SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS

Welcome to the second greatest turnaround in the history of the NFL…well next to the 1999 St. Louis Rams. Again…the question has to be asked: Can a team change its stripes?? From 4-11 in 1987 to 12-4 and :34 seconds away from winning the Super Bowl…wow!! You have to realize this is before free agency where a star could be bought and brought in.

bengals headerThis team was led by a genius named Sam Wyche, easily one of my favorite coaches ever. And right before you scoff “He didn’t win a Super Bowl”. Don’t forget he was quarterback coach with a glistening Super Bowl XVI ring for coaching Joe Montana, ironically against the Cincinnati Bengals some 6 yrs earlier. So Sam Wyche is/was Bill Walsh the 2nd and I’ll explain.

Paul Brown owned and coached the Cincinnati Bengals and had Bill Walsh as his Offensive Coordinator, and Wyche was the heady backup quarterback. When Brown failed to make Walsh his successor he lost Wyche who joined Walsh in San Francisco and ironically they beat the Bengals in the Super Bowl. Having been burned by not hiring his protégé’ and losing to him taught him a lesson. The next time Brown needed a coach he tapped into the Bengals past and brought back Sam Wyche, who had a keen offensive mind and unconventional ideas. So what turnaround am I speaking of?

Let’s take you back to 1987, where the Bengals had failed to live up to unfulfilled promise since Super Bowl XVI. They came close to making the playoffs in 1984 and 1986 yet failed to win on tie breakers in the last game of the season. Especially in 1986 when they drubbed the playoff bound Jets 52-21 in the finale. The Bengals went into ’87 with serious optimism yet kept being plagued with bizarre losses where the mistakes were blamed on their unconventional coach.

The most notable was in week 2, when beating the 49ers and Bill Walsh of all people, elected to run a play on 4th down rather than risk a punt block with 6 seconds left. Kevin Fagan (from the U) charged in and stopped James Brooks with 2 seconds to go. Montana hit Rice for a touchdown on the last play of the game. The 27-26 loss to San Francisco in Cincinnati cast a pall on the entire (4-11) 1987 season. Many losses when the unconventional coach had plays backfire in the 4th quarter earned the Bengals coach a nickname –“Wicky Wacky” Wyche and the team was the laughingstock of the league with reports that Wyche would be fired. He held on barely…

bengal sideEnter 1988, the mantra coined by Sam Wyche was ‘finish everything’, alluding to the 4th quarter collapses that doomed 6 Bengal games the year before. The draft brought a very important player…the talented and infectious Elbert “Ickey” Woods who teamed with James Brooks to help push the Bengals to the #1 offense in the NFL. More than anything, his touchdown dance “The Ickey Shuffle” and his personality changed the team chemistry from the doldrums of the year before.

Woods rushed for 1000 yards and 15 TDs. “Boomer” Esiason went on to be league MVP and his receivers Eddie Brown (The U) Tim McGhee and Cris Collinsworth were as effective as any trio in the league. Operating out of their “sugar huddle” and keeping opposing teams defensive specialists off the field, Cincinnati exploited mismatches to pile up points. They were the first team to play with a “no huddle” attack. On defense DT Tim Krumrie, OLB Reggie Williams, and SS David Fulcher were the undisputed leaders of an opportunistic defense. Throw in CB Eric Thomas, who made the Pro Bowl in ’88 and the late Lewis Billups made up a superior secondary along with FS and present NFL Network analyst Solomon Wilcots.

The team went from being a laughingstock to a 6-0 start and the league was reluctant to let go of the pigeonholed way they viewed both Coach Wyche and the team. Everyone was waiting for the Cleveland Browns and the Dawg Defense to overcome the injury to Bernie Kosar and catch them…yet no one could. The Bengals blew no 4th quarter leads and by the time they got to the playoffs they still weren’t respected.

Coach Wyche and his team that was laughed at the year before had become the scourge of the league. So much so that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before Super Bowl XXIII ruled they weren’t allowed to run their “sugar huddle”. Why? Well because other measures were tried during the playoffs by Seattle faking injuries to get defensive replacements on the field. The Bengals still won 21-7 before besting Buffalo 21-10 in the AFC Championship.

Super Bowl XXIII, what a game? Would it have been a game had the Bengals not lost Stanley Wilson to a cocaine episode the night before the game? Would it have been a game if they could use their Sugar Huddle? Before you jump up and say no…don’t forget the ’88 49ers had a 6-5 record late in the season and only finished at 10-6 (worst record ever for a Super Bowl champion by the way) before getting hot in the playoffs. They were being held by a Bengal defense without a touchdown going into the 4th quarter.

bengals logoThat also includes losing Tim Krumrie to a severe broken leg in the 1st quarter. League against them, Niners against them…Stanford Jennings took back a kick 93 yards at the end of the 3rd quarter to give Cincy a 13-6 lead and they looked like they were going to be Super Bowl champs. Alas a Lewis Billups dropped interception on the following touchdown drive led to the 49ers scoring on the next play and eventually the game winning drive with :34 seconds left to play.

