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The Week That Defined The Bengals' 1981 Super Bowl Season

Turk Schonert: The day he saved the Bengals Super Bowl season.
Turk Schonert: The day he saved the Bengals Super Bowl season.

They talk about the November to Remember. Or the win in Pittsburgh that clinched the division and spawned the Hollywood reception at the airport. Or the iconic Freezer Bowl that sent them to their first Super Bowl and chilled the 1981 Bengals in an eternity of slashing stripes.

But those Bengals were defined in the first seven days of the season. Forty years ago this week they bookended the first two games by shoehorning more themes into eight quarters than Shakespeare summer stock.

The careers of their three quarterbacks converged. The agenda of old school second-year head coach Forrest Gregg was vilified and then vindicated. The week began with Reggie Williams' first of his pioneering 11 sacks that season for an emerging defense and ended with the Bengals bankrupting the New York Sack Exchange in a heavyweight title bout at Shea Stadium, portending the dominance of its offensive line later in the decade.

Franchise legend Isaac Curtis had one of his last best games. Fledgling Pro Bowler Cris Collinsworth had his first. Future Hall-of-Famer Anthony Munoz had one of his most memorable moments, Hall-of-Fame candidate Ken Anderson had his most forgettable and journeyman quarterback Turk Schonert had his greatest.

"At that time we didn't really know if it was a good team," says left guard and longtime radio analyst Dave Lapham. "After the opener, you know, maybe it's not what we thought. Then to bounce back and beat the Jets on the road … If we don't have that 2-0 start, it's a much different scenario than 12-4.

"Let's put it this way," Lapham says of the opener, "there's a good chance we don't have home field advantage throughout the playoffs if not for Turk Schonert winning that game."

Cornerback Louis Breeden, who combined with Ken Riley for very nearly 100 career interceptions on a very stingy Cincinnati intersection, saw much the same thing on the other side of the ball.

"Looking back on it, we turned it around right at the beginning of the season," Breeden says. "To start the season at home getting clobbered, psychologically it bothers you a little bit. Especially when you played like crap the year before.

"Turk was superman that day. He put on the cape," Breeden says. "We were fortunate to have him."

But the most compelling storyline, of course, in this English Lit festival of a week is Anderson's rise from being booed and benched at home on one Sunday to beginning an MVP season the next on the road and in between fighting for his career in an all-the-cards-on-the-table meeting with Gregg. And being asked to throw to a free agent running back on his day off in the middle of it all.

"For me, that's the kind of stuff Hall of Famers are made of," says Jack Thompson of Anderson, the man he was supposed to unseat. "He had that crossroad and that crossroad was very late in his career … I think he should be very seriously considered for the Hall of Fame, along with Ken Riley."

"From a psychological standpoint, Kenny was vulnerable on the coat tails of a tough preseason. He rose and separated himself."

Like Williams says, the opener, "should have been Jack's moment." Taken with the third pick in the 1979 draft after he left Washington State as the most prolific passer in the history of college football, Thompson was groomed to replace Anderson, a two-time NFL passing champion earlier in the decade. It never happened, but he's the poster of a Paul Brown post-career success as a former coffee company exec still working as the owner of a mortgage business.

"He threw a deep ball like Jeff Blake," Williams says of the Bengals 1990s quarterback. "A high, arching, beautiful ball. I never saw anyone throw it quite like Jack."

It all looked to come down to the preseason finale at Riverfront against Denver, a week before the first game of Thompson's third season and Anderson's tenth. The Throwin' Samoan vs. the old passing champion. It appeared to be Thompson's job to lose after Anderson ended a two-minute drill at the end of the half throwing an interception and getting booed off the field.

But Thompson hurt his ankle in the second half and Anderson got the nod the next week against the middling Seahawks.

"That damn ankle sprain," Thompson says. "Kenny manned up and the rest is history. He deserved it."

ANDERSON: "They drafted my replacement. '79 was not a good year for me. That's as bad as we ever were. People were clamoring for Jack … I think I put a lot of undue pressure on myself in the Seattle game. I was trying to play perfect and you can't play that way. Bad passes. That's all it was. You can't play perfect."

Anderson's first pass of his MVP season was negated by illegal motion. The next one was a pick-six. By the time he completed one, they were down, 14-0. His third completion was fumbled and returned to the Bengals 2. It was 21-0 about a dozen minutes into 1981. After Anderson threw another pick, Schonert took the last snap of the first quarter and that was a story in itself.

