Photoillustration by Gluekit
The 1988 season for the Cincinnati Bengals still resonates powerfully in the Queen City. Rising from the ashes of a disastrous 1987 campaign, when a player’s strike helped ruin a promising team, the ’88 Bengals squad lived up to its enormous potential. Led by the bold gambits of head coach Sam Wyche, and employing state-of-the-art schemes on both sides of the ball—still very much part of today’s NFL—the Bengals became more than just an excellent football team. Quarterback Boomer Esiason lobbing bombs in the Jungle while Guns N’ Roses boomed out of the PA system, Ickey Woods shuffling after touchdowns, the offense eschewing huddles in order to keep opposing teams on their heels—they were pop culture icons. The team rolled to a division title, won home-field advantage for the playoffs, and battled their way to Super Bowl XXIII. But just when they seemed poised to deliver the first-ever football championship to Cincinnati, disaster struck on several fronts. The starting fullback suffered a shattering drug relapse on the eve of the game. The best defensive player suffered a horrendous injury early in the contest. And then, with the Bengals on the brink of victory, the great Joe Montana cemented his legacy by driving the San Francisco 49ers to a last-second win. Despite the disappointment of that final game, the team remains a visible and crucial part of the city’s fabric—as well as the NFL’s—more than 25 years later. This is the story of the ’88 Bengals in their own words.
Before the heights of 1988 came the depths of 1987, when the Bengals, consumed by labor issues and racial discord, stumbled to a 4–11 record. Head coach Sam Wyche tackled the problem head-on by strategically assigning roommates in training camp in order to reunite the team as they headed into a new season.
Sam Wyche (head coach, 1984–91): We had been divided by pro-union guys and pro-management guys.
Reggie Williams (linebacker, 1976–89, city councilman 1988-90): There was a definite disparity in how the players were being treated and paid that was racial in nature.
David Fulcher (strong safety, 1986–92): In our meeting rooms, the black guys were all on one side and the white guys were all on the other.
Sam Wyche: I just wanted to assign roommates for camp—offense with defense, white guys with black guys. You can go half a season without knowing your teammates unless they play your position. I tried to remedy that.
Reggie Williams: It did eliminate barriers. It was a very strong leadership mandate from Sam.
Sam Wyche: 1988 was year five of the no-huddle, and by then it was well-ingrained.
Anthony Muñoz (left tackle, 1980–92): We would run a 50-yard play and sprint up to the line while the defense was still breathing heavy. They would be totally discombobulated.
Sam Wyche: Other coaches—men I greatly respected—derided it, with one coach calling it “popcorn football.” I would ask them, “Where is it written that you have to caucus for 20 seconds between plays?” Of course they had no answer.
David Fulcher: The NFL was not ready for Sam Wyche.
Jim Anderson (running backs coach, 1984–2012): Everyone wants to be an innovator, but few had the courage Sam did to put new things out there to be ridiculed. He was a visionary, and no one had the guts to admit they took the no-huddle from Sam.
Sam Wyche: None of it would have worked without Boomer. He was a genius at certain elements, a total field general.
Anthony Muñoz: Boomer was one of the smartest guys I ever played with. He would work on play-action fakes all the time. Even when he kept the ball, he would bend over like he had just handed off.
Jim Anderson: Boomer was a magician with his hands. You can’t give him enough credit—he was the coach on the field. Everything that Tom Brady and Peyton Manning do today, Boomer was doing back then, and he seldom gets the credit for being way ahead of his time.
Ickey Woods (running back, 1988–91): When Boomer talked, you listened. At any given point, he could audible, and just a word or two would change the whole play. And we were going fast, so you had to be alert.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau came up with the “spinner” zone-blitz scheme to take advantage of a deep unit. The Bengals didn’t feature a dominant pass rusher, but they did have strong safety David Fulcher, a physical specimen few teams could handle.
David Fulcher: Dick utilized my size almost like a fifth linebacker. Offenses couldn’t block me, and Dick gave me the green light—which was an awesome feeling, to have a coach that great have the confidence in me to make plays.
Reggie Williams: Fulcher was so intimidating just standing there. He single-handedly forced opponents into certain formations, which we would then mess with by altering assignments.
Solomon Wilcots (cornerback, 1987–90): We couldn’t wait to get the game plan every week. Dick would name a blitz after you so you couldn’t say you didn’t know you were supposed to be coming. Everybody on the defense got sacks and picks because of the zone blitz.
