Volunteering tradition

Kenny Anderson, this spring's hottest trend not on Twitter, went from sitting through a strike to throwing strikes.

It may be the 30th anniversary of the first Bengals Super Bowl team, but it is also the 29th anniversary of the season Anderson and the Bengals emerged from 57-day mothballs to complete a two-year run that saw Cincinnati rack up the most victories in the NFL.

How good were those '82 Bengals? With more picket time than practice time, they handed the Raiders their only loss of the regular season, beat Ron Jaworski in Philly, and won six of their first seven games after the strike to barge into that Pete Rozelle hiccup known as "The Super Bowl Tournament" at 7-2.

They were stunned by Jets running back Freeman McNeil's 202 yards in the playoffs' first round, an NCAA tourney-type shocker, but not even eventual Super Bowl champ Washington had 19 wins dating back to the '81 opener.

Now with word coming via news reports Wednesday that current locker room leaders Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko are planning OTA-like practices next week in Cincinnati, it will be recalled that it's not the first time the call for volunteers has been answered in a work stoppage.

"Almost 30 years later and you're asking us at our age if we remember the practices?" the 62-year-old Anderson asked in mock horror recently of those long-ago voluntaries. "I have no idea how many I went to. I think I went to most. But I cut my finger making a Halloween costume for my kid and got 12 stitches, so I was done for two weeks of them anyway."

Anderson overcame the layoff and the cut on the tip of the middle finger of his throwing hand to split the cobwebs with an NFL-record 70.55 completion percentage and his fourth NFL passing title without so much as an organized 7-on-7 drill in the last 40 or so days of the strike.

But even though the Bengals called off workouts two weeks into the strike, don't be fooled. Newspaper accounts from the first day back to practice highlight Anderson's pinpoint passing as a product of throwing to wide receivers Isaac Curtis, Cris Collinsworth and Steve Kreider during the hiatus.

These guys were good. Ask those that know and they'll tell you the '81 club is the Bengals' best of all-time. Second in NFL offense. No. 12 in defense. A Hall of Fame left tackle in Anthony Muñoz. A legit Hall of Fame candidate at quarterback in Anderson. A cutting edge coaching staff with Jim McNally on the offensive line and Dick LeBeau in the secondary. A head coach with direct ties to Lombardi himself in Forrest Gregg.

If there was ever a team that could roll off the couch and go 6-1 …

"We had a lot of veteran guys that were hungry and committed and not just the starters," said Dave Lapham, a starting guard on that club and the team's long-time radio analyst. "You had a guy like (backup quarterback) Turk Schonert, who saved the season the year before coming off the bench in the opener. And you talk about continuity. We had the same offensive system for the third straight year (with coordinator Lindy Infante) and you had a veteran like Kenny running it."

Make that the defending NFL MVP. Anderson's Hall of Fame credentials have caught fire this year with national media attention in his first try before the Hall's senior committee and his signature is the 1981 marriage of precision and production when he pumped home 65 percent of his passes while averaging more than eight yards per attempt.

But his '82 season may have been even more remarkable given the lack of time the team had together.

"We practiced over at Nippert Stadium and if I remember, it's pretty good when it starts out," said Anderson of the workouts at the University of Cincinnati facility, opened to the Bengals by head coach Mike Gottfried for the help they gave his program.

"Then all of a sudden the enthusiasm wanes a little bit. Guys are saying, 'I've got to pick my kids up at school,' and that stuff," Anderson said.

Good memory. According to the newspapers, 47 of the 52 players on the club were at the first voluntary workout a few days after the strike was called. NFL Players Association co-reps Mike Fuller and Tom Dinkel appointed position leaders and, for instance, Lapham led the line in the same drills that McNally had them do. Curtis had the receivers, and so on.

"The guys were excited going in," Curtis said. "But it didn't stay that way. The longer it went, guys just got disappointed with the process."

When the turnout begin to decline the next couple of days, Fuller announced the Bengals would go three times a week at UC, figuring that fewer days with more guys would yield better workouts. That lasted for about a week with quotes from guys like Collinsworth that basically said not going full speed and not wearing full pads "does me no good."

"In a way, we were sending the owners the wrong message because we were getting in condition even though they weren't giving us what we felt was fair," Dinkel said. "Plus, we had a team that just wanted to play football. We wanted to get back to the Super Bowl and win it. We could still feel it. We had a lot of anxiety and we were fed up (with the strike).

"But as an individual, you never quit working out. You're a professional."

But these weren't your 21st century football professionals. There was no bull riding or soccer tryouts. The payroll for the 1981 AFC champs was reportedly $5.2 million or $800,000 less than the 2011 salary for the bull rider. Anderson was the highest-paid Bengal at $325,000, the 2010 minimum rookie salary.

One of the reasons the Bengals called off the organized practices is because some took jobs to get through the strike. Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya made headlines, along with defensive linemen Wilson Whitley and Eddie Edwards, and safety Bobby Kemp, when they were hired by a landscaping business. Lapham went full-time into the silk T-shirt business he ran with teammate Glenn Cameron. Anderson, a recent graduate of the Chase College School of Law, took the bar exam.