LAPHAM: "It was almost like you were living out a nightmare. You can't wake up. You're caught in some kind of vortex. How do you get out of it? It was Murphy's Law. There were two separate games that took place. Turk came in and he extended plays. He created. He did what he had to do."

But not before he ran out into his first huddle in his ball cap, forgetting his helmet on the sidelines. Then once he got settled, Schonert was that California cool his teammates knew. It wasn't an Anderson passing clinic, but it was a class in grit. He hit nine of 18 passes for 130 yards and ran for 41 more to engineer a 27-21 victory when he converted three huge third downs. One went to Collinsworth for 18 yards on third-and-six after Schonert ran for 19 on third-and-five on the drive that cut the lead to 21-10 at halftime. Then down 21-20 early in the fourth, Schonert flipped a third-and-four on an 18-yard pass to wide receiver Steve Kreider.

When Schonert died suddenly of a heart attack two ago at age 62, Collinsworth, his best friend on that team, summed it up best.

"If Turk doesn't do what he did that day, maybe we go to the Super Bowl. It's not as likely," said Collinsworth, whose 65-yard debut sent the NFL buzzing. "Then, do we go to two Super Bowls? Who knows? That's how historically significant that game is."

Munoz, Lapham and the rest of the huddle were confident Schonert could get something done.

"Whenever he came into a game, it was like his offense," Munoz says. "Turk was the type of guy, we'd be sitting in the Wednesday morning installation meeting and the coaches would be putting in stuff and you could see Turk's mind was just going. He would say, 'What about this? What about that?' And the coaches would go, 'OK.'"

Munoz didn't remember it at the time, but he always felt when Schonert was at Stanford he cost his 1979 USC team the national title and a spot as one of the greatest teams in history when led the Cardinal back from a 21-0 hole to leave the Trojans with their only blemish in a 21-21 tie.

"Desperate times call for desperate measures," Breeden says. "Forrest wasn't afraid to pull the trigger. He was just that kind of coach. We weren't surprised. Turk played with a lot of confidence and he was a good ballplayer coming out of Stanford. Intelligent guy. Very talented. Very positive about his abilities. We didn't know how he'd play, but we knew he had no fear about playing. You knew that about Turk."

On the other side of the ball, "The Doctor of Defense," Hank Bullough was enraged in that first quarter. Even though the defense had barely been on the field, he expected more from his newish 3-4 contraption he had brought with Gregg the year before. Like the offense with coordinator Lindy Infante, there was pretty much the same personnel from 1980's 6-10 run, but more was expected from both men's innovations.

Bullough used the Ivy League smarts of outside linebacker Reggie Williams, the engaging and bright six-year veteran from Dartmouth, to help disguise his pressure. Against Seattle, Williams got the only sack of Seahawks quarterback Jim Zorn, but it began a parade of 11 during a season Williams and ends Ross Browner (10) and Eddie Edwards (10) all had double-digit sacks. The Bengals haven't had triple digit sackers since.

And this is back when linebackers didn't get sacks. The year before, Atlanta's Joel Williams had 16. In 1981, Reggie Williams led all linebackers with his 11, followed by the 10 of Oakland's Hot Rod Martin. The backers were coming. But not yet Hall-of-Famer Lawrence Taylor, who changed it all. That was his rookie year and he finished 1.5 behind the Bengals' Williams.

"Whenever the starting quarterback gets pulled, that always brings a sense of urgency to a defense," Williams says. "As he always was, Hank Bullough was really on us in that first quarter giving up 21 points. We were pretty maniacal about not giving up another point and we didn't."

After it was over and Lapham had lifted up Schonert and carried him about the Riverfront turf, the drama was just unfolding. In his postgame remarks, Gregg hinted it could be Schonert the next week against the Jets. But he didn't tell Anderson anything even after the Labor Day practice the following morning.

"I got a call from a reporter on Labor Day," Anderson says. "Nothing was said to me. He told me, 'Forrest just said you're not starting next week.' So I called Lindy Infante and kind of (complained) a little bit. He said, 'Come back down.' So I went back down and sat and talked to him and Forrest. We talked about a lot of things. Is it better if I start? Is it better I come off the bench? He just said be in here first thing Wednesday morning and we'd talk again."

If Anderson wasn't already steaming, he was the next day when they called and asked him to come down on the day off and throw to a running back for a tryout. Anderson can't remember who it was (they did sign former No. 1 Rams pick Elvis Peacock that week), but he remembers being more than miffed.

