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The Day The Bengals Made History And The Future

Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche stabs the air as he is carried from the field on the shoulders of his players after their 21-10 victory over the Buffalo Bills for the AFC Championship game in Cincinnati , Ohio, Jan. 9, 1989.  The Bengals will play the San Francisco 49ers in two weeks in the  Super Bowl in Miami.  (AP Photo/Rob Burns)
Sam Wyche carried off the field after the 1988 AFC title game when his Bengals beat the Bills and convention.

Forget Deflategate. Shelve Bountygate. File Spygate.

Remember No No Huddlegate?

Imagine if a group of NFL officials informed Patriots head coach Bill Belichick two hours before Sunday’s AFC title game in Kansas City that New England quarterback Tom Brady could no longer flip the ball to running back James White behind the line of scrimmage. Or if head coach Andy Reid’s Chiefs woke to a game day headline in the Kansas City Star that read “NFL may nix KC’s wide receiver screens.”

Well then. Check out this headline bannered across The Cincinnati Enquirer on the morning of the AFC title game 30 years ago at Riverfront Stadium: “NFL may sideline quick snaps.”

The paper has gotten wind of what Bob Trumpy knows all too well. After Bills head coach Marv Levy threatens to fake injuries like Seattle did the week before at Riverfront, commissioner Pete Rozelle apparently frets the showcase turns into a farce so the league plans to outlaw Bengals head coach Sam Wyche’s no huddle offense that has taken the sport by storm and given Cincinnati home-field advantage in the road to the Super Bowl.

“I asked them, ‘what did Sam Wyche say when you told him?’” recalls Trumpy, the Bengals former All Pro tight end then who knew before anyone else. “They said, ‘We’re not going to tell him until tomorrow in our meeting with the coaches two hours before the game.’ I was beyond pissed.”

It’s not the first time Trumpy has talked about NBC’s Theater-of-the-Absurd production meeting the night before that game at downtown Cincinnati’s Westin Hotel. As he used to do as WLW’s first Sports TalkMaster back in the day, Trumpy breaks news with the fascinating piece of history last season in an interview with Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham.

With the help of another clutch catch by Trumpy, the NFL never pulls the trigger the next morning and finally says yea to the no huddle. Instead, the game is best remembered as the signature moment for one of the NFL’s greatest offensive lines in the Bengals’ 21-10 victory over the Bills on a day the Bengals run for 175 yards on a monstrous 50 rushes that steals the ball from Buffalo Hall-of-Fame quarterback Jim Kelly for a tick under 40 minutes. The Canton Matchup featuring the greatest offensive lineman of all time, Bengals left tackle Anthony Munoz, against the future all-time sack king, Bills end Bruce Smith, is cut short and is a microcosm of the pitched battle when the Bengals’ muscle sends Smith to the sidelines early with an injured thigh.

“I can probably count on my hand or less when that guy beat me and against a Hall-of-Famer I’ll take that,” Munoz says. “Whenever there’s a new (Hall) induction, they put together a video package and you’re always curious to see who is on the video. I don’t believe I made Bruce Smith’s video package for the Hall of Fame. That’s good. I like that.”

 The Bengals keep the ball for the final 8:07 and the no huddle safe long enough for it to become a staple for every team at every level of the game.

“We were good enough to beat any team playing any way when we had that offensive line and Ickey Woods,” says former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason. “And our defense played great with (three) interceptions.”

Bills Pro Bowl nose tackle Fred Smerlas can only agree 30 years later: “They could have run anything.”

Esiason is spending the week preparing for this year’s conference championship games as a CBS-TV studio host that brings that same swaggering decisiveness to the set that he brought to the no huddle in that career defining season he was everyone’s MVP. This generation knows him as one of the most recognizable names and voices in the broadcasting industry, but he has to correct a few of its members a few days ago while he films a special about the Super Bowl’s greatest commercials to be aired on CBS next week.

Ickey Woods (30) of the Cincinnati Bengals evades Buffalo Bills defenders during the AFC Championship game in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jan. 9, 1989. The Bengals defeated the Bills 21-10 and will go on to meet the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl in Miami. (AP Photo/Rob Burns)
Ickey Woods Shuffled the Bengals into the Super Bowl on 102 yards.

Esiason reads over the line that went something like, “We didn’t dance like the players dance today,” and he has to stop and say, “Timeout. You guys ever hear about “The Ickey Shuffle?” He shows the kids some YouTube clips and there seems to be a faint realization when he asks the crew, “Remember that Geico commercial a few years ago?”

“Yeah, we danced,” Esiason says. “It was a sensation like Patrick Mahomes, I would say, right? It was ugly for everyone but it was beautiful to us. They made us do it on the sidelines. Paul Brown even did it at a Super Bowl press conference for God’s sake. It was one of the greatest dances. And he was a rookie and he came out of nowhere and it was awesome. I’m trying to think of something to compare it to this week’s games. Maybe C.J Anderson, right? Three straight 100-yard games for the Rams after being discarded by the Raiders.”

