After the Cincinnati Bengals surprised everyone, possibly excluding themselves, by winning their first three games, Coach Paul Brown said, "We're young and exuberant and we don't know any better." They are now a little bit older, a little bit wiser. Last Saturday night they lost a battle to the seasoned San Diego Chargers but they took a long step forward in the pro football war. The Chargers, a club bountifully supplied on offense, beat the Bengals 21-14 in San Diego Stadium, Brad Hubbert scoring all three Charger touchdowns, and they certainly deserved their victory. San Diego had lost to Cincinnati 34-20 just two weeks earlier, but this time it played with cold ferocity and with few lapses and it is a team to be reckoned with the rest of the season.
The Bengals, on the other hand, played with youthful abandon and zest and with the tendency of the young to err. It is extremely doubtful that they will win the AFL Western Division championship this year, but Coach Brown's kids will certainly be a force in the '70s, when the AFL and the NFL merge and Cincinnati is in a division with Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Houston.
If Greg Cook, Cincinnati's dandy rookie quarterback, had been able to play the Bengals might have won. Sam Wyche replaced Cook, who has a bruised right arm, and Wyche isn't as accurate a passer or as elusive a target for on-rushing linemen and linebackers. Moreover, he hurt his right knee early in the game and couldn't set up properly or drop back with any facility. The Charger defenders caught Wyche six times attempting to pass and frequently harassed him into inaccuracy.
He completed only seven of 18, including a 62-yard touchdown pass to Bob Trumpy, whose wife thought he had been drafted by the Cincinnati Bagels. Wyche is a rather modest young man, and following the game he said, "You know, Greg has a kind of charisma that I don't have and he lifts the team. There had to be some doubt about my ability, and if there is doubt, then the team suffers."
Rick Redman, the five-year veteran who plays middle linebacker for the Chargers, confirmed Wyche's self-appraisal. "But I think we would have beaten them even if Cook had played," he said. "We were really ready and we made some defensive adjustments I can't tell you about that helped us in our coverage. But there's a difference in Cincinnati with Cook and without him. When they come out on a third-down play with Cook at quarterback they exude confidence. Tonight they didn't."
Wyche, who played two good games for the Bengals last year before being sidelined with a broken ankle, was not only bedeviled by the Charger rush, he was bemused by a sophisticated approach to the rush. Early on the Chargers blitzed often, their outside linebackers coming in hard. Pete Barnes, barreling in from his right linebacker spot, often overpowered the back who was supposed to pick him up and once or twice came in free. "They got blitz-conscious," Redman said. "Then we'd fake the blitz and make them keep the backs in to protect and then we'd drop off. That cut down on the number of receivers they had downfield and made the coverage easier."
Even so, the Bengals had opportunities to put the game out of reach and failed to capitalize on them. If there was one play that was to cost them the game it came early in the first period. Cincinnati had received the kickoff and moved for a touchdown in a splendid four-play burst. The big play here was a sweep by Fullback Jess Phillips that carried for 49 yards to the San Diego 26-yard line. Phillips caught the Charger line slanting the wrong way, with the linebackers clogged up in the middle, cut to the sideline and was almost gone. On the next down, Wyche completed a 10-yard pass, then called (or, rather, Paul Brown called) a bit of razzle-dazzle. The play was a reverse to wispy Wide Receiver Speedy Thomas coming to the left from his spread position. Thomas took the ball with most of the Charger defense running the opposite way and went 16 unmolested yards for the touchdown.
On the following kickoff the Bengals recovered a fumble on the Charger 35 and appeared ready to move in for the touchdown that would put them 14 points ahead and the Chargers in the position of having to play catch-up. But the defects of youth caught up with them. With third down and two to go at the Charger 27, Wyche (and/or Brown) called a play that had Phillips faking into the line and Paul Robinson, last year's AFL Rookie of the Year, taking a hand-off wide for a sweep. Phillips hit the wrong hole so that Wyche couldn't fake the hand-off, and a looping Charger lineman hit Wyche as he reached desperately for Robinson. The ball smacked Robinson on the hip, fell free and Charger Linebacker Jeff Staggs pounced on it and ran it to the Bengal 39. The Chargers went on in to score and tie up the game. And, mixing the passing of John Hadl with the running of stumpy Dickie Post and the 230-pound Hubbert (whose three touchdowns by rushing set a San Diego single-game record), they went on to win. "I just felt loose and easy and I went," said Hubbert, who had a knee operation last season. "I just had that good feeling."
So did John Hadl. "I'm glad we're through with Cincinnati," he said after the game. "Expansion team or whatever, they're too tough. They have a hellacious defense."
The feelings of the two teams before the game offered a marked contrast. The Bengals, notably relaxed and too young to realize that they weren't supposed to be 3 and 0 against veteran competition, weren't impressed by San Diego. Possibly the only member of the Bengal organization who was aware of how unlikely their accomplishment really was was wise old Paul Brown.