"I did it just so I wouldn't go crazy," Lapham said. "That was a tough time because you're sitting at the dinner table looking at your wife and kids and a lot of guys knowing you may possibly miss out on about a quarter of your potential career earnings if you don't play the season."

A lot of the workout talk was light, almost joke-like. During one of those first voluntaries at UC, Anderson was quoted telling Collinsworth, at the time Cincinnati's most eligible bachelor, to run an out and up "so you can meet that blonde" that was walking down the sideline.

"And he got to meet the blonde," the paper faithfully reported after Anderson tucked the ball into him.

Asked before the first practice back after the strike what he expected, Schonert said, "Expect what? I haven't done anything. I left when it looked like it wasn't going to get solved. I've played racquetball and things like that, but I haven't thrown a ball in three weeks."

But there was some work going on. One day the newspapers caught Curtis, already the team's all-time leading receiver, working out alone at UC. Lapham remembers heading into the UC weight room deep into the strike with a lot his teammates. Cornerback Louis Breeden still jokes about it at first ("Kenny and Isaac liked those practices because they had a keg on the sidelines, he says") but, seriously, he remembers no beers and working out with his mates.

"A lot of it was for the quarterbacks and receivers. The 7-on-7 to get their timing down," Breeden said. "I don't think it helped the defense much. But it was good to be around each other. To keep the mind and focus on football. You have to do something. It wasn't like what we normally do, but it was something. You had to do something."

The engaging Breeden can joke about it now. But it was serious enough that the newspapers say he was up there at UC just after he got the cast off his broken hand from a preseason injury.

"We had older guys and we wanted to get back to the Super Bowl again because we'd been so close," Curtis said. "You know your system. Kenny knew it as well as anyone. That had a lot to do with it."

Anderson compares the comfort with the system to his last season coaching in the NFL in 2009, when he was the Steelers quarterbacks coach.

"You know how complicated LeBeau's defense is," Anderson said. "But we'd have our first OTA and we'd have everything in and we'd have a better practice in that first OTA of the year than any we had the week before the Super Bowl just because you've got guys that know the system."

Dinkel, a linebacker, saw the same thing on a defense that came out holding teams to 17 points or less in five of the seven games after the strike.

"We had playmakers like (cornerback) Kenny Riley and those first-round linemen with Ross Browner, Eddie Edwards and Wilson Whitley," Dinkel said. "But mainly you had a lot of hard-working guys that knew what they were doing. A lot of role players. And you had them on offense, too. Guys like Archie Griffin and Charles Alexander.

"And, the coaching was excellent, too. On defense, we were just starting to do the zone blitz stuff with LeBeau and Hank Bullough, and on offense, c'mon, it didn't get much better than Jim McNally and Bruce Coslet."

That chemistry bubbled off the field when they grappled with trying to decide to vote on the owners proposal the week the strike ended. The players went into the strike seeking 55 percent of the NFL's gross revenues and a pay scale that would have made it more difficult for franchises to release older players. Instead, they took $60 million to return to work that included severance pay, along with a system that upgraded minimum salaries and provided enhanced benefits for players.

The night after a volatile team meeting at The Precinct in which they decided the wording was too confusing to vote on, Pro Bowl middle linebacker Jim LeClair, according to reports, hosted a meeting at his house to again hash over the details for players that thought the deal was acceptable. The next day the Bengals passed the proposal by 31-5 after a meeting with assistant general manager Mike Brown. A meeting that came about when, according to reports, Brown reached out to Anderson because he was upset how players had characterized the proposal and offered to put it into writing and answer questions.

But the McNeil game signified the beginning of the end. The next season turned out to be the last for Gregg at 6-10. The problems the Bengals so easily overcame in 1982 caught up to them. The team that paid no attention to backup quarterback Jack Thompson trying to bolt late in '82 suddenly got devoured by USFL headlines. Infante got canned just weeks before the 1983 training camp when he took a job in the new league for 1984, while Lapham, Dinkel, LeClair and Super Bowl hero Dan Ross were also eventually lured away.

"I think that became a distraction the next year," Dinkel said.

As tough as '82 was, the vets don't envy what these Bengals are about to go through.

A new offense. No coaches. A rookie quarterback.

"What quarterback? You don't even know," Dinkel said. "I sympathize with Coach Lewis."

Dinkel remembers Anderson talking to Infante pretty regularly, which can't happen now because of lockout rules preventing interaction between club employees and players.

"Even if your rookie quarterback is in the building every day and goes through every practice at training camp, he's behind," Breeden said. "You may have a playbook, but it's new and you need a translator."

"The teams that have the veterans and the same coaches, they'll have the edge early," Anderson said.

But, who knows? The Bengals were supposed to stumble out of the gate following the '82 strike because they had a precision passing game. Andy Dalton is supposed to struggle because he's a rookie QB.

Who knows? Whitworth is sounding an awful like Lapham and Peko is leading the defense like a LeClair.

"Same thing as now," Lapham said. "Everybody just wants to get it over with and play."

But first, there has to be some practice.

Whether it helps or not.

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