Like Esiason’s decision to let the Bills substitute their nickel package on some of Woods’ better runs 30 years ago, good call. Woods, a second round pick out of UNLV, doesn’t get the first of his rookie five 100-yard games until the sixth game of the season. The big back with deceptive speed (a monstrous 6-2, 231 pounds compared to the 5-8, 225-pound Anderson), Woods adds two more 100-yarders in the AFC postseason that include a brutal 29 carries against the Bills’ No. 1 ranked AFC defense while netting 102 yards.

Esiason only has to throw for 94 yards on just 20 passes. On that last drive with the crowd chanting and singing and standing, Woods, James Brooks and Stanley Wilson run it 10 times for 42 yards before Esiason takes three knees to end it.

“The money drive,” is what former center Bruce Kozerski calls it.

And the money man, Esiason, orchestrates it at the line of scrimmage with an adjustment in the running game that focuses on making Smerlas run sideline-to-sideline.

“That’s how you do it, man. They knew it, we knew it,” says Esiason of the crowd they call “The Jungle.” “The great thing about it is in these play-off games we’re witnessing all these teams are trying to do that (with the running game). What I love is what the Rams did last week. Everybody is saying, look at (quarterback Jared Goff) reading the defensive fronts and then handing it off. Great. We did that in 1988. We’ve been doing this for 50 years it feels like.”

But the Bengals almost get grounded before they start.

Trumpy, in his third season as NBC’s rising analyst, is beginning a broadcasting career that ends up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for contributions to the game. He’ll go on to call two Super Bowls for NBC, along with a slew of AFC title games. Yet 30 years ago he’s at the beginning and he’s helping out his good friend Merlin Olsen, the Hall of Fame defensive lineman who is NBC’s lead analyst teamed with play-by-play man Dick Enberg. Olsen trusts Trumpy so much, he has invited him to the Saturday night production meeting and he’ll also be in the booth to help Sunday.

Also in the meeting is Dolphins head coach Don Shula, a member of the NFL competition committee. As well as a gaggle of NBC officials. Enough that Trumpy figures, “There’s about a dozen guys that could fire my ass on the spot.”

Early in the meeting all hell breaks loose when a league contingent sans Rozelle comes into the room and declares the NFL won’t allow the no huddle after Levy’s Friday night comments. Trumpy, aghast that his good friend Wyche hasn’t been told, finally breaks his silence knowing the NFL brigade could tell NBC never to give him a microphone again.

TRUMPY: “I said, ‘That’s outrageous.’ I turned to Shula and I asked him, ‘Shu, did you know about this?’ And he said no. I said you can’t change the rules without talking to the competition committee and all they said was that the commissioner thinks (the faking of injuries) looks bad for the game and we’re not going to allow it … When (the league officials) left the room, I remember Dick Enberg saying it was the most outrageous thing he had ever heard of the night before a game. And of course, that dominated the discussion in the room. If the Bengals couldn’t use it, would that slow them down enough?”

Trumpy didn’t hesitate. He had known Wyche for 20 years, ever since they met on the expansion Bengals, and he felt he owed him a phone call. His wife Pat and Wyche’s wife Jane were so close that when Trumpy got home he simply told Pat, “Call Jane. I need to talk to Sam as soon as possible. It’s a May Day call.”

Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason (7) is trailed by stumbling Buffalo Bills Art Still (72) on a 29-yard keeper in the first quarter of the AFC Championship Game in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jan. 8, 1989. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Boomer Esiason had a 29-yard ramble on a scramble early.

Three minutes later Trumpy was telling Wyche what was going on and now Wyche had a night to compose his thoughts for the morning meeting with the officials. Trumpy remembers Wyche telling him a few weeks later and he had a tape recorder with him for the summit in his Riverfront office a few hours before kickoff.

WYCHE: “(The league) didn’t say it was against the rules. They just said they were going to penalize it today. I told them to get me Pete Rozelle on the line because I was going to tell him point blank we’re going to run the no huddle. We’ve been running it for five years and battled through every league meeting. I’ve had people insult us and call it popcorn football … I told them if we lose this ballgame because of penalties, that’s the only thing I’m discussing after the game in detail. They were back in 15 seconds. No way they called Rozelle. I’m sure he must have told them if Sam gives you any push back, just tell him to go ahead and I’ll deal with Marv later.”

Munoz remembers Wyche abnormally peeved in their pre-game meetings even though no one had done anything wrong yet. “Fuming,” is what he says.

“He used it to fire us up,” Munoz says. “He said to heck with this, we’re going. We’ve done it all year. We couldn’t believe they tried to ban it. As an offensive player, I just said we’re going to go for it and just rolled.