"They must have been concerned. They had other guys that could throw," Anderson says. "But I went down."

Thompson, still unable to play, remembers being in the meeting room with just Anderson early that week.

"He was very highly contemplative," Thompson says. "He was almost talking to himself and I just happened to be in the room. He was saying, 'I think I should go into talk to Coach Gregg and tell him I deserve to play. I told him, 'You should.'"

Then came Wednesday morning and the last meeting and 40 years later it is pretty cut and dried for Anderson when it comes to why he went in and fought for his job and why he think he sold Gregg on another start:

ANDERSON: "I think he played a long time. I think he made the comment that a veteran that has played shouldn't lose his job for one bad game. And the conviction that I wanted to play. It could have been the other way. It could have been, 'I don't want to go through that again.' I wanted to play and I thought I was the best guy to play."

Anderson, still the devilish raconteur from 40 years and miles away in Hilton Head, has to laugh:

"I might have felt differently if we were playing at home."

Gregg went on the record that Wednesday for the press:

"When you look at Ken Anderson, you see a guy who is healthy for the first time in three years to start a season. He has 10 years' experience and except for the last three years (when he was hurt), he had seven good years … I know how hard he worked this past offseason. He's been a starter pretty much ever since he has been here and I don't think I should sit the guy on the bench for one quarter of bad play."

That's pretty much how his mates felt that week. Munoz can't remember "Kenny Guys," and "Turk Guys," or any mumbling about Gregg going back to Anderson despite Schonert's heroics.

BREEDEN: "Everyone knew Kenny was the starter. Sometimes you need adversity. Forrest pushed Kenny. That was his best season. I never had any doubt in Kenny. As a ballplayer, you know a bad game is coming. That game was an anomaly. That wasn't the Kenny Anderson I'd seen play. It would have be different if that was always Kenny. He made better decisions than most. His completion percentage is indicative of that."

Lapham smiles at that first play of Wednesday's practice. The linemen told Anderson, 'Tell us what side you're going to throw it to so we can cover the interception.'"

"You know what I think sold Forrest?" Lapham asks. "The way Kenny spoke up for himself."

Lapham, Anderson's road roommate forever, had the best view of how Anderson prepared for one of his 187 NFL starts. Next to the Freezer Bowl and the Super Bowl, the Sack Exchange Bowl was no doubt his biggest. The Jets loomed at Shea with an already legendary front four of Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau at ends and Abdul Salaam and Marty Lyons inside.

Sacks? This was the year that Klecko and Gastineau would lead the NFL with 20.5 and 20 sacks, respectively.

"You look at it," Anderson says, "and you see those guys and you say, do I really want to play?"

Of course he did. That Saturday night in the hotel room in New York, Lapham saw the same guy he saw win back-to-back NFL passing titles in '74 and '75. Kenny was an early-to-bed-early-to-rise guy. He'd tell Lap he was in control of the TV control and he'd be gone and Lapham wouldn't be far behind by 11 p.m.

"Very calm. Very composed. Very confident," Lapham says. "He was anxious and excited to play. I wasn't surprised to see him play that well."

Anderson: "How far do you have to go if you're at rock bottom?"

They figure it was like most nights before the game.

"I'd wake up in the middle of the night and I'd say, 'I can't remember the game plan,'" Anderson recalls. "I'd go in the bathroom, turn on the light and put the seat down and go over it. And it would come back in five minutes."

Lapham had only one request. He'd ask Kenny to make sure he was up for pregame meal. Anderson would come back upstairs to wake him after he went downstairs to get a coffee and a paper. He usually read the sports section, so he no doubt saw New York's famous back pages filled with the gloom and doom the Sack Exchange would bring down upon him.

MUNOZ: "I was in the lobby that morning. Jim McNally, our offensive line coach, had a friend who played against Temple when Joe Klecko was there. He said, 'Klecko is nothing special.' I looked at the guy. I would never hire him to be a scout."

Munoz, the gifted left tackle, got in the hotel van with most of the starting offensive line for the ride to Shea. With the U.S. Open also in Flushing Meadows and the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in another September soap opera, the driver had a short cut. But the traffic was just too much and he got turned around.

"We knew when we went past Yankee Stadium that we were in the wrong place," Munoz says. "It was getting late. I don't know how close we were to missing kickoff, but I do know we were going to have one big Texan (Gregg) mad at us."

