As Week 2 approaches, the Bengals get a shot at the division foe Baltimore Ravens on Thursday Night Football. Aside from celebrating football back in the Queen City, we celebrate one of the greatest teams in franchise history.
Coming off an abysmal, strike-shortened, 4-11 season in 1987 where the Bengals finished last in the AFC Central, emotions were high and tempers flared, especially between emotional head coach Sam Wyche and quarterback Boomer Esiason.
Heading into his fourth season Wyche wasn’t quiet on his disputes with the quarterback as it had started back when Esiason was drafted in the second round in 1984. If things were going to turn around, change needed to happen, and that it did.
Out of the Woods in the Draft
The 1988 NFL Draft was a special one for Bengals’ fans, as in the second round the team selected a running back/fullback out of Nevada Las-Vegas in Elbert “Ickey” Woods. Falling into the second round (31st overall), Woods was immediately prized to form a strong backfield with running back James Brooks.
Woods and Brooks both had strong years but Woods broke out his rookie year with 1,066 yards rushing scoring 15 touchdowns. He also added 199 yards receiving on 21 catches en route to the rise of the “Ickey Shuffle” every time he scored. Brooks didn’t go away though as he also had 14 touchdowns on a combined 1,218 rushing and receiving yards. To this day, Woods holds around 30 Bengals franchise records and was voted to the Pro Bowl that same season.
Boomer Couldn’t Have Come Sooner
Technically the first quarterback selected in the 1984 draft out of Maryland, Esiason went under the radar and lower on the draft board than most experts thought (HOF QB Steve Young was selected first, but signed with a USFL Team). Esiason saw game action early as he took over the reigns as signal caller from Bengal great Ken Anderson in 1985 and never looked back.
During the 1988 season, Esiason was especially successful at running the “no huddle” offense that is used league-wide to this day and created by coach Wyche. Now in his fourth season, Esiason threw for 3,572 yards for 28 touchdowns and 14 interceptions along with 248 yards on the ground with a touchdown on 43 carries. En route to earning the NFL MVP award that season as the top passer in the league.
Who could Forget about these guys?
While Boomer and Ickey are definitely well-known Bengals, none could forget the presence of left tackle Anthony Muñoz. Arguably the most iconic Bengal ever, and the only one to have his number retired, Muñoz was an 8 time Pro Bowler at the time and was named offensive lineman of the year. Teaming up with right guard Max Montoya, also a fellow Pro Bowler, the offense led the league in many categories. Muñoz would go on to reach the Hall of Fame and continues to represent the Bengals off the field today.
Catching those passes from Esiason was Eddie Brown. Drafted in the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft by the Bengals, Brown proved to be a great addition. During the 1988 season, Brown finished with 1,273 yards receiving with 9 touchdowns on 54 receptions, easily being the top receiver on the team. Behind Brown, receiver Tim McGee and tight end Rodney Holman provided an excellent one-two punch, combining for 1,213 yards and 9 touchdowns on 75 receptions. Both were drafted by the Bengals in 1986 and 1982 respectively.
Not striking gold with the 49ers
The 1988 Bengals ended the season with a 12-4 record, with losses to the Oilers (now Titans), New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Division champs were able to defeat the Seattle Seahawks 21-13 in the divisional round and the Buffalo Bills 21-10 in the conference championship. Their Super Bowl opponent was a familiar one in the San Francisco 49ers, who the Bengals lost to in 1981 in their first trip.
Led by future HOF quarterback Joe Montana and future HOF wide receiver Jerry Rice, the 49ers were the favorites to win the game and were led by legendary coach Bill Walsh. Both teams battled and ended the first half with only a 3-3 tie, which became the first tie at halftime in the Super Bowl era. The Bengals broke it open in the third with their lone touchdown on a kickoff return by Stanford Jennings. Going into the fourth quarter the Bengals had a 13-6 lead.
The iconic catch
The 49ers managed to come within three trailing 16-13, and set up what was a memorable game winning drive. With just 3:10 left in the game, Montana led the team down the field and threw what is now an iconic touchdown pass to receiver John Taylor known as “the catch”. With just 34 seconds left, the time ran out on the Bengals’ championship hopes. While they didn’t win, this team became easily one of the best and most inventive in the league.
Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium, the 1988 team will be honored and be able to share their stories with Bengals fans alike. To celebrate their 30th anniversary, there will be videos, and a halftime celebration as well. The full list of names from that team can be found here.
Recognizing the greats of the past is going to be icing on the cake that is football back in the Queen City. While it didn’t end up in the Bengals’ favor, that team became legendary in more ways than one. Congratulations to the 1988 Bengals and welcome back!