For the rest of my days I’ll forever believe Pete Rozelle cheated the Bengals and altered how the game would have been disallowing the “sugar huddle” in the Super Bowl.

They were 34 seconds away….from erasing a history that they didn’t deserve. Yet they did win the 1988 AFC Championship and I applaud them for an olympian effort to force the league to give them a respect that was earned.

Warren Sapp Makes The Hall of Fame

Warren Sapp as a Miami [[_]] Hurricane!!

Warren Sapp as a Miami [[_]] Hurricane!!

When you think back to Tampa Bay’s Super Bow XXXVII win over the Oakland Raiders, you knew it was a win that was years in the making. It was born when Buccaneer coach Sam Wyche made two critical moves that solidified the franchise. The first thing he did was turn the organization into a defensive minded outfit, by signing free agent Middle Linebacker Hardy Nickerson as it’s  impenetrable core. This was the first year of NFL free agency in 1993 and this was where the Buccaneers re-invented themselves. Second was anointing Wyche’s assistant coach to Head Coach, Tony Dungy who selected Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the draft of 1995. Brooks was a slightly undersized linebacker from Florida St.  But Warren Sapp??

Twin draft pics in 1995 turned the fortune of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Twin draft pics in 1995 turned the fortune of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After a sterling career at the University of Miami, Sapp was in line to make an impact on the NFL when before the draft, a report was leaked that Sapp had failed drug tests which affected his status. Even though he was the Big East Defensive Players of the Year, an All American, and winner of both the Nagurski and Lombardi Awards, 11 teams passed on him on draft day. He was projected to go number 1 and fell to the “Yucs” at #12. You could see the disappointment in his face. The picture above was once they were in Tampa for the press conference.

Why the “Yucs”?? This team had been laughingstocks for most of their history up to that point. For 12 years, from 1983-1994 the team had double-digit losses.

What didn’t bode well for Warren Sapp that day was the fuel to what burned as motivation for Sapp the rest of his career. He started slowly but by his 2nd season, he made his presence felt with 51 tackles, 9 sacks and 1 forced fumble. Since he was one with a big mouth and part of the “in your face generation” that hit the NFL in the mid to late 90’s it took time to gain acceptance. He should have made the Pro Bowl in ’96 but the Buccaneers were 6-10 and still a loser.

Sapp was a larger than life defensive tackle that Tony Dungy built his defense around. Pictured here celebrating in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Sapp was a larger than life defensive tackle that Tony Dungy built his defense around. Pictured here celebrating in Super Bowl XXXVII.

All that changed in 1997 as the team rolled out to a 5-0 start. In the opener against San Francisco, they knocked out both Steve Young and Jerry Rice in a 13-6 win. Sapp had relentlessly been involved in both plays. He began the season on everyone’s radar with a 2 1/2 sack performance.  In a frightening display of power and speed, Warren and the Bucs in their new uniforms showed a new day was dawning in Tampa.

They had throttled an offense that had been one of the NFL’s best for two decades and knocked Jerry Rice out for the season. Those two points alone had NFL shows talking about the 49ers, the Bucs, and especially Warren Sapp. No longer was he just one for on-field antics that made a few defensive plays, he was maturing into the best interior lineman in football. In ’97 he finished with 58 tackles, 10 1/2 sacks along with 3 forced fumbles and 1 recovery. They finished with a 10-6 record and a defensive ranking of #3.  Earning Tampa its first playoff berth in 14 years.

After defeating the Lions for their first playoff win since 1979, they made the pilgrimmage to Lambeau Field for a divisional playoff against the defending Super bowl Champion Packers.  Many weren’t taking the Bucs too serious. You have to understand the stigma they were trying to shed. Further evidence was the fact that 5 of their 6 losses had come from within the NFC Central. Sure they beat an inconsistent Detroit in the Wild Card 20-10. Many thought the Bucs would be happy just getting to the divisional round. Where Favre, White, Joyner and company were eyeing back to back championships and should plow through the neophyte Bucs. Besides, it would be 27* and Tampa hadn’t won a game where it was under 40* ever.

Sapp chases down Favre for one of his 3 sacks in the 1998 NFC Divisional Playoff in Lambeau.

Sapp chases down Favre for one of his 3 sacks in the 1998 NFC Divisional Playoff in Lambeau.

What took place on a dreary day in Green Bay was a young Lion standing toe to toe with an old warrior for 60 brutal minutes of football. In the signature game that defined his career, Sapp was all over Brett Favre and the Packer offense. He amassed 3 sacks and a fumble recovery. After each time he stopped a running play or harassed Favre, the two talked trash to each other and a national television audience witnessed the coming of the Bucs.

Inspired by Sapp’s lead by example, the Bucs, who had fallen behind 13-0, refused to be buried and began to believe they could win. Although they fell just 21-7, many saw a future champion in Tampa. On this day, he wrested the defensive leader mantle from Nickerson and placed it on himself. He was the face of the franchise and the entire off-season, his performance in that playoff loss to Green Bay seemed to be all people were talking about.

