It was a story that flashed with inspirational touches. Quarterback Ken Anderson was an emotional wreck when the bell sounded for Round 1. He was booed and benched in the opener, and on the verge of being benched for the second game—until Gregg had a change of heart, mainly because the game was on the road against the Jets, and Jet fans don't have any boos to waste on visitors. When the first-round draft choice, Wide Receiver David Verser, was a bust, the position was saved by No. 2 pick Cris Collinsworth, the darling of the talk shows. The Bengals were 3-2 and shaky, but all of a sudden they went wild, winning seven of their next eight, averaging better than 32 points a game.
Then there was a sag—nothing really serious, but noticeable to a man like Gregg, who comes from the Lombardi School of Psychological Research. Could it be that his Bengals had peaked a bit early? They had blown out the Steelers (34-7), the Chargers (40-17) and the Broncos (38-21), but they were fiat in the Super Bowl. Who knows, if the Bengals had played that game with their midseason intensity, maybe they would have run the 49ers off the field before Bill Walsh had a chance to work his playbook magic. Thoughts for off-season afternoons.
Maybe this is mere nit-picking. Maybe the Bengals squeezed all they could out of the '81 season. Maybe now, with a year of championship-level play under their belts, they're ready to take it all. There's a stand-pat quality to the club; the improvements basically will come from within. Bobby Kemp and Bryan Hicks, the young safetymen who played surprisingly well last year, can only get better. Verser, they say, is now ready to make a definite contribution to a passing game that already has all the ingredients. Anderson, at 33, has an arm that's still as strong as any in the game, and now, after many years of scrambling, he's finally operating behind a line that knows how to protect him. He can still motor when he has to, though. Wide Receiver Isaac Curtis perhaps has lost a step or two, but he'll still make the circus catch on third-and-eight, and Tight End Dan Ross is coming off a 71-catch season and a record-breaking 11-reception performance in the Super Bowl. Gregg is still looking for a speed back as a change of pace to the big thumpers, Pete Johnson and Charles Alexander, but who isn't?
The pass rush was O.K., but Gregg would have liked more pressure on Joe Montana in the Super Bowl. So he devoted the first two draft picks to defensive linemen, Glen Collins and Emanuel Weaver. Various knee and ankle ailments limited their effectiveness in camp, and as the season begins they figure to be backups.
Some people are wondering whether Anderson can repeat his MVP season of '81, but there were a lot of years in which he performed at a level close to the best in the NFL and never got credit for it. Now he's got that Super Bowl hunger.
The 1981 season ended a dismal 5-11. The Kardiac Kids of '80 were only a dim memory, and rumors started that Sam Rutigliano, who had been such a gust of fresh air in the grim business of coaching, had better produce in '82 or else. As Quarterback Brian Sipe cleared out his locker after the final Sunday, he did a very uncharacteristic thing. He sounded off.
He talked about players falling asleep at meetings, about complacency. "Instead of looking around the front office for a scapegoat, the fans should look around the bars where the players were enjoying their 1980 prestige," he said.
At the time it seemed like nothing more than gloomy December talk, but the implications became a lot clearer later on, when a story came out that Charles White, a starting halfback, had entered a drug treatment center in California—and that Rutigliano had hired his old Brooklyn buddy Ted Chappell to fill the newly created post of security officer, presumably to monitor drug-abuse problems. Not that the Browns had more problems than anyone else, but in these highly sensitive times, a quick decline in a team's fortunes sets the gossips to work.
On the field the explanation seemed easier to understand. For two years the Browns had been a high-wire act. Games that could go either way ended as W's. Last year they were L's. Sipe had been the NFL's leading passer in '80, but he dropped to 22nd in '81. Gone was the quarterback coach, Jim Shofner ("The only real quarterback coach I ever had"), who had moved to Houston. The new man, Paul Hackett, bright and talented as he was, was a virgin in the NFL. Sipe took a tremendous physical beating. No longer could the offense carry a defense that had no rush, that got confused on its pass coverages.