. Athletic tackles in Munoz on the left and Anderson on the right. A smart, strong interior of center Bruce Kozerski, left guard Dave Lapham, and right guard Max Montoya. Rodney Holman is the consummate two-way tight end, and Ickey Woods is a 1,000-yard fullback.
But Brown also looks fondly at the defense and three current Bengals: Simmons, Spikes next to him on the strong side, and Justin Smith at right end.
"I invented the 40-yard dash for guys like that," Brown sighs under his breath. "To have guys that size run 4.5, 4.6, 4/7 . . ."
Reggie Williams, who knows a Disney production when he sees one, is the weak-side backer. But he should get plenty of pass-rush help from ends Coy Bacon, who had 22 sacks 25years before Michael Strahan, and Smith. Krumrie and Mike Reid are the relentless tackles. Fulcher, the strong safety who revolutionized the position, is basically a fourth linebacker. Free safety Tommy Casanova will catch it if it's in the air, and the coverage of Riley and Eric Thomas at cornerback has made the best throw it up for grabs.
Wyche fears the speed and aggressiveness of the group and knows Fulcher sets the tone.
"We can't run right it right at them. There are too many Charley Hustle guys like Krumrie and the linebackers," Wyche says. "David is the key because he's so aggressive reacting to the run. They all run to the ball so well. We've got to go play-action on first down and second-and-medium and I imagine we've got to use misdirection and counters. This is going to be a four yards and cloud of dust kind of game. And our backs are going to have to release out of the backfield quickly because you know the zone blitz is coming."
The locker-room needling has already started. Riley, the savvy 15-year-veteran, is telling Curtis and Collinsworth that he taught them everything they know. Lapham tells Wyche, "They can't stop all our weapons. We've got great backs, receivers who can both stretch the field, and are tough. And Rodney Holman is one of the best yards-after-catch tight ends ever."
Curtis, the man Ken Anderson calls Jerry Rice before Jerry Rice, tells Thomas and Riley they will need help back there with his Olympic speed. But LeBeau, who coached the Bengals in both Super Bowls, has no plans to play a soft, two-deep zone.
"We're coming after them," LeBeau says. "Tell Lapham we're coming up the middle."
Fulcher remembers how he was never able to hit Esiason in practice and now he wants to make sure he only blitzes him from his front side.
"I want you to be able to see me coming, Blondie, so I'm not coming from the back side," Fulcher tells him. "Here I come. The brother is coming."
P.B. gathers them at midfield for a brief talk before the hitting.
"This is just football. The way it used to be for you as a kid," P.B. says. "There's no crowd, no cameras, no networks, no voidable years, no holdouts, no negotiations, no agents. Play like pros, act like you've been there before, give the game what it deserves."
There is a coin flip to see which direction the offense is going as a midnight breeze streams across from the Ohio. The honor goes to Casey McAllister, son of the radio talk show host who works for 1360-AM "The Sports Animal."
He is now two years old and is in a tireless fight against leukemia. But since this is a night where the past, present, and future nestles on the riverfront, Casey appears as he will when he is the point guard who leads Indiana to the 2022 Final Four at downtown Cincinnati's Bob Huggins Dome/ Convention Center. He is even wearing the Hoosiers' 1970s warm-ups as he spins the coin in the air.
"Call it," Casey says and Munoz says, "Heads." It comes up tails and now Esiason's No. 7 is billowing slightly in the breeze as he takes the offense into the wind.
And no one knows more about this offense than Esiason. He handed the ball to Dillon and Woods when they were rookies. He threw the last passes Curtis and Collinsworth ever caught in the NFL. The only man he didn't play with on the 35th anniversary offense is Lapham.
Of course, the first snap is play-action to Dillon, but Spikes doesn't let
Holman get very far and it's a four-yard pass. They try Dillon up the middle, but there is Fulcher barreling into the box and stuffing him for no gain.
"We're going to have to zone blitz them," Fulcher said before the game. "Blitz everybody from the left and make them throw it to the right or the other way around."
But just show the blitz and do something else. That's what Riley says is the key to stopping the speed of the wideouts.
"That's where we had so much success with Dick LeBeau," Riley said before the scrimmage. "We disguised our coverages and used combinations of zone and man that you really couldn't get a read on it."
