12-26-03, 8:45 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
Eric Ball remembers it was a long pass, but that's about it. Sam Wyche remembers it was a big play in a close game, but that's about it. Jim Anderson, who took the play out of the stocking Christmas Eve, remembers it all.
Anderson had mothballed it after the Bengals made the playoffs in that gritty December of 1990. Now, with the Bengals in virtually the same situation, he was reminded of the play, and Anderson, the Bengals running backs coach then and now, knew exactly where to go to find it.
Dec. 30, 1990 at Riverfront Stadium. The Bengals have to beat the Browns to win the AFC Central and hope the Oilers beat the Steelers in a Sunday night game to win the division and make the playoffs. But the 8-7 Bengals are tussling with the 3-12 Browns. Anderson points to the Riverfront scoreboard on the tape.
Bengals 14, Browns 14. About nine and a half minutes left in the season.
"The ball is on their 48 and it's third-and-two," Anderson said. "And we give them a short-yardage look."
On Anderson's tape, quarterback Boomer Esiason is standing in front of a line that
has three tight ends. Behind him are Ball, at fullback, and Ickey Woods at running back.
"They think we're running. We had run a lead out of this formation a lot," Anderson said.
Esiason hunches into his now-famous play-action fake, shoves the ball in and out of Woods' belly while Ball carries out a lead block on the perimeter.
"It's funny, I just don't remember that much about it," said Ball, now the club's director of player relations. "I do remember it was late and Boomer hit me on a wheel route. Basically, I went into the flat and turned it up field."
On the screen, Ball is lead blocking on the cornerback because the Browns are tight on the line for the run, and the corner lets him go by before realizing what Esiason has done. The corner scrambles to get back to Ball, but he is beaten.
With the other 10 Browns converging on the run, Esiason sees there is no one picking up Ball. Esiason flips it to a wide-open Ball running past the flat into the secondary. The safety coming over from the middle has one shot at him at about the 10, but Ball cuts back on him, the safety slips harmlessly to the turf and The Jungle is breathing easier at 21-14.
Final. Then the Oilers win, and the Bengals are in.
"That would have to be my biggest touchdown," Ball says. "That one, and I remember my first touchdown my rookie year in Kansas City."
Anderson sees the play as a good example for his guys now. That year, the Bengals rotated their backs and Ball was a valuable guy because he could play both fullback and running back. Still, Ball had carried only 22 times all year.
But, it proves your number can get called at any time in any game. The 48-yarder was only the second pass Ball caught all year, and the only one that gained yardage. It was one of his three career touchdown catches for Cincinnati, and the longest of his 22 career catches.
And, it just so happened to put the Bengals in the playoffs.
"Good execution by everyone," Anderson says. "They were playing the run, no question."
He decided to keep it out of the stocking a little longer.
"He's going to show it to me," said Ball, who seemed to be enjoying the gift of nostalgia. "It's going to be fun to see it again."