OLD SCHOOL: Bengals Visit Baltimore

Street Talk OLD SCHOOL: Bengals Visit Baltimore

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The Bengals come to Baltimore this Sunday to face the Ravens for the 12th time since the NFL returned in 1996. The Bengals played the Ravens twice at Memorial Stadium in 1996 and 1997 then began visiting M&T Bank Stadium in 1998. The Bengals also faced the Colts at Memorial Stadium in 5 contests from1970 to 1982. While every game played in the NFL has a degree of importance, by far their first visit here the day after Christmas in 1970 had more riding on that outcome then any of their other games played here in Baltimore.
The Bengals were founded by a group of Ohio businessmen headed by the man who also  started the Cleveland Browns in 1946, Paul Brown. Brown coached Cleveland from 1946 to 1962 winning three NFL championships. He sold his part ownership of the team to a group headed by Art Modell in 1961, but continued to coach the Browns. Inspired by a player revolt against coach Brown led by star player Jim Brown, Modell fired Paul Brown after the 1962 season. The players were frustrated by his military like coaching style and team rules.
Brown stayed out of football for a few years but was lured back in by Ohio Governor James Rhodes. Rhodes and Brown petitioned the AFL for an expansion team, the Cincinnati Bengals, which was granted to them to begin play in 1968. Paul Brown was majority owner, general manager and head coach.
They began playing in 1968 and while they were entertaining, keeping games close in 1969 with rookie quarterback Greg Cook, their record after 2 years was an expected 7-20-1. There was no free agency or salary cap, teams had to build with the draft or with discarded players from other teams. Expansion teams in the 1960’s had it much harder than the Jaguars and Panthers of the 90’s or the new Browns and Texans after that.
The Bengals began their third year as part of the new AFC. Formed by the NFL-AFL merger The AFC consisted of the 10 AFL teams and the NFL’s Colts, Browns, and Steelers who moved to form the new conference. The Bengals were placed in the Central division with Brown’s former team, Cleveland, the Houston Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Browns who had been to the NFL playoffs five of the previous six seasons were heavy favorites to win the division. The Bengals were only in their third year, the Oilers were .500 in 1969 but were aging and the Steelers were 1-13 the year before. It should have been easy for the Browns, and at first it was.
After seven weeks the Browns were 4-3, Steelers 3-4, Oilers 2-4-1, and the Bengals 1-6. Cincinnati averaged just fifteen points per game and they were going nowhere fast. To make matters worse for the Bengals, Paul Brown lost his grudge match to the Browns in Cleveland, 30-27 in their 4th game.
The Bengals had lost 1969 AFL rookie of the year quarterback Greg Cook to a shoulder injury. They had replaced him with third year journeyman Virgil Carter who had been with the Bears. Carter’s backup Sam Wyche was also in his third season. Their receivers were all young, wide receivers Chip Myers, Speedy Thomas and Eric Crabtree had just 7 years of NFL service among them. TE’s Bob Trumpy and Bruce Coselet were in their third and second years respectively. The running backs all had youth as well, Paul Robinson, Jess Phillips, and Essex Johnson all began their careers together in 1968 and were all in just their third season.
This entire offense began together in 1968 including their best offensive lineman, center Bob Johnson. Also joining Paul Brown in Cincinnati in 1968 was his innovative offensive coordinator whom he had hired away from Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders, Bill Walsh. Walsh was taught the vertical passing game by Davis but by having to work with mostly rookies and rejects on the Bengal offensive line in 1968, Walsh had to create a passing offense that featured shorter drops and faster releases by the quarterback to keep them from getting hit. His system had worked with Cook at quarterback in 1969, but after seven weeks of the 1970 season, Walsh was not able to duplicate his 1969 success.     
The Bengals had to travel to Buffalo for week 8 and while the young offense still could only produce 4 field goals and a Phillips touchdown run, the defense and special teams scored three touchdowns. Defensive end Royce Berry scored on a fumble recovery and rookie defensive back Lemar Parrish returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown and a blocked field goal 83 yards for a score.
The Bengals won 43-14, ending a six game losing streak. After that the Bengals went on another streak, winning their last six games. After Buffalo, they beat the Browns in Cincinnati 14-10, with Robinson scoring the winning touchdown on a one yard run. The following week they beat the Steelers 34-7 as Carter threw for 2 touchdowns in the 4th quarter. They beat the Saints, Chargers, and Oilers over the next three weeks and just needed to win the next week against the Boston Patriots to clinch the Central Division, taking it away from the fading Browns who would lose 4 of their last 7 games. 
