For any quarterback vitally interested in enhancing his reputation with 72-point headlines and TV spots, there are more appropriate teams to command than the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom Ken Anderson, 26, has toiled in low-profiled excellence into his fifth—and thus far undefeated—season.
Other signal callers with less impressive passing credentials have earned more glowing tribute. Fran Tarkenton is lauded for his swashbuckling style, Joe Namath for his deadly arm and Ken Stabler for his regal grace under pressure. In contrast, Anderson has received the kind of acclaim usually reserved for a shoe salesman while enduring a myth that is none too flattering. Beyond the borders of the Queen City, he is merely the on-field extension of Paul Brown, who, after 44 seasons in the game, is still calling plays from the sideline.
The tactic has been unfairly bum-rapped since Brown, when anyone last thought to look, still has won more games than any of his peers, against whom he is now unleashing one of the most complex—and most efficient—offenses in the NFL. Brown's sideline huddles, however, have diluted the esteem due Anderson for his exceptional performances.
"People think he's some kind of computerized, transistor robot," says Bill Walsh, the Bengals' quarterback coach, "but you watch him play and he finds ways to move the ball and to innovate with audibles. He creates opportunities. It's a mistake to assume he's just basically taking orders and complying with them."
Ironically, Anderson's pinpoint passing is at least partly to blame for the transistor theory, since his completion rate and his low yield of interceptions reflect an accuracy that seems more programmed than practiced. Last season, as almost no one but readers of the NFL guide will recall, Anderson won the passing championship by completing 213 of 328 tosses for 2,667 yards and 18 touchdowns. Along the way he suffered only 10 interceptions, the fewest by any starting quarterback over a full season. It was the third straight year he had posted the lowest percentage of interceptions. This season, with the Bengals off to their finest start after beating Cleveland, New Orleans, Houston and, last Sunday, New England, Anderson has completed 69 of 108 tosses for 965 yards and eight touchdowns, with only one interception.
"At the moment," says Walsh, "I would say that he's the most effective quarterback over a 14-game season. I think Namath's the greatest quarterback in a given game to beat a team that has to be beaten, but Kenny—from the standpoint of 14 games, staying power against the rush, efficiency and everything that goes with it—is the best."
If so, few expected as much when Anderson came to the Bengals as the team's third-round draft choice in 1971. For one thing, he had gone to tiny Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. which was not exactly in the habit of scheduling Notre Dame. Anderson entered Augustana on a basketball scholarship but received most of his grant-in-aid through a federal program assisting exceptional math students.
"My son Pete heard about Anderson through some good reports from our scouts," Brown says, "but you rarely give much attention to that caliber of competition because it's such a tremendous jump." Brown, however, sent Walsh to Augustana for a closer look, and when Walsh reported back in glowing terms, he decided to draft the youngster.
While Brown is impressed with Anderson's size (6'2�", 211) and speed (4.7 for the 40), he waxes warmest in discussing Anderson's intellect and his all-American-boy personality. "To begin with, he's extremely bright," Brown says. "And he's got common horse sense and good judgment. Every guy on the team likes him. He's their bell cow."
Brown adds, "And he's so well adjusted as a person. You know what his parents do? They take a vacation in July and they rent a lake cottage near Wilmington [where the Bengals hold training camp] and spend their days watching Kenny practice. That's really nice. It's Americana."