The 1988 Bengals were ahead of their time on a grease board slick with Xs and Os that belong on an iPad.
They no-huddled the NFL into the next era with a quarterback that orchestrated the line of scrimmage when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady were in grade school. They zone-blocked the league back to the future and zone-blitzed defenses into cyberspace. Their 12-4 run, 8-0 domination at home, and heartbreaking Super Bowl loss turned out to be a snapshot of early 21st century football.
"We're disciples of Paul Brown, Sam Wyche, Dick LeBeau, Jim McNally," Solomon Wilcots says of his 1988 teammates. "What we're seeing today, the foundation of a lot of that is right there in little old Cincinnati. We had smart coaches and smart players; that's the way Paul Brown wanted it: smart guys,"
By 1988, the no-huddle was the team's base of offensive operation and an every-down diet of zone blocking cemented the running game as a counter to 3-4 defenses. At that time all teams had a hurry-up, two-minute offense, but no one had ever used it for most or all of the game with their entire game plan.
And while some teams were running behind zone blocking, no one was doing it all the time and no one had combined the inside and outside zones like offensive line coach Jim McNally and running backs coach Jim Anderson.
Bengals president Mike Brown has always called that team "ahead of the curve," but the original ideas can get lost in the twist and turns in the road map of evolution.
Wyche, a quarterback on the 1968 inaugural Bengals coached by Paul Brown, the pro game's first innovator, had seen something in the two-minute offense back in the day. When he got his own coaching gig at Indiana in 1983, he thought something like the no-huddle could close the talent gap.
He always remembered what 49ers receiver and hurdler record-holder Renaldo Nehemiah told him while he served a stint in San Francisco under his old position coach in Cincinnati, Bill Walsh. Wyche was always amazed how a guy as fit as Nehemiah could be so winded after a route.
"Coach, I just ran 60 yards as fast I can," Nehemiah told him. "In five seconds, I'll be breathing through my nose again."
That helped to get Wyche thinking.
"The idea was if I can recover in 18 seconds from the previous play and it takes you 30 seconds to recover, when the ball is snapped at 22 seconds I've recovered and you haven't and I'm watching you wear down. I'm not playing the same team I played on the opening play," Wyche says.
"Then we found all the other things. We could prevent substitutions and lock the defense in coverages. They didn't have time to call exotic blitzes and the coverages were very predictable."
It became all about matchups and substitution. Back then, teams pretty much only subbed on third down and that's when the Bengals began going to the line quickly and not letting teams sub their nickel packages. Pretty soon they were doing that on all downs and eventually the league allowed the defense to sub if the offense did.
Wyche and the Bengals battled through the late '80s with the NFL on when and how to use it with the turning point coming in the '88 AFC title game at Riverfront Stadium against the Bills. The Bills said the no-huddle was illegal and the NFL suddenly agreed.
In a surreal conference call just hours before the game to go to the Super Bowl, Wyche and Mike Brown had to argue the ruling was against competitive balance because the Bengals had been allowed to use it all year. Wyche's point was it was just another strategy, like men in motion or an extra flanker.
The NFL backed down. The Bengals won. Now every team tries to catch a team subbing. If a defense wants to get set without blowing a timeout, it fakes injury. When you see a guy flop, that's vintage '88, Seattle lineman Joe Nash vs. Wyche.