Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, 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 32 part 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 sixth 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 1988 Bengals: Sam Wyche Returns to Cincinnati
When Sam Wyche arrived in Cincinnati as an undrafted free agent from Furman in 1968, the Bengals were just beginning their franchise as an expansion team in the American Football League. After backing up three different quarterbacks in his three years with the Bengals, Wyche played with three different NFL teams before retiring after the 1976 NFL season. Three years later, Wyche began his coaching career as a quarterback coach with the 49ers and mentored a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Joe Montana before being hired as a head coach in Indiana in 1983.
However, despite a disappointing 3-8 season in his only year in Indiana, Paul Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals and Wyche’s former head coach, offered Wyche a chance to return to the Bengals as their new head coach. In Wyche’s first three years in Cincinnati, the Bengals finished with a 25-23 record, but missed the postseason by less than two games in each season. In 1987, the Bengals were expected to finish in 2nd place in the AFC Central again, but Wyche struggled to rebuild his team after a tough loss to the 49ers in Week 2 and the NFLPA strike as Cincinnati finished with a 4-11 record.
After their first 10+ loss season since 1980, many experts predicted the Bengals to finish with the 4th worst record in the AFC in 1988. But, Sam Wyche rallied his team during the offseason and after a strong 4-1 preseason, the Bengals finished with a 12-4 record as Wyche’s quarterback, Boomer Esiason, won league MVP honors while leading the NFL’s No. 1 ranked offense in 1988. With a perfect 8-0 record at home, the fans in Cincinnati created a unique home-field advantage as well as Riverfront Stadium was transformed into a “jungle” atmosphere as the Bengals entered the postseason as the AFC’s No. 1 seed.
As Sam Wyche led Cincinnati into the playoffs with four wins in their last five regular season games, the Bengals hosted Seattle in their first home playoff game since 1983 in the divisional round. With a chance to bring some cheer on New Year’s Eve, Cincinnati’s offense ran over the Seahawks with 254 rushing yards and three touchdowns in a 21-13 victory as the Bengals advanced to the AFC Championship Game for the first time in seven years.
In a regular season rematch between two innovative head coaches, Sam Wyche and future Hall of Fame head coach Marv Levy met in the AFC Championship as the Bengals hosted the Bills. Despite a tight score at the end of the first half with Cincinnati leading 14-10, the Bengals forced three interceptions off of future Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly and clinched their berth in Super Bowl XXIII with a rushing touchdown from Ickey Woods in the 4th quarter in a 21-10 win.
Two weeks later, Sam Wyche would meet his former mentor, Bill Walsh, as the Bengals battled the 49ers in a rematch of Super Bowl XVI. In a tight game, Cincinnati and San Francisco traded field goals for the first three quarters as both teams were tied at 6-6 with 1:13 remaining in the third quarter. But, after 49ers kicker Mike Cofer tied the game with a 32 yard field goal, the Bengals primary kick returner, Stanford Jennings, returned the following kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown to put Cincinnati into the lead.
However, on San Francisco’s next drive, Joe Montana would quickly drive the 49ers down the field on four plays to tie the game at 13-13 with a touchdown pass to his future Hall of Fame wide receiver, Jerry Rice. But, after Cofer missed a 49 yard field goal two drives later, Boomer Esiason would drive the Bengals down the field on a 10 play drive that ended with a 40 yard field goal from kicker Jim Breech to put Cincinnati back into the lead.
With a chance to win their first Super Bowl, the Bengals defense ran out onto the field as the clock read 3:20 left in the game. But, Joe Montana and the 49ers offense drove down the field on an 11 play drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Montana to John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining as Sam Wyche fell short of winning his only Super Bowl by the score of 20-16.
1988 BENGALS OFFENSE
Strengths: Balanced attack and lack of turnovers. Before the 1987 strike season nearly destroyed his team, Sam Wyche had led one of the NFL’s most balanced offenses in 1986 with the 3rd ranked passing attack and 2nd ranked rushing attack in the league. In 1988, the Bengals offense found similar success as Wyche implemented a new hurry-up offensive scheme that the NFL had never seen as Cincinnati had the league’s No. 1 ranked offense (11th in passing, 1st in rushing) while averaging 6.1 yards/play (best in the NFL) and led the league with 351 first downs during the regular season.
The 1988 Bengals also committed only 27 turnovers during the regular season (fewest in the AFC; 14 interceptions; 13 fumbles lost) due to their three-headed running game with rookie fullback Ickey Woods, Pro Bowl running back James Brooks, and Stanley Wilson splitting carries (all three players had at least 100+ carries each!). The Bengals offensive line, led by future Hall of Fame left tackle Anthony Munoz and Pro Bowl right guard Max Montoya, also played a big role in Esiason’s MVP season by allowing 30 sacks (9th fewest in the NFL) while Boomer led the league with a passer rating of 97.4.
Weaknesses: Receiving depth. Despite having the league’s No. 1 ranked offense, the 1988 Bengals did not have a great receiving unit even with their hurry-up offensive scheme under Sam Wyche. During the regular season, Esiason’s top three receivers (Eddie Brown, Rodney Holman, and Tim McGee) combined for 128 receptions for 2,486 yards and 18 receiving TD’s, but Eddie Brown, Cincinnati’s leading receiver, only caught 53 passes to lead the Bengals offense.
In the postseason, Boomer Esiason and the Bengals receiving unit struggled to find consistency as Cincinnati averaged only 96 passing yards in their three playoff games while the Bengals three-headed running back unit averaged 178 rushing yards in the 1988 playoffs.
1988 BENGALS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
Strengths: Passing defense and takeaways. After a successful Hall of Fame career as a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback for the Detroit Lions and working as a defensive assistant under head coach Bart Starr in Green Bay, Dick LeBeau, the Bengals defensive coordinator, had the NFL’s 10th ranked passing defense in 1988. With All-Pro nose tackle Tim Krumrie leading Cincinnati’s defense, the Bengals had 42 sacks during the regular season (9th most in the league) and held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of 69.6 (9th best in the NFL).
The 1988 Bengals also forced 36 turnovers during the regular season (10th most in the league; 22 interceptions, 14 fumble recoveries) and Pro Bowl cornerback Eric Thomas as well as Pro Bowl strong safety David Fulcher led Cincinnati’s secondary with 12 combined interceptions. In Cincinnati’s two playoff games prior to Super Bowl XXIII, LeBeau’s defense forced six turnovers against Seattle and Buffalo including five interceptions (Thomas had an interception in both games while Fulcher intercepted Jim Kelly in the AFC Championship).
Weaknesses: Rushing defense and overall special teams. Despite having the NFL’s 10th ranked passing defense, the 1988 Bengals had the league’s 18th ranked rushing defense and allowed 20 rushing touchdowns during the regular season (20th in the NFL). In the postseason, Cincinnati allowed only 63 rushing yards in their first two playoff games before the 49ers rushed for 111 yards in Super Bowl XXIII.
The 1988 Bengals also had some struggles with their special teams unit, but kick returner Stanford Jennings had a 98 yard touchdown return against the Chiefs in Week 11 and kicker Jim Breech led the league in extra points/attempts (56 of 59 XP’s). But, the Bengals struggled with two different punters (Lee Johnson, Scott Fulhage) and Breech only converted 11 of 16 field goals in 1988.
COMING UP NEXT… THE CLEVELAND BROWNS…