What a Time to Be a Bengals Fan

Cincinnati might finally be joining the NFL’s grownups table, which could boost Ken Anderson and Ken Riley toward well-deserved Hall of Fame membership.

After years of being the lone remaining mom & pop shop on Main Street, the Cincinnati Bengals are finally joining NFL Inc. An indoor facility is at last in the offing. A remodeling or refurbishment of Paul Brown Stadium seems imminent. The team introduced some sweet white tiger helmets to be used as an alt-uniform in 2022. And now they’re even talking about selling naming rights to PBS.

I must admit to mixed emotions here. I loved the fact that the Bengals actually recognized the sanctity of stadium names and didn’t feel compelled to chase every last dollar granting some dopey bank or crypto scammers the right to pollute Paul Brown’s memory. But the Brown family needs the liquidity. Not only do they have the aforementioned expenditures coming down the pipeline, there is the specter of fat contract extensions for Tee Higgins, Ja’Marr Chase, and of course Joe Burrow. In order to keep the team we all love together, they need some extra dough. If that means Skyline gets to put a chili bowl atop the stadium for a few years, it’s a small price to pay in the big picture.

That reminds me: Skyline treats my intestinal tract like defensive ends have treated Joey B. over the last couple of seasons. Speaking of the franchise quarterback and innards, perhaps the team can raise some cash by selling off Burrow’s appendix, which he had to have excised this week. I bet it’s worth more on the open market than stadium naming rights….

The hysteria over this innocuous surgery shows just how much Burrow means to Cincinnati as he enters his third season. Unlike many quarterbacks around the NFL, there is 100 percent certainty in extending the franchise QB in these parts. Since there is no doubt about motivation, the team is best served getting a contract in place sooner rather than later. The price will only go up, and no one cares to see any hardball negotiations with Burrow in the manner of Jessie Bates, who at the moment is holding out from summer camp. No one doubts he’ll come back to play on the franchise tag and take its “measly” $12.9 million payday, but it just goes to show that the Bengals need to take care of their core players before things get nasty.

In non-mercantile news, several former Bengals greats are in line for some pretty amazing honors. Two players have been added to the new Ring of Honor, introduced last season and the source of much good karma. Willie Anderson, aka “Big Willie,” is among the great right tackles ever to lace ’em up, as adroit in stuffing elite pass rushers as he was paving the way for running backs like Corey Dillon and Rudi Johnson. He’s a no-brainer, probably the franchise’s second-greatest offensive lineman ever.

The other name was a bit of a surprise, though hardly undeserving. Isaac Curtis was the first in a long, long line of great Bengals wideouts, the forerunner to Brown, Collinsworth, Pickens, Johnson, Green, and Chase. Ike was super speedy and kept that swiftness through 15 seasons, an eternity for a wide receiver. He also had huge and strong hands. Defenses used to be able to maul wideouts downfield, but Paul Brown had many of those laws changed when he got a hold of the original Ocho Cinco. The “Isaac Curtis Rules” helped open the game up to a more exciting attacking approach.

Honoring those two in Cincinnati is easy enough; ensuring that some more Bengals all-timers get the ultimate honor is trickier. The overarching question is whether Anthony Munoz, the lone Bengals player to be enshrined in Canton, will at last get some company in the NFL Hall of Fame. The two Kens (Anderson and Riley) have made it to the final 12 players to be considered by the Hall of Fame’s Seniors Committee. That is one hurdle to clear, but there are many more to come. On August 16, the dozen-member Seniors Committee of electors will chop it up, with one member talking up a player in detail. Three players will emerge from this process to be included in the big show, the induction meeting of the 49-member Selection Committee. The three survivors will be thrown in with the regular candidates who have been winnowed down for receiving a gold jacket. Any or all three could be inducted in early 2023.

Obviously, it goes without saying that Anderson and Riley are overdue for Canton. There are some other greats in the final senior dozen: Tommy Nobis, the first Falcon great; Randy Gradishar, the Broncos linebacker; Sterling Sharpe, Green Bay’s tremendous receiver; and more.

Anderson is the lone quarterback up for consideration, which gives him a bit of an advantage. Leaving aside what he’s meant to the city of Cincinnati, just by dint of his numbers Anderson should be in the HOF. Passing yards leader in 1974 and 1975, MVP in 1981, four-time Pro Bowler when that actually meant something … you know the big stuff. He made his bones throwing the ball when the NFL was still a running league. With his accuracy (he completed 70.6 percent of his passes in the strike-shortened 1982 season) he would have fit perfectly into modern football. Playing before one’s time shouldn’t be the seawall keeping someone out of the Hall.

According to the Hall of Fame Monitor at Pro Football Reference, a metric that assesses a player’s candidacy based on numerous factors (including stats, awards, titles, and more) Anderson should already be in Canton. He has the highest rating of any eligible quarterback and is 21st overall. Players rated lower than Kenny include Joe Namath, Ken Stabler, Bob Griese, and Troy Aikman, all of whom were inducted. His weighted Approximate Value is 120, above the average Hall of Fame QB’s number and well above the likes of Len Dawson, Terry Bradshaw, and even Johnny Unitas.

As for Riley, his case is even more stark. No one has more career interceptions (65) who hasn’t already been enshrined. The man nicknamed “The Rattler” for his Florida A&M days shut down the right side of the field for 15 seasons in Cincinnati. In a Tom Brady-like twist, his final season in 1983 at age 36 might have been his best, with eight interceptions and a First-Team All-Pro nod. And his weighted AV (96) is right in the Induction Zone, just ahead of Hall of Famers Willie Wood and Ken Houston (and also Lemar Parrish, Riley’s longtime opposite corner).

Of course, both Kennys are hurt by being Bengals. They had no wild-card access during multiple seasons when Cincinnati would have at least made the playoffs under modern circumstances. They operated in the tremendous shadow of the Steelers, whose contemporary teams when Riley played put 25 players in Canton. And the relentless losing of the Lost Decade really put the kibosh on Cincinnati’s league-wide profile.

But this is a different (who) dey. With Burrow at the helm, the Bengals have a chance to become a national team—maybe for the first time ever. Every arrow is pointed up. Getting one or both of the Kennys into Canton would just be further proof.

Robert Weintraub heads up Bengals coverage for Cincinnati Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. Follow him on Twitter at @robwein.

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