Ken Anderson, the leading passer in Cincinnati Bengals history, has been recovering from back surgery at his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina, and he can’t move all that much.
But while he’s relaxing, he’s wearing his new “AFC Champions” hat.
“Oh yeah,” Anderson says proudly over the phone. “Once a Bengal, always a Bengal,”
The history of the Bengals has been told often, and it’s told wrong according to some of the men who have passed through that franchise. Yes, the 1990s were miserable. Yes, a playoff win escaped them for a long time. But for all of the jokes about the Bengals through the years, they insist it isn’t that bad.
And then the 2021 season happened. The Bengals came on late in the season with charismatic second-year quarterback Joe Burrow and won the AFC North. Then they won their first playoff game since January of 1991. Then an upset of the No. 1 seed Tennessee Titans and a comeback win for the ages to beat the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game.
A win over the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LVI would be remarkable and historic in many ways. For the old Bengals and their fans, it means putting the jokes behind them forever.
“Then that damn word ‘Bungles’ can be retired,” said Willie Anderson, a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist who played offensive tackle for the Bengals from 1996-2007. “That s*** got so old.”
Bengals made two Super Bowls in 1980s
Early on, the Bengals were fine. Their first coach was the great Paul Brown. Bill Walsh was their offensive coordinator and invented the West Coast Offense to cater to quarterback Virgil Carter’s below-average arm, and in that 1970 season the Bengals made NFL history by going from a 1-6 start to the playoffs.
Ken Anderson took over as the starting quarterback in 1972 and had a career many think should get him into the Hall of Fame. The Bengals made the Super Bowl at the end of the 1981 season and lost 26-21 to the San Francisco 49ers after turning the ball over four times. They made it again at the end of the 1988 season and lost to the 49ers in the final minute.
“That dog-gone Joe Montana,” Ken Anderson jokes.
Had either of those Super Bowls gone Cincinnati’s way, we’d view the Bengals differently.
“No question about that,” Ken Anderson said.
But through about two decades of Bengals football, it really wasn’t that bad. There were ups and downs, but certainly nothing worth the constant jokes that would come later. That started in the 1990s.
Bengals slip in 1990s
The Bengals were slow to adjust in the 1990s. Free agency started and the Bengals weren’t spenders. The facilities, including Riverfront Stadium, got outdated in a hurry as the NFL business started blowing up. The great core of the 1980s got old and retired, and the team missed on some high draft picks like Ki-Jana Carter, David Klingler and Akili Smith.
From 1991-2002 the Bengals never had a winning season. They lost at least 10 games in nine of 12 seasons. That’s when “Bungles” was born.
“They had great teams in the 1980s,” said Dave Shula, who got the Bengals head coaching job in 1992 and was fired during the 1996 season with a 19-52 record. “Those guys were aging out and we didn’t do a good job replacing them. Count myself as part of the issues too. We all had a hand in it.”
Ownership played a part. The Bengals of that era still tell old stories about how the team was behind the times.
“I remember saying goodbye to my wife for eight weeks straight to go scouting, because we had nobody in pro personnel,” said Shula, now the receivers coach at Dartmouth College. “I think they were slow to make that adjustment.”
Willie Anderson said he was recently joking with former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake about sending rookies to go get lunch because the team wasn’t feeding players at the facility, something that is common around the league. That era gave team owner Mike Brown a bad reputation that he still hasn’t shaken, though those who know him will defend him.
“The Bengals are everything to [the Brown family] and they put their heart and soul into it,” Shula said. “Owners are magnets for criticism anyway but people don’t know him or how well he takes care of his employees or how he lives and dies with the team and the pride he takes in it.”
It got undeniably bad. One of the low points was when Corey Dillon, upset with constant losing and hoping for a trade, threw his helmet, shoulder pads and cleats into the stands as he left the field in the team’s final home game of the 2003 season. He got his trade and won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots his first season there.
But even Dillon came back in 2017 for a 50th anniversary celebration of the franchise, and said “it was unbelievable,” according to Cincinnati.com. There’s a lot of pride among the old Bengals.
Bengals start a turnaround
Marvin Lewis gets a lot of heat for going 0-7 in the playoffs, but he started to change the Bengals. The facilities improved. They got a new stadium. Lewis led the Bengals to the playoffs seven times in his first 13 seasons as coach, and that’s not easy.
A new regime had a couple hard years but now the Bengals are in the Super Bowl. They have a bright future with Burrow and other exciting young stars like Ja’Marr Chase. There has been an outpouring of excitement from old Bengals on social media for this season’s team.
“These guys don’t have that baggage. They weren’t even born in ’91,” Ken Anderson said. “The fans have scar tissue but the players don’t.”
With one more win they can change a narrative about Bengals history the old players don’t think is fair.
“I just know how hard it is to be a Bengals player and I know how much that city cares,” Willie Anderson said. “They had to put up with so much bulls*** for years, people trashing their team. To see this happening for the city, for Mike Brown — who people trash, but I know the things he did to help his players behind the scenes — it would mean so much for people who stood the test of time with the Bengals. The players, the fans, Mike Brown, they’ve all heard so much trash talked about their team.
“I know how that city will explode if they win a damn Super Bowl. It would be something they’d remember forever. It makes me happy.”