Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, games, championships, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The first team to be analyzed is… the CINCINNATI BENGALS!
*The Cincinnati Bengals did not have a championship season, but I will write about their teams that reached Super Bowl XVI as well as Super Bowl XXIII.
The 1981 Bengals: Ken Anderson Shocks the NFL
When Ken Anderson arrived in Cincinnati as a 3rd round draft pick in 1971, the Bengals were coming off their first winning season in franchise history and won the AFC Central division title in 1970. After backing up Virgil Carter in his rookie season, Ken Anderson claimed the starting quarterback job in 1972 and led the Bengals to a 51-29 record in his first six seasons in Cincinnati along with two postseason appearances in 1973 as well as 1975 (Anderson also won his first division title in 1973).
But, despite Anderson’s early success, the Bengals had not won a playoff game in their first three postseason appearances and Cincinnati began to decline after a 0-5 start in 1978. After back-to-back 4-12 seasons in 1978 and 1979, Paul Brown, the Bengals owner and Ken Anderson’s first head coach, hired former Browns head coach Forrest Gregg in 1980 to turn his team around. However, Ken Anderson battled with injuries in Gregg’s first year and threw only six touchdowns in 12 starts in 1980 in his worst season as the starting quarterback for the Bengals.
As the 1981 season began, Ken Anderson and Forrest Gregg were the face of a Bengals team that was considered by most experts to be the 3rd worst team in the AFC. But, Anderson responded to the NFL’s critics with the best season of his career by leading Cincinnati to a 12-4 record and won the league’s MVP award with 29 passing touchdowns along with a quarterback rating of 98.4 (best in the NFL).
With a veteran running back in Pete Johnson and a diverse receiving unit led by 2nd round draft pick Cris Collinsworth, Ken Anderson led one of the league’s most balanced offenses in 1981 and the Bengals clinched the AFC’s #1 seed in the playoffs, but Cincinnati had another challenge to overcome… a postseason win.
However, Ken Anderson and the Bengals would enjoy home-field advantage throughout the playoffs as Cincinnati hosted the Bills in their first playoff game at Riverfront Stadium in the divisional round. After meeting in an overtime game early in the season, the Bengals offense stormed out to an early 14-0 lead with rushing touchdowns from Charles Alexander and Pete Johnson in the 1st quarter. But, the Bills responded with two rushing touchdowns from Joe Cribbs in the 2nd and 3rd quarters to tie the game before Alexander gave the lead back to the Bengals with a rushing touchdown late in the 3rd quarter.
After Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson tied the game with a passing touchdown to Jerry Butler early in the 4th quarter, Ken Anderson connected with his rookie playmaker, Cris Collinsworth, for a touchdown late in the game to secure the Bengals first playoff win in a 28-21 victory over the Bills. However, one week after playing in a 45-degree game, the Bengals faced the “Air Coryell” Chargers in a -59 degree wind chill AFC Championship Game to decide the conference champion.
But, Ken Anderson and the Bengals offense used the weather to their advantage while Cincinnati’s defense intercepted future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts twice in a 27-7 victory that clinched the Bengals first conference title in franchise history. Two weeks later, with a chance to finish his magical MVP season with a Super Bowl win, Ken Anderson would meet future Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana and the 49ers in Super Bowl XVI in another regular season rematch.
After a difficult first half with three turnovers and down 20-0 at the start of the third quarter, Ken Anderson finally gave the Bengals some momentum with a nine play scoring drive that ended with a five yard TD scramble from Anderson to make the score 20-7. But, Cincinnati’s offense came up short on a critical 49ers goal line stand late in the third quarter before Anderson led an eight play scoring drive early in the 4th quarter to cut San Francisco’s lead to six points.
However, after the 49ers stretched their lead with a 40 yard field goal from Ray Wersching on the next drive, Anderson’s magical season ended with an interception from Eric Wright before the Bengals were able to score a late touchdown in a 26-21 loss in Super Bowl XVI.
1981 BENGALS OFFENSE
Pro Bowl Selections: QB Ken Anderson (league MVP, All-Pro), FB Pete Johnson, WR Cris Collinsworth, LT Anthony Munoz
Strengths: Passing attack and lack of turnovers. After battling injuries and contributing to the NFL’s 21st ranked passing attack in 1980, Ken Anderson led the league’s 3rd best passing attack in 1981 and had a talented receiving unit with tight end Dan Ross as well as Pro Bowl wide receiver Cris Collinsworth leading the way with 138 combined receptions for 1,919 yards and 13 receiving TD’s.
The 1981 Bengals also committed only 24 turnovers during the regular season (fewest in the NFL; 12 interceptions, 12 fumbles lost) and averaged 5.5 yards per play (2nd in the league) with their balanced offensive attack under Forrest Gregg. The Bengals offensive line, led by future Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz, also played a big role in Anderson’s MVP season by giving Ken great protection and allowed him to lead the AFC in completion percentage (62.6%).
Weaknesses: Rushing offense. Despite fullback Pete Johnson rushing over 1,000 yards and receiving a Pro Bowl selection, the Bengals had the NFL’s 17th ranked rushing attack, but rushed for 19 touchdowns during the regular season (7th most in the league). With Ken Anderson leading Cincinnati’s offense for most of the season, Johnson’s power running ability helped create a balanced attack that led to the Bengals success in 1981.
However, in Super Bowl XVI, Pete Johnson was held to 36 rushing yards on 14 carries and Cincinnati averaged only 4.0 yards per carry during the year.
1981 BENGALS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Pro Bowl Selections: P Pat McInally (All-Pro)
Strengths: Rushing defense. After winning two national championships as a defensive coordinator under Hall of Fame head coach Duffy Daugherty at Michigan State and working as a linebackers coach under Don McCafferty during the Colts run to Super Bowl V, defensive coordinator Hank Bullough had the NFL’s 9th ranked rushing defense in 1981 and allowed only 12 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (8th best in the league). With Bullough’s 3-4 defensive style, the Bengals also allowed the 3rd fewest carries during the year (465 attempts).
Weaknesses: Passing defense and overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s 9th ranked rushing defense, the Bengals had the league’s 22nd ranked passing defense and forced only 37 turnovers during the regular season (16th in the NFL; 19 interceptions, 18 fumbles lost). But, Cincinnati’s passing defense was able to pressure quarterbacks and finished with 42 sacks during the year (8th most in the league).
However, in Super Bowl XVI, the Bengals defense was unable to put pressure on Joe Montana as they finished with only one sack and one turnover in their loss to the 49ers.
The 1981 Bengals also experienced some struggles with their special teams unit, but kicker Jim Breech led the AFC with 115 points scored (tied with Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery) and punter Pat McInally led the NFL with a yards per punt average of 45.4 yards on 72 punts to earn an All-Pro selection. However, McInally had a punt blocked during the year and Cincinnati struggled to find an explosive kick/punt returner despite 1st round draft pick David Verser (a wide receiver from Kansas) and defensive back Mike Fuller handling most of the return duties (Verser was a kick returner, Fuller was a punt returner).
UP NEXT… THE STORY OF THE 1988 BENGALS!