No matter what team you cheer for, there is always that one season for that team that didn’t quite make it, but you still remember fondly. If you’re a Cleveland Browns fan, it’s probably the “Cardiac Kids” of 1980. If you are a Denver Broncos fan, it’s probably the 1977 “Orange Crush” Broncos. The list could go on and on. As a Cincinnati Bengals fan, that team would be the 1988 version of my beloved Bengals.
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The 1988 Bengals were one of the most innovative teams in NFL history! Sure the team is most known for the “Ickey Shuffle” or the name Riverfront Stadium was given: “The Jungle”. But if you look deeper into that magical season, you will find that, unlike other teams that came up a little short, the 1988 Bengals had an effect on the NFL that is still felt in the league even today. Admittedly, I am a Bengals fan, and my team often falls short of my expectations (one Super Bowl win, please!), so I need something to hold on to. Disagree with my “innovative” claim? Read the rest of this article. It may change your mind.
The 1988 Bengals season, probably their best, was preceded by what may have been their worst season in 1987. The Bengals entered 1987 with high hopes after finishing the 1986 season 10-6 and barely missing the playoffs. After beating the Indianapolis Colts 23-21 to begin the season, they hosted the San Francisco 49ers. With the Bengals leading 26-20 with six seconds left in the game and facing fourth down and long in their territory, Head Coach Sam Wyche decided to run a sweep to James Brooks in the hope that it would run the final six seconds off the clock. Unfortunately, Brooks ran a sweep left but was tackled with two seconds still on the clock. Joe Montana came on the field and promptly found Jerry Rice in the end zone for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown pass. To say that Wyche made a coaching error in that game would be a HUGE understatement! Couple that with the NFL strike, which started immediately after the game, and the Bengals would begin a tailspin that would last the rest of that season.
Let’s go back a little bit to the year 1986; beyond a 10-6 season that just missed the playoffs, the biggest thing that happened was the 1986 NFL draft. A lot of the 1988 Super Bowl team building was done during the 1986 NFL draft. The Bengals picked up six starters from the 1986 draft, including linebackers Joe Kelly and Leon White. The Defensive backfield added cornerback Lewis Billups and one of the greatest defensive players in Bengals history in safety David Fulcher. The defensive line added Jim Skow, an underrated defensive lineman whose best season was 1988. The Bengals added starting wide receiver Tim McGee, who went on to an excellent career with the Bengals.
Following the unfortunate 1987, most observers expected Bengals owner Paul Brown to fire Wyche, but Brown decided to keep Wyche and give him one more chance to right the ship. Bengals QB Boomer Esiason and Wyche, who had feuded throughout the 1987 season, reconciled before the 1988 season.
The 1988 season saw the Bengals come within seconds of winning the Super Bowl (Thank you, Joe Montana). And if you look closely at some of the reasons for their success, you will see some genuine innovations that significantly impacted the league and continue to do so to this day.
Boomer Esiason, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player of 1988 with the best QB rating in the league that season, led a no-huddle offense. This offense led the NFL in total yards (including passing and rushing individually) and points scored. The Bengals no-huddle offense wore defenses out and was so effective that one notable NFL head coach tried to outlaw it. Who was that head coach? Marv Levy’s Bills ran the “K-Gun”, an offense eerily similar to the Bengals no-huddle. What’s the old saying? “If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em!”
Because of the no-huddle, the NFL was forced to change several rules: If a player goes down injured, he must leave for the next play. Also, in a no-huddle situation, the defense can only substitute if the offense does.
In addition, the 1988 Bengals were one of the very first teams to use comprehensive zone-blocking scheme others had used it, but Bengals offensive line coach Jim McNally took it to an entirely different level.
Many people think the strength of this team was its passing game and Esiason, or the three talented running backs, Brooks, Woods and Wilson. The true power of this team was the offensive line led by the great Anthony Munoz. Add in great seasons by Bruce Kozerski, Bruce Reimers, Joe Walter, Max Montoya and Brian Blados, and you have one of the great offensive lines of all time.
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The 1988 Bengals not only shook things up on offense, but they were also innovative on defense as well.
The 1988 Bengals were the first to employ the Dick Lebeau zone blitz scheme. Today, Lebeau is more known as the former Defensive Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he became the Bengals’ Defensive Coordinator in 1984. The Lebeau-led Bengals finished 1988 regular season 6th in the NFL in interceptions and 9th in sacks. The Bengals turned it up a notch in the post-season by finishing 1st in interceptions and 2nd in sacks and points allowed per game.
Defensively the Bengals were led by underrated linebacker Reggie Williams and defensive tackle Tim Krumrie. The Bengals were a top-notch defense all year, especially in the playoffs. The question that has to be asked is, why did the Bengals not run the ball more in the Super Bowl? Why did the defense quit attacking and go into a shell in the last three minutes of the game? Why would emotional leader Reggie Williams not be in the game at the end of the previous drive? When you ask these questions go back to game 2 of the 1987 season, Wyche made a massive mistake at that time, and I contend Super Bowl XXIII was another Wyche blunder, and I will leave it at that.
Not many other teams in NFL history have been as innovative as the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals. Only Joe Montana prevented them from being considered one of the great teams. In the end, the Bengals will go down as a near-great team who missed a golden opportunity. To Bengals fans, they will go down as a team that on the field fought their asses off and had fun doing it. I have interviewed 15 players from this team over the last year, and when you talk about the 1988 season with them, you can tell how special it was to them. This team had players who loved playing together, which still shows that we could get the Bengals organization to honor them the way they should.
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