Esiason sees Casanova inching up the line for the blitz and changes the play. Riley shows a technique to Collinsworth across the line that he hopes will make Collinsworth think he's going to give him the outside. Collinsworth, making the sight adjustment on the blitz because he knows Esiason has to get rid of the ball quickly, breaks off an outside route. But Riley jumps it, and steps in front of Collinsworth for that elusive 66th interception.
"I don't care whether it's in training camp, or high school, or college," Riley will say after the game. "Or in a game like this. When you're coming back after time away, the defense is always ahead of the offense."
And they are now, 5-0, and Esiason is back in the huddle doing what he did best. Leading. He tells the offensive line that they will get them back into the game.
Esiason calls "16," and then he calls "17," and Dillon chews up 12 and 14 yards on the ground on two carries, bouncing it to the outside behind Anderson and Munoz. It's the zone blocking concept perfected by offensive line coach Jim McNally and running backs coach Jim Anderson back in the day. And the one Wyche feels is best suited against this defense.
"The linemen don't charge out," Wyche says. "They take a duck step and just basically cover the defenders and take them where they want to go. Then the back can read the flow and go the other way."
Which is what Woods does on the next play, running out of the tailback spot. Anderson pulls left and Woods heads back side for seven more yards past the pursuit.
Now Fulcher is getting itchy back there. He's trying to stay in the middle of the field and not wander.
"You've got to be careful with Boomer and his play-action, but Corey is going to kill you. It's a tough offense. You have to remember what Coach LeBeau always preaches. Stay at home."
But where is home against this offense? Esiason puts the ball in Dillon's belly, then pulls it out and Thomas is on an island alone with Curtis as the defense reacts to the run. Thomas, maybe the NFL's best bump-and-run corner before he tore up his knee playing basketball, tries to bump Curtis at the line.
But, remember, Riley taught him some tricks. Curtis swipes at Thomas' hands, Thomas stumbles, and Esiason lofts a 57-yard touchdown bomb down the sideline. Make that 51 touchdown passes from Anderson to Curtis and one TD pass from Esiason to Curtis. No surprise really. Curtis' career 17.1 yards per catch is longer than the Hall-of-Fame Steelers he played against in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.
Now the offense leads, 7-5, and Esiason thinks he has the defense on the run with the countless matchups at his fingertips.
"Their front four is small," Curtis said before the game. "I just think with the size of our offensive line, we can run it all day without throwing many passes at all. It's like the Steelers with Franco and Rocky pounding the ball and controlling the clock."
But the going is tough on the ground in the third series. Krumrie and Reid are playing games and stunting for penetration. On third-and-four, Esiason does get a vintage play from Holman on a 17-yard catch down the seam of a zone with the final 10 yards coming after he bounces off Casanova.
But Esiason is looking at another third down with the middle clogged. He's got six yards to go and sees Simmons and Spikes lined up like it's a double middle blitz. He checks off, because he knows he can get Woods out quickly into the flat for a first down, a play that Woods often did well against the blitz.
Spikes backs off, but as Esiason expects, here comes Simmons, who broke the team record for most sacks by an inside backer in 2001. He almost gets one here until Esiason gets it away quickly. But Smith has dropped into the flat instead of rushing and he swats at the ball and pops it high into the air.
Thomas, showing he has the short memory all cornerbacks need, races back and dives to take it off the turf for the defense's second interception.
Now the defense leads, 10-7, and Esiason isn't pleased. Wyche tells him he's going to get him out of pocket from the blitz and on first down he play-actions to Dillon, rolls out with no one in front of him ("the buck naked,"), and hits Collinsworth on a 15-yard dart across the middle. Now Munoz pulls on a counter and Dillon rips off 11 yards up to midfield.
Then Esiason sees Spikes and Simmons teeing up for another blitz, changes the pass play to a draw, and Dillon runs past both. In the open field, he sees Fulcher taking dead aim at him at the 40, but Dillon puts on the jets, Fulcher can't close, and it takes a touchdown-saving push out of bounds by Thomas at the defense's 20.
But Fulcher recovers. The Bengals try a reverse to Curtis and LeBeau's voice sticks in his head.
"Stay at home," and Fulcher blows up Curtis for an eight-yard loss. The drive stalls and the defense gets another point for forcing Jim Breech's 40-yard field goal attempt. He nails it from the same distance he drilled one through with 3:20 left in Super Bowl XXIII and should have made him the game's MVP.