Although starting quarterback Virgil Carter was injured early, his back up Sam Wyche threw 2 touchdown passes and ran for another as the Bengals raced to a  31-0 halftime lead on their way to a 45-7 victory over the Patriots and their first division crown in just their third year of existence. The expansion Cowboys and Vikings needed 7 and 8 years respectively to reach the playoffs. Brown and Walsh had built a playoff team in just three years using the draft and a precise short passing offense that averaged 34 points a game during their last 7 games.
The playoffs and the veteran Baltimore Colts were next.
The Colts came into the 1970 playoffs with a 11-2-1 record, best in the conference and they had John Unitas. Their defense was led by Mike Curtis, Bubba Smith, Ted Hendricks, Rick Volk, and Jerry Logan, a group mixed with veterans and younger players that was one of the best in the NFL. This was their first post season game since their loss to the Jets less than 2 years before in Super Bowl III.
The Colts were not going to allow themselves to be upset by another heavy underdog.
Saturday December 26, 1970 brought frigid temperatures and swirling winds to Baltimore. The Bengals arrived with a 7 game winning streak courtesy of a high scoring offense and a swagger of confidence. Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown and his eventual Hall of Fame offensive coordinator Bill Walsh wanted Carter to attack the Colts the same they did the rest of the AFC that year with their short passing game. 
This was the classic match up between a young up and coming team against an old veteran club. The old veteran won this game without breaking a sweat. Unitas drove the Colts to a score on their second drive ending with a 45 yard touchdown pass to Roy Jefferson. The next time they had the ball rookie Norm Bulaich, who finished with 125 yards rushing, led the Colts on a drive that ended with a 44 yard field goal by Jim O’Brien.
The Colts had a 10-0 lead at the half, that would be all they would need. Unitas passed sparingly yet he added  a 53 yard scoring toss to Eddie Hinton in the 4th quarter as the Colts shut out the Bengals 17-0 and advanced to the AFC championship the next week against the Raiders. Two weeks after defeating the Raiders they would win Super Bowl V, beating Dallas 16-13.
The Bengals were overwhelmed by the Colt defense. Their deepest penetration of the day was the Colts’ 42 yard line. Bengal kicker Horst Muhlmann had his forty nine yard field goal attempt blocked by linebacker Ray May, the closest the Bengals would get to scoring that day. The Colts’ defensive line consisting of Bubba Smith, Fred Miller, Billy Newsome, and Billy Ray Smith harassed Carter all day. He completed just 7 of twenty passes for 64 yards. The Bengal rushing game was held to 63 yards, while Cincinnati was held to just 7 first downs. Walsh’s offense had met their match that day.
Walsh would remain with the Bengals for five more seasons before heading to the Chargers in 1976 as offensive coordinator for one season. There he worked with 4th year quarterback Dan Fouts who had been the starter there on and off in his 4 years. After working with Walsh for that one year he was never a back up again. Walsh then coached at Stanford before coming back to the NFL as a head coach.
The Bengals had done the impossible in 1970 – reaching the playoffs in just their third year.
It seemed better days were ahead for them but it would take 11 more years for the Bengals to win an AFC Championship. By then Paul Brown had retired to the owner’s box and Walsh was in San Francisco with his short passing game made much more effective by the liberalized passing rule change in 1978.  That offense would later be nicknamed the “West Coast Offense.”  
Ironically when the Bengals did win the AFC championship in 1981 they faced Walsh in Super Bowl XVI, losing 26-21 and again in Super XXIII won again by the 49ers, 20-16.
The Bengals are still waiting for their first Super Bowl championship. Their first playoff game in franchise history and first visit to Baltimore was something the Bengals would like to forget since it placed an abrupt and disappointing exclamation point on an otherwise rewarding season in 1970.
Perhaps the Ravens can deliver a similar exclamation point this Sunday.
We can only hope so.

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Kurt Backert

About Kurt Backert

Kurt's passion for the game began in the 60's watching the Colts on TV and at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. He began following the statistics of not only his beloved Colts but also those of the Colts opponents, with a keen eye on Vince Lombardi's Packers. His thirst for and attention to statistical detail would eventually lead Kurt on a journey to the world of fantasy football in the late 1980's where he's captured more titles than John Wooden's UCLA Bruins   Kurt carries a distinction that no other fan of the NFL can boast about.  He is the reigning NFL National Trivia Champion and he credits his Dad for passing on such passion for the game, something Kurt also hopes to pass along to his 9-year-old son. More from Kurt Backert


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