There was a 2 p.m. game that day at Yankee Stadium that served as a bit of symbolism that the brand new Who Dey Bengals were 1980s hot and the 1970s Big Red Machine was now nostalgia in the Cincinnati sports pantheon. Tony Perez, whose slugging led the Reds over the Red Sox in the '75 World Series, would hit a homer for the Red Sox this day off Ron Guidry in a game the Yankees would prevail.

LAPHAM: "Kenny and I took the early bus. But we were waiting on the rest of the line, it seemed like. By the time they got there, they ran out to warm up and then had to come back in and get taped. It was crazy."

But Anderson was crazy cool. So was his offensive line, a line that had not been there for him in the previous three seasons. It had gotten him banged up and Lapham recalls, "He fell into bad habits. Lindy resurrected his career." All that was on display this Sunday.

If the line was late to Shea, they certainly showed up in plenty of time for Anderson's MVP run. He got sacked four times that day, but Klecko only got him once and Gastineau, working against Mike Wilson, not at all. Munoz was so impressive against Klecko he began a season that would end in his first of 11 straight Pro Bowls.

"That," Lapham says of Munoz-Klecko, "was something to see."

MUNOZ: "Klecko was the strongest guy I've played against. Not the fastest. Not the quickest. But tough. One of those lunch bucket guys. Great leverage. Great hand placement. By far the strongest guy I ever played against. (I played him with) technique and leverage and just hold on. Monday was a very, very sore day. It wasn't Klecko on first and second down and somebody else on third down. We were in there for however many plays there were. Mano a mano. Oh my goodness. He had his hands full, I had my hands full."

Anderson figured Lindy would start him off easy with a few handoffs or a screen. But the first play was a pass downfield that he checked down to running back Archie Griffin.

"OK you jerks. It's going to the right so get ready to cover," Anderson said to the line before that first play.

They only had to cover once on one interception and he threw two touchdowns in a game that was far from perfect but showed what would make the '81 Bengals the best team in franchise history. A clutch offense of playmakers. An unrelenting pressure defense. And the hardened knowledge they could come back down 21-0.

The Bengals, down 14-0 again at Shea, never led until Anderson hit Griffin on a three-yard touchdown pass with less than four minutes left to make it 24-23. The drive began with just over seven minutes left and he made big throws to the rookie Collinsworth (26 yards) and got a classic diving 22-yarder from the old pro Curtis on third-and-nine in a merging of the past and future during a wondrous present

While that was Collinsworth's longest grab of a two-catch day on a rare quiet Sunday during a season he would become the Bengals' first 1,000-yard receiver, that dive finished off Curtis 18th 100-yard game in a career he would have 20 of them.

On his way to five catches for 108 yards, Curtis just might have made the biggest play of the season. Down 14-0 and needing something desperately, Curtis still had those sprinter legs to run away for a 42-yard catch that set up a Jim Breech field goal.

"On the sidelines," Anderson says, "Isaac told me, 'Let me line up in a close split and run a go pattern and I can get by the guy."

In a season-long scenario, the defense finished off what the offense started. With a 24-23 lead, Browner drilled Jets quarterback Richard Todd for a fumble that tackle Mike St. Clair took in from 12 yards out.

"Knowing you can do that in an NFL game, come back like that down, 21-0, that was a big lift for us. That gave us confidence," says Breeden, who in the November to Remember would return a pick 102 yards into the record book.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, the phones died in the baseball press box down in the corner of the end zone. Infante had to get out on the ledge and signal in the plays. Anderson, who would get the signals from Schonert, now just had to look at Infante once he found him. Schonert, so key the week before, became a bystander.

"He and I were good friends. He did nothing but support me and wish me luck," Anderson says.

"Turk was a great teammate. We all knew that," Reggie Williams says.

Anderson and Schonert remained tight, both giving their careers over to coaching and becoming offensive coordinators in the league. Less than two years later, Thompson was traded for a No. 1 pick. Anderson would meet Thompson on another September day in 1983, when Thomson pumped up 316 yards on 30 of 40 passing in Tampa for a bad Bucs club. But one of his three interceptions went for Kenny Riley's 34-yard pick-six. Anderson's 15 of 20 for 168 yards with just one interception were good enough for Cincinnati's 23-17 win. Two years later Thompson was out of the league.

"Jack was a great talent. He never got to showcase it in Tampa," Williams says. "He didn't have the weapons or the line."

When the Bengals joined the air traffic out of La Guardia that Sunday night, somehow they were 2-0.

"We were off to the races," Anderson says.

His road roomie wonders.

"If we don't win those two?" Lapham asks. "I don't know."