Breech's kick pulls the offense within 11-10, but the offense can't get untracked on the next series. Smith and Krumrie pull a stunt and Smith shoots through the gap between Lapham and Kozerski to sack Esiason for a seven-yard loss to force a Lee Johnson punt and give the defense a 13-10 lead.
Johnson, who owns three of the five longest punts in club history, let's go with a cannon shot that sails 61 yards and lands at the offense's 12-yard line.
"Last series," PB says, and it looks like the heavily-favored offense is going to fall to Kenny Riley's age-old dictum, "Defense is always ahead of the offense."
But Boomer rallies the boys one last time. As Lapham will say after the scrimmage, "Boomer has the best huddle presence of anyone I've ever seen," and that comes from a guy who played with Anderson and Doug Flutie in the pros.
On first down, Esiason flips a screen pass through a zone blitz for Woods' 13-yard pickup. Then Dillon gets stopped in the backfield by Bacon, but he spins away for for four yards. On second-and-6, Esiason pulls play action again and hits Curtis on a 16-yard comeback route in front of Thomas.
If anyone who has ever played for the Bengals can cover the incomparable Curtis, it is Thomas. His blend of speed, size and athleticism made him the perfect bump-and-run corner.
"But if you take your Pro Bowl receiver and Pro Bowl cornerback, the receiver is going to win most of the time," Wyche will say after the game. "The receiver has the advantage. He knows what he's doing. Even if the cornerback has him covered, the receiver can still make the catch."
The Bengals pass midfield when Esiason beats a Williams blitz with a quick flip to Dillon in the flat that nets seven yards.
Fulcher lets Esiason know as he goes back to the huddle, "It's not going to be like the last drive in the Super Bowl. We're not going to call off the blitz."
But they play it straight on the next play and Spikes stuffs Dillon for a two-yard gain before he can bounce it outside.
"I just don't think they'll be able to run at us up the middle," Fulcher said before the game. "You know Krumrie is going to do his job. I'm counting on Simmons and Spikes to control the middle so I don't have to go in the box. They'll have to bounce it outside and we'll use our outside speed."
But on second and eight, Dillon runs a draw for nine when Munoz, Lapham, and Holman just detonate the left edge and the offense has a first down at the defense's 36.
Now LeBeau is going all out and calls Casanova's number on a safety blitz while Spikes comes from the left. But Dillon picks up Casanova and the offense guesses right by keeping in Holman to block to Spikes. Collinsworth works the middle of the field for a 17-yard pickup and Esiason is in the red zone at the 19.
Now the Bengals pull the misdirection version of "16," the running play right out of 1988. Woods, as the up back, and Dillon as the tail back, drop their feet as if they are running to the left, and Esiason spins to his left for the handoff. But the play is to the right and here are Montoya and Anderson simply shoving the linebackers and Bacon to the left as they get caught in the misdirection. Woods picks off Fulcher heading to the left and Dillon cuts right for 10 yards and a first down at the 9.
Here it is. Four plays, Nine yards.
The defense has one superb stand left. Wyche has called it right. Maybe they don't have the offense's talent, but they have the heart and guts P.B.always sought in the draft room.
"Whenever a coach or scout would talk about what a great athlete this guy is or that guy is, Paul would stop them," Wyche said before the scrimmage. "And he'd say, 'Don't tell me who the great athletes are. Tell me who the football players are.' He felt there was a difference and there is."
On first down, Krumrie and Reid stone Woods on a draw for no gain. On second down, Esiason runs a bootleg and flips a pass at the last minute to Holman, who drags Reggie Williams to the 3. Then on third down, Sam calls one of those pitches to Dillon that you always wonder about, and Spikes and Fulcher stiffen him at the 1.
Fourth down. One yard to go. Wyche knew before the scrimmage what the call would be. Put Holman next to Munoz and Lapham on the left side. Saddle up Dillon for one last ride.
"It's as good a call as any," Wyche says.
As Esiason calls the signals, Fulcher is running up to the line. Williams shoves Smith inside and gets down in a three-point stance. The ball is snapped. Woods is looking to block Fulcher and sees him launching himself into the air. Dillon sees a crevice between Munoz and Lapham and starts to knife through the hole, but Spikes and Simmons are filling fast and. . . .
Who wins the last play and the scrimmage? Vote on the bengals.com fan poll.