The first play the Cincinnati Bengals ran against the New York Jets on Sunday was a safety—for the Jets. The Bengals' second play was a fumble. Two plays later New York had a touchdown. Cincinnati's next offensive series ended with a blocked field goal, and just to show that it was no fluke, the Bengals later botched two extra-point attempts.
What did all these snafus mean? Nothing, because the Bengals, the only undefeated team in the NFL, won going away against a team that had come in at 3-1-1. They spotted the Jets nine points, settled down and blew 'em away by a score of 36-19. "We met the challenge," said linebacker Reggie Williams. "The challenge of years of abuse. We have been meeting that challenge all season.
"I'd go to meetings," continued Williams, who is a city councilman in Cincinnati, "and my fellow council members would use the Bengals as an example to make their points. This is what you don't want to do...this is how you can get in trouble—that kind of thing. We were the popular analogy."
The Bengals did go 12-4 in 1981 and reached the Super Bowl, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers. The next year they finished 7-2 in the strike-shortened season, and the Jets walloped them in the playoffs. Then came the big slide—three consecutive non winning seasons. A 10-6 record in 1986 gave the fans hope, but that was followed by last year's 4-11 debacle. Sam Wyche, who in 1987 was in the fourth year of a five-year contract, was No. 1 on everybody's list of coaches who wouldn't survive this season. He was an innovative guy who had studied at Bill Walsh University—three years as a player, four as an assistant—and he took the same cerebral approach to the game. But for some reason things hadn't turned out right.
For instance, Wyche's no-huddle, hurry-up offense, which he would run in the middle of games, was ridiculed. But in fact it had several assets: It kept the other team from getting a nickel defense on the field, it caused 12-men-on-the-field penalties when defenses tried to rush in substitutes, and it wore out the other guys. However, when you're 4-11, any sign of flamboyance is a target for jeers. And people who wanted to get at Walsh—but couldn't because his 49er teams won too many games—took it out on the next best thing, his protégé.
Wyche's critics had a fine time last year, when the 49ers beat the Bengals on a last-second pass after Cincinnati failed to kill the clock with a reverse. And when the Bengals lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers by three points in a game that ended with Cincinnati fouling up a field goal attempt, the Steelers' backfield coach, Dick Hoak, said, "Well, Wicky Wacky blew another one." Earlier this season Cincinnati beat Pittsburgh in a game that featured two Bengal goal-line stands in the fourth quarter. The next day a brief item in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was titled NO WICKY WACKY.
Wyche survived because Paul Brown and his son, Mike, who run the Bengals, are not the kind of people to be stampeded by popular opinion. "I read where I was gone if we didn't beat Phoenix in our opener," says Wyche. "Hell, people said I had to win the Hall of Fame game to keep my job. Paul Brown went through some hell in Cleveland. He's a football person. He recognized the competence of our coaching staff. We'd been working for four years to get the team speed to where it could compete. We were almost there, and he could see it."
Wyche wasn't the only member of his family who suffered last season. Says his wife, Jane, "I used to try to get our daughter, Kerry, to sit with me in the special section. She'd say, 'No, I want to be downstairs with the people.' They'd yell stuff about Sam, and she and her brother, Zak, would yell back at them. Once she came up in tears. Someone had a nasty sign about Sam, and she tried to get him to take it down. The guy called her a slut—and worse. She was 14 years old, for gosh sakes."
Wyche's Tuesday press conferences became circuslike events. The media would needle him, and sooner or later he would say something spicy. WLW radio in Cincinnati would run a tape of the press conference in its entirety that same night. Fans couldn't wait. What was Wicky Wacky going to say now?
"I tried to shield myself from a lot of what was going on," says Wyche. "Our staff never worked harder than last year. Jane and I didn't go out much during the season. But I knew we weren't far from being a winner."