In 1975 the Cincinnati Bengals finished with an 11-3 record and for the third time in their eight-year history qualified for the playoffs. In those days no team in the NFL seemed to have a brighter future than Cincinnati. Not only were most of the players on that good '75 squad pretty young, but in the ensuing four drafts the Bengals would have nine first-round picks, more than any other NFL franchise. But somehow Cincinnati has bungled an extraordinary opportunity to build a dynasty. After narrowly missing the playoffs in 1976 and 1977 with 10-4 and 8-6 records, respectively, the Bengals dropped to 4-12 last season and settled in the cellar of the AFC Central. And this season they have lost seven of their first nine games, with one of the two victories being last Sunday's 37-13 defeat of Philadelphia at Riverfront Stadium.
"The biggest surprise of the 1979 NFL season is the Cincinnati Bengals," says Paul Brown, the team's part-owner and general manager. "I thought that we were going to be a pretty good football team."
You're not alone, Paul.
Brown coached the Bengals in their first eight seasons. He retired a few days after Cincinnati's 31-28 playoff loss to Oakland in 1975, confident that "I had nothing more to prove." In his 41 years of coaching, Brown, who is now 71, had introduced just about everything to football but the ball itself. He didn't just fade away, though. While he no longer is visible on the sidelines, Brown remains in full control of the Bengals, and now that his team's fortunes are flagging, more and more Cincinnati fans are pointing accusing fingers at the old master. As a coach, they thought Brown could reach Riverfront Stadium by walking on the river. As a general manager, they are beginning to suspect that he is all wet.
When the The Cincinnati Enquirer recently asked its readers, "What's wrong with the Bengals?" more than one-third of the respondents placed the blame squarely on Brown. Or on "management." In Cincinnati, management is a synonym for the Brown family; Paul's 43-year-old son Mike is the assistant general manager, and his 35-year-old son Pete is the director of player personnel. Management was also the guilty party in the eyes of The Cincinnati Post, which ran a four-part series on the workings of the Dallas Cowboys in an attempt to answer the question: "What makes one a championship organization, the other mediocre?"
Whatever blame the front office must accept for the Bengals' failures, another reason for Cincinnati's dismal performance has been the injuries suffered by Quarterback Ken Anderson, who was the NFL's No. 1 passer in the glory season of '75. He missed the first four games of the '78 season with a broken bone in his right hand and was ineffective thereafter, and he has missed two games this year with a back injury. Also, wide receivers Isaac Curtis and Billy Brooks have both been hampered by leg miseries.
Moreover, Cincinnati has a fearsome schedule. It has already lost to four of last year's playoff teams—Denver, New England, Houston and Dallas. But the Bengals also were walloped by lowly Buffalo, 51-24. After that game, Defensive End Gary Burley muttered, "I'm sitting here waiting for a wake-up call. I must be dreaming."
Around Cincinnati there is a feeling that the Bengals wasted many of those nine first-round picks on players of the sort the Brown clan prefers, that is, neither flamboyant nor disruptive. Says one Cincinnatian, "The Bengals need some players who can speak only in one-or two-syllable words, eat bananas and have to be chained to the bench." Other critics call for more intensity from Coach Homer Rice, a pleasant, low-key fellow who grew up in the Cincinnati area and also coached high school and college ball there. Rice wears a business suit on the sideline, "as though," one indignant fan says, "the game were a stopover before a cocktail party."
Brown is even under attack from some of his ex-players, the most vocal being retired Tight End Bob Trumpy, who hosts a local radio show and also serves as an analyst on NBC-TV football broadcasts. Trumpy's constant barbs have pierced the thin-skinned Bengal management; they also apparently cost him his job as a commentator on telecasts of Bengal preseason games. He is no longer allowed on Cincinnati's charter flights, a courtesy extended to most of the area's sports media. "On one occasion they told me there were no seats available," says Trumpy, "but they had a 135-seat plane and a traveling party of only 95. I don't occupy 40 seats." Still, Trumpy is quick to point out, "I respect Paul Brown. In fact, he may be the only person who can save this team, but he can only do it on the sidelines."
There are many ideas on how the Bengals might solve their problems. Trumpy's faith in Brown's coaching ability is the cornerstone of one, which could be called the Heal Thyself theory. It traces its origins to New Year's Day 1976, when Brown retired and named Offensive Line Coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson as his successor. Shortly thereafter Bill Walsh, Cincinnati's receiver and quarterback coach, disappointed at not getting the head job, packed up all his cares and woes and moved West. Under Walsh, now the San Francisco 49ers' coach, Cincinnati had the most dynamic pass offense in football in 1975. "We suffered a triple loss that day," says Trumpy. "We lost our best teacher in Johnson; as head coach, he had to be an administrator. We lost a great offensive innovator in Walsh. And perhaps most important, we lost the aura of Paul Brown on our sidelines."