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This day in '81: The Old Master hosts The New Genius

Ken Anderson

Each week from the bye on, plans to go down the stretch with the 1981 AFC champion Bengals to see what was happening in the newspapers on this date 30 years ago.

DEC. 5: In preparation for tomorrow's game against freshly-crowned NFC West champion San Francisco at Riverfront Stadium, Cincinnati is buzzing about The Old Master meeting the New Genius with Paul Brown's Bengals pitted against Bill Walsh's 49ers in an unlikely summit of the top AFC team against the top NFC team at both 10-3.

Little do we know that this game begins a breathtaking seven-year Shakespearean storyline that will culminate in one of the greatest Super Bowls ever played featuring some of the players and coaches that defined the NFL in the latter half of the 20th century.

But we don't know that yet. All we know is that in tomorrow's Cincinnati Enquirer, Mike Dodd will write that 13 weeks ago "the thought of the San Francisco 49ers and the Cincinnati Bengals meeting in December with the two best records in football would have been fantasyland. But here we are … no one is calling it a preview of Super Bowl XVI, but it is a curious match of the two best teams in the league this year that in a sense is the team that Bill Walsh built against the quarterback that Bill Walsh built."

It is, of course, a preview of Super Bowl XVI 50 days hence in Detroit, but who knew? The papers can't get enough of Walsh's first trip back to Cincinnati since he left five years ago feeling snubbed when Brown made offensive line coach Tiger Johnson his successor rather than he, Walsh, the quarterbacks-receivers coach. Walsh is the architect of the West Coast offense that the Bengals are using to roll to five straight victories and the Niners are using to eliminate decades of drudgery.

Both men tell the media this week that there is no acrimony and Mark Purdy's column the day before in The Cincinnati Enquirer has Walsh talking about how he and Brown visited each other's home while in Cincinnati, a virtually unheard of act among coaches back in the day, and how they met for a breakfast at the NFL meetings earlier in the year.

But the headline and Walsh's future books are closer to the mark: "Walsh forgives, but snub indelible."

Yet Purdy reveals the bond is inescapable. Brown's son, assistant general manager Mike Brown, says he often calls Walsh on the horn. Given Brown's conservative nature and Walsh's liberal playcalling, Purdy calls it an odd match.

"In some ways it's a competitive relationship," Mike Brown tells Purdy. "I like Bill's sense of humor. Like me he recognizes that the football approach is absurd to a higher degree than other things. We both recognize that. But we both also realize we make our living at it and we have to take it seriously."

Another thing that's indelible. Walsh's impact on Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson even as he proclaims his Joe Montana the next great NFL quarterback.

"There is no question in my mind that he's the best passer in the game. He always has been." Walsh says of Anderson, needing 28 yards to break his own club passing record that he set under Walsh in 1975. "I believe he's the greatest player at his position in the league and should be the Most Valuable Player."

The game is a national story and earlier in the week Paul Attner of The Washington Post breaks down how both teams are built in this era long before free agency. But it is a blueprint both franchises keep once free agency arrives a dozen years into the future. Mike Brown and Bill Walsh, who were basically running the teams day-to-day then and as the free agency era dawned, stayed true to how they built their 1981 teams.

"Thanks to two lopsided trades with Philadelphia, the Bengals have had 11 first-round draft picks in the past six years, half their players were chosen in the first three rounds and 35 of the 45 players were drafted by the team," Attner writes. "Cincinnati has only six rookies. All 22 starters were drafted by the Bengals and 16 of them in the first three rounds and nine of them in the first round."

He notes after going 2-14, 2-14, and 6-10, the Niners "have added 29 of their 45 players the last two years, 20 this season, 13 of them rookies. Only 23 players, including four in the first round and 15 in the first three rounds were drafted by the 49ers." The Niners made seven trades (most notably for Fred Dean and Freddie Solomon) while signing 15 free agents. Cincinnati signed seven free agents.

But if it is a game nationally bannered by Montana and Anderson, the Cincinnati Post writes this week about the unheralded Bengals: "Lapham, Kreider the loudest of unsung heroes," the headline says of the heady Bengals offensive lineman and their resourceful third wide receiver, respectively.

Lapham, who will become the club's legendary radio analyst serving for more than a quarter of a century, has repeatedly shown in his eight seasons the brains and reliability that will mark his broadcasting career. For the last seven games he has replaced Glenn Bujnoch after he broke a bone in his foot against the Steelers and there has been no dropoff and the club is on a roll, the story says.

"Lapham suffers from dreaded versatility," it says. "He can play center, guard, tackle, so the Bengals like to make him back up all three. Lapham lost his starting guard position he had held since his second season and while the multiple backup role has not been particularly satisfying … Lapham has handled it well and without complaint."

But with the Bengals rolling, the paper correctly predicts Lapham isn't going to come out of the starting lineup this season.

"The one thing I try to do is play consistently," Lapham says. "I'm not what people call spectacular, but I try to give the team the same performance week in and week out."

But there is no getting around it. The story of the week is Brown and Walsh. And really, with the game in Cincinnati, it is the 73-year-old Brown. Tomorrow, on the morning of the game, the good folk of the Queen City wake to Purdy's rather remarkable column in The Enquirer in which he volunteers to eat crow.

Purdy admits to being part of the legion of critics that have taken Brown to task for being stubborn in his old ways despite miserable records from 1977-80 and questioning the hiring of recycled Forrest Gregg as head coach the year before.

But the Bengals are 10-3 and so is his pupil, Walsh. Purdy spends some time with the Old Master this week and, still stubborn, he won't budge. He could be outlining an agenda for a team 30 years into the future.

"Good people make good players," Brown tells Purdy. "The good, high-class thinking people are in preponderance on this team. You need people that are unselfish and devotion to the team. We have owners in this league that actually give contracts to players where they receive bonuses based on sacks and or passes caught. You can't have those kind of contracts."

OK, so the man that invented the facemask, playbooks and the draw play may have missed on that. But he tells Purdy he's having fun. And Mike Brown, his father's partner in the venture since they founded the franchise together in 1967, is enjoying his father's joy.

"He never doubted himself," Mike Brown says. "If there is a difference in him this year, it's that his team is successful. And he's damn happy about it. I think what we needed here was a coach that could handle the situation and we got one."

Paul Brown spends only one day a week over at Spinney Field and that's on Monday when he sits through the team's film session and checks on the health of the team. While the coaches and players work at Spinney during the rest of the week, he stays at his Riverfront office and usually confers with Gregg in a daily phone conversation that encompasses all topics that include personnel.

Back in September in what turns out to be one of the biggest decisions in team history, Brown and Gregg discuss if Anderson should start the second game of the year after he was pulled in the opener and Turk Schonert beat Seattle.

"Forrest talked to me about that. He came to me with it," Paul Brown says. "I encouraged him to stay with Ken. I had Ken too long to think that what was happening would last."

Purdy has a brainstorm.

"During this afternoon's game we should probably tip our flasks in the direction of Paul Brown's booth," he says. "He is, after all, the reason all this is here. He is the reason Gregg is here. He is the reason Anderson is here. He is the reason the Bengals exist. He is the reason, to a large extent, that pro football dominates the nation's weekends the way it does. And today he is the reason I am pouring catsup all over my crow."

The Super Bowl, it turns out, is closer than you think as the crow flies. 

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