No matter what team you cheer for, there is always that one season for that team that didn’t quite make it but you still remember fondly. If you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, it’s probably the “Cardiac Kids” of 1980. If you are a Denver Broncos fan, it’s probably the 1977 “Orange Crush” Broncos. The list could go on and on. As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, that team would be the 1988 version of my beloved Bengals.
Sure the team is most known for the “Ickey Shuffle” or the name Riverfront Stadium was given: “The Jungle”. But if you look deeper into that magical season, you will find that, unlike other teams that came up a little short, the 1988 Bengals had an effect on the NFL that is still felt in the league even today. The 1988 Bengals were one of the most innovative teams in NFL history! Admittedly, I am a Bengals fan and my team often falls short of my expectations (one Super Bowl win, please!) so I need something to hold on to. Don’t agree with my “innovative” claim? Read the rest of this article. It may change your mind.
The 1988 Bengals season, probably their best ever, was preceded by what may have been their worst season in 1987. The Bengals entered 1987 with high hopes after finishing the 1986 season 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. After beating the Indianapolis Colts 23-21 to begin the season, they hosted the San Francisco 49ers. With the Bengals leading 26-20 with six seconds left in the game and facing fourth down and long in their own territory, Head Coach Sam Wyche decided to run a sweep to James Brooks in in the hope that it would run the final six seconds off the clock. Brooks ran a sweep left but, unfortunately, was tackled with two seconds still on the clock. Joe Montana came on the field and promptly found Jerry Rice in the end zone for the game winning 25 yard touchdown pass. To say that Wyche made a coaching error in that game would be a HUGE understatement! Couple that with the NFL strike which started immediately after the game and the Bengals would begin a tailspin that would last the rest of that season.
Let’s go back a little bit to the year 1986, beyond a 10-6 season that just missed the playoffs, the biggest thing that happened that year was the 1986 NFL draft. A lot of the building of the 1988 Super Bowl team was done during the 1986 NFL draft. The Bengals picked up 6 starters from the 1986 draft, including linebackers Joe Kelly and Leon White. The Defensive backfield added cornerback Lewis Billups and one of the greatest defensive players in Bengals history in safety David Fulcher. The defensive line added Jim Skow an underrated defensive lineman who’s best season was in 1988. Offensively the Bengals added starting wide receiver Tim McGee, who went on to a very good career with the Bengals.
Following the ill-fated 1987, most observers expected Bengals owner Paul Brown to fire Wyche but Brown decided to keep Wyche and give him one more chance to right the ship. Bengals QB Boomer Esiason and Wyche, who had feuded throughout the 1987 season, reconciled before the start of the 1988 season.
The 1988 season saw the Bengals come within seconds of winning the Super Bowl (Thank you, Joe Montana). And if you look closely at some of the reasons for their success, you will see some true innovations that greatly impacted the league and continues to do so to this day.
Boomer Esiason, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player of 1988 with the best QB rating in the league that season, led a no-huddle offense. This offense led the NFL in total yards (including passing and rushing individually) and points scored. The Bengals no-huddle offense wore defenses out and was so effective that one very notable NFL head coach tried to have it outlawed. Who was that head coach? It was Marv Levy whose Bills ran the “K-Gun”, an offense eerily similar to the Bengals no-huddle. What’s the old saying? “If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em!”
Because of the no-huddle, the NFL was forced to change several rules: If a player goes down injured, he must leave for the following play. Also, in a no-huddle situation, the defense is only allowed to substitute if the offense does.
In addition, the 1988 Bengals were one of the very first teams to use a comprehensive zone blocking scheme others had used it ,but bengals offensive line coach Jim McNally took it to an entirely different level.
Many people think the strength of this team was it’s passing game and Esiason, or the three talented running backs, Brooks, Woods and Wilson. To me though the true strength of this team was the offensive line led by the great Anthony Munoz. Add in great seasons by Bruce Kozerski, Bruce Reimers, Joe Walter, Max Montoya and Brian Blados and you have one of the great offensive lines of all time.
The 1988 Bengals not only shook things up on offense, they were innovative on defense as well.
The 1988 Bengals were the first team to employ the Dick Lebeau zone blitz scheme. Today, Lebeau is more known as the former Defensive Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers but he became the Bengals’ Defensive Coordinator in 1984. The Lebeau-led Bengals finished 1988 regular season 6th in the NFL in interceptions and 9th in sacks. In the post-season, the Bengals turned it up a notch by finishing 1st in interceptions and 2nd in sacks and points allowed per game.
Defensively the Bengals were led by underrated linebacker Reggie Williams and defensive tackle Tim Krumrie. The Bengals were a top notch defense all year, and especially in the playoffs. The question that has to be asked is why did the Bengals not run the ball more in the Super Bowl? Why did the defense quit attacking and go into a shell in the last three minutes of the game. Why would emotional leader Reggie Williams not be in the game at the end of the last drive? When you ask these questions go back to game 2 of the 1987 season, Wyche made a huge mistake at that time, and I contend Super Bowl XXIII was another Wyche blunder and I will leave it at that.
There are not many other teams in NFL history who have been as innovative as the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. Only Joe Montana prevented them from being considered one of the great teams of all time. In the end the Bengals will go down as a near great team who missed a golden opportunity. To Bengals fans they will go down as a team that on the field fought their asses off and had fun doing it. I have interviewed 15 players from this team over the last year or so, and when you talk about the 1988 season with them you can tell how special it was to them. This team really had players that loved playing together and that still shows to this day. Now if we could just get the Bengals organization to honor them, the way they should.