What we saw that day were two of the NFL’s best playing high stakes football as though it were being played in a backyard somewhere. The little brother Bucs led by Warren passionately jawing and playing with the favored big brother Packers led by Brett. Tony Dungy had tuned his team to the point they needed to catch and beat Green Bay in their growth as a club. So the playoff game was played like it was a Super Bowl.

In 1999, Sapp had the best season of his career. He was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year for his 41 tackle, 12 1/2 sacks, and 4 forced fumble performance. He led the Bucs back to the NFL playoffs, this time making it to the NFC Championship Game. Although an 11-6 loss to the Rams kept them from Super Bowl glory, Sapp led his team there at the conclusion of the 2002 season.

The calm before the storm before Super Bowl XXXVII.

The calm before the Super Bowl XXXVII storm. Tampa won 48-21. The Raiders never knew what hit them.

The victory in Super Bowl XXXVII validated many careers and vindicated one Warren Sapp. Eight years before he was embarrassed at the NFL draft amid rumors of drug use and having his character in question after his years in Miami. To some they still saw him as a big-mouthed player that was more show than substance. That Super Bowl victory made them have to acknowledge him as a champion. Critics had to give him his due as the best “three” technique defensive tackle of his time.

300_110727For his career he amassed 573 tackles, 96 1/2 sacks, 19 forced fumbles, 12 recoveries, and 4 interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.  Since the NFL is about sack totals for most pundits, he’s second only behind former Viking and Hall of Fame member John Randle. Whom he played with many times in Hawai’i where he made 7 trips to the Pro Bowl. Sapp wanted to be remembered like a Joe Greene. A true giant of the game.

Right after Super Bowl XXXVII, Sapp said we had to put his Bucs up there with the greatest defenses to play in the NFL. Can that point be argued??

  • ’85 Chicago Bears – #1 defense / allowed 258.4 yards per game /allowed 198 points for the season / 64 sacks / 34 ints / scored 6 TDs defensively
  • ’00 Baltimore Ravens -#2 defense / allowed 247.9 yards per game /allowed 165 points for the season / 43 sacks /23 ints/  1TD scored defensively
  • ’02 Tampa Buccaneers – #1 defense / allowed 252.8 yards per game / allowed 196 points for the season / 43 sacks/ 31 ints /scored 5TDs defensively
  • ’78 Pittsburgh Steelers – #3 defense / allowed 260.5 yards per game /allowed 198 points for the season/  / 27 ints /1 TD scored defensively

On second thought an argument can be made for the 2002 Tampa By defense as among the best of the Super Bowl era. One point that can’t be is the selection of Warren Sapp as a Hall of Famer.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, from The [[_]], Warren Sapp aka QB Killa

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Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

Taylor Blitz Times new logo!!

’88 Cincinnati Bengals: What Is A Champion?? What Does One Look Like??

1988 AFC Championship Ring: Bengals 21-10 over Buffalo

Are you a champion only because you won the championship over your competition? Can there be another definition for one?? Are you to tell me that before 1985, Walter Payton wasn’t a champion? I remember Aeneas Williams firing up his Arizona Cardinals sometime around 1999, when he gathered his team and said “Champions aren’t born in the ring, they’re (only) recognized there”.  Why do I ask these questions, I think there are other definitions of a champion.  To show a champion’s will to win.  To not concede to the onslaught of another team even when you’re hopelessly behind. The greatest efforts of championship teams gone by weren’t games they won they were games that they lost.

On multiple occasions I heard Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman, and Emmitt Smith speak with the most pride on how they handled the ’94 NFC Championship Game.  They fell behind 21-0 in the last game before trying for the elusive Super Bowl 3-peat. Against the 1993 Pro Bowl defense (6 defensive signees) geared to stop them they fought on and came within a controversial call of coming back in that game, losing 38-28.

Jack Lambert and the Late Art Rooney Sr. spoke reverently of their beloved 1976 Steelers who did not win the Super Bowl.  This defense was the reason that the rule changes of ’78 took place to open the passing game. In an 8 game stretch to finish the ’76 season, the Steelers gave up only 28 points and shut out 5 of their last 8 opponents to catch the Bengals and make the playoffs. They lost in the AFC Championship Game to the Oakland Raiders 24-7 because BOTH Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, who each rushed for 1,000 yards in ’76, missed the championship game. Many including the Steelers themselves hold this team with a greater degree of pride than the 4 teams that did win it.

What are we getting at here? A champion is defined by the magnificence of their effort no matter the odds.  Our society loses sight of this from time to time.  Please don’t misunderstand this as though winning it all isn’t the ultimate, just saying that there are even greater stories of those who put in a monumental effort only to come up a tad short.  Yet they maximized all they could give…which is what we all teach to kids all over. Give all you can and that is all you can do… so without further adieu we bring you a story of one of those great champions in the 1988 Cincinnati Bengals.

SUPER BOWL XXIII RUNNER UP 1988 CINCINNATI BENGALS <————-CLICK LINK (Word 2007 Document)

This story is from an upcoming book.

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**TOMORROW’S ARTICLE: 2011 Minnesota Vikings preview**