“The crazy thing is the next year the Bills started using the K-Gun,” Munoz says of Buffalo’s replica no huddle. “I just started laughing. Here they are, the head coach is trying to get us not to be able to run the no huddle and all of a sudden there they’re the big innovators of the K-Gun. I’m thinking, ‘Come on, give me a break.’”

No team leader in any pro sport anywhere has ever had had a better feel for his locker room than Esiason has with the ’88 Bengals. Before the game there was a certain buzz, but the headlines didn’t overwhelm them in distraction. Wyche had them ready.

“I don’t remember being told we couldn’t do it,” Esiason says. “You certainly understand what Buffalo was trying to do. They were trying to get everyone’s attention, create a distraction and using it to try and win the game. I think Sam did a really good job keeping the players out of it. I’ve often said some of the best things about Sam was he had the ability to absorb all the distraction. He took it all on his shoulders. As I’ve gotten older and seen how things can get out of hand, I understand what he was doing. It was best to keep us out of it.”

One of the many ironies that day (the Bengals actually wanted to run on the nickel package) is the reason is that it was such a topic is because Seattle went to such drastic ends to stop the no huddle the week before in the divisional game. In order to get their nickel package on the field to match up with the Bengals, Seahawks defensive tackle Joe Nash faked an injury nearly every third down. Nash had been Smerlas’ teammate at Boston College. But the Bills don’t do it the next week.

“We talked about it but I think we thought we might get fined,” says Smerlas and the Buffalo media sensed that Levy was only using the threat to get the NFL to act. Smerlas is one Bill that doesn’t think the no huddle was popcorn football. Smerlas has always regarded Esiason highly, ever since he lured him offsides with what he swears was a nine count.

“They were a great team. We were a great team. (Max) Montoya was a beast,” Smerlas says of the Bengals’ all-time right guard. “He was a Pro Bowler, but he didn’t get a lot of credit. I beat the crap out of a lot of guys, but that guy was tough. The whole line was good. They weren’t dirty. Tough. And good guys, too. If we won, Sports Illustrated was going to do a story on me. Boomer got me again. Boomer was the coolest cucumber. You could bust his chops, he’d crack a joke. You couldn’t get mad at him. Very underrated guy.”

Early in the second quarter, the Bengals have only one run of significance and it is Esiason’s 29-yard scramble as Smerlas flexes his estimable talent. But then they change up their blocking scheme and focus their formations opposite of where Smerlas is shaded. And they run at the Pro Bowler Smith at right end.

“Munoz gave Bruce more trouble than anybody,” Smerlas says.

Smith has three sacks early, but one is called back. Smerlas says Munoz was one of those guys that adjusted before the other guy and was always able to change it up. And so Munoz adjusts and the pounding takes effect.

MUNOZ: “Even now you see teams try to run away from their best defensive lineman. What does he do? He runs it all down. He’s so quick, athletic. Bruce Smith is their best guy. So let’s just go right at him. We lined up in double tight ends and just said we were going to pound the ball and it was successful. If we got rolling man, I rarely lobbied, but with (offensive line coach) Jim McNally leading the charge, I would go by Sam and say (Run it) one more time … I wasn’t a head guy. I didn’t use my head a lot. When we lined up in double tights, I learned that Shane Conlan has the hardest head I ever hit on a linebacker. He wasn’t that big on the lower half, but man, his head was like hitting a brick wall.”

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Sam Wyche talks with quarterback Boomer Esiason (7) on the sideline during a 20 - 16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII on Jan. 22, 1989 at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami. (Al Messerschmidt via AP)
Sam and Boomer teamed up to lead the NFL in offense while going to a Super Bowl.

When Esiason takes the final knee, the next thing he knows he and backup quarterback Mike Norseth are running off the field screaming their heads off, not believing they are Super Bowl bound.

“Nobody left,” Kozerski says. “Everybody in the stands was standing the entre time. It was phenomenal. Forty-five minutes after the game they were still in the stadium. You shake hands with your opponents. You hustle into the locker room. Sam said his words of advice. We celebrated a little bit. The crowd was still out there. Holy mackerel. Got to go back out there and salute the crowd that had waited so long for that to happen. We were excited for them as well.”

And Trumpy didn’t get fired. In fact, he says when NBC broadcast that Super Bowl, Trumpy spent the week getting pats on the back from his colleagues at the network. It remains the greatest May Day call in franchise history from one original Bengal to another.

“I told Sam on the radio once there’s not a time I can’t turn on TV and not see your offensive approach in either professional, college, high school, pee wee, little league football,” Trumpy says. “Everybody is doing what you guys did. He changed football. No question about that. That night, in that production meeting, Sam and I had a part in making sure it continued forward.”

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