The Bengals featured a tremendous offensive line anchored by Hall of Famer Muñoz and plenty of explosive skill players, including receivers Eddie Brown, Tim McGee, and Cris Collinsworth, tight end Rodney Holman, halfback James (“JB”) Brooks, troubled fullback Stanley Wilson, and a soon-to-be folk icon named Elbert “Ickey” Woods.
Ickey Woods: Stanley always told me to be prepared and ready to play. He got hurt against the Jets, and I stepped in. The rest was history.
David Fulcher: We always called the “Ickey Shuffle” the ugliest dance we’d ever seen.
Ickey Woods: It was before the fourth game of the season against Cleveland. I was sitting at home the night before, acting silly, and did a little dance. I said if I scored the next day this is what I’m gonna do. Sure enough, I did. [Cornerback] Rickey Dixon, our top draft pick, said it was “wack,” so I put some better steps to it.
Jim Anderson: Ickey certainly brought about changes—he was the first guy to be told by the NFL to move his celebration to the sideline. Maybe because it was the Bengals, the league never imagined it would be embraced nationally the way it was.
Ickey Woods: I always thought it was unfair, but that’s why they call it the No Fun League.
David Fulcher: As soon as he finished, the “SWAT Team” [the defensive backs] would twirl our fingers in the air—the “woo-woo,” Solomon Wilcots called it. It capped off the dance nicely.
Ickey Woods: If I had been on a losing team it wouldn’t have had the impact it had. Paul Brown told me he didn’t care for it much, but his wife loved it, so I could do it anytime I got the opportunity.
The team started the season 6–0, establishing itself as an AFC frontrunner.
Reggie Williams: In the first game of the season against Phoenix, we started the game with a goal-line stand and ended it with a goal-line stand. We turned them away on fourth down both times.
Solomon Wilcots: I knew we were good when we beat the Eagles in Philadelphia. They had Reggie White, Jerome Brown, Randall Cunningham, Mike Quick—just a really tough team, and it was like a heavyweight fight. They were saying all manner of things to Stanley, mostly drug-related, to get him out of his game. [Wilson had previously been suspended twice by the NFL for cocaine use.] But they didn’t know how tough Stanley was and he blew holes open on them all day.
The Bengals comfortably won the AFC Central division title, but were locked in a race for the no. 1 seed with Buffalo heading into the final weekend.
Solomon Wilcots: It came down to us needing a win in the last game against Washington to clinch home-field advantage for the playoffs. Of course, everything had to be done the hard way, so it went down to the end.
Anthony Muñoz: We were trailing in the fourth quarter, but we had the ball. Dexter Manley split our double team to tackle Brooks. He got up shouting, “You can’t run this way!” I said, “You’re right—look behind you.” Boomer had play-faked and thrown a long touchdown to Eddie Brown.
Late in the game, Washington drove into position for the winning field goal, but fortune smiled on Cincinnati.
David Fulcher: [Washington kicker] Chip Lohmiller was laughing at us, because it was such a chip-shot. Then he missed it.
Solomon Wilcots: In overtime, Barney Bussey—our dime corner and one of our blue-collar guys—blitzed Doug Williams, sacked him from the blind side, and forced a fumble. We kicked right away and won the game. That epitomized our season—we finished the job.
In front of a crowd of 58,560 at Riverfront Stadium—where the Bengals were unbeaten during the regular season—Cincinnati rolled over Seattle in the divisional playoff, piling up 254 rushing yards in a 21–13 win.
Ickey Woods: That year we couldn’t be beat at the Jungle. We knew it for a fact. We just played a lot harder at home.
Jim Anderson: We would constantly run a play called Halfback 28 Grace, with JB running behind Stanley, [guard] Max Montoya, and Rodney Holman. It was a dynamic run play that defenses knew was coming but could not stop. They even knew what side we would run it to, but we had several All-Pros making the play happen.
The AFC Championship game pitted the Bengals against Buffalo, who sought to enlist the league to help the Bills slow the no-huddle attack.
Jim Anderson: We beat the Bills three times that year: preseason, regular season, and postseason. They would come up with “injuries” to counteract the no-huddle, but couldn’t ever handle the tempo.
Sam Wyche: My old teammate Bob Trumpy was broadcasting the game for NBC. During their usual meeting with the officials, they were told we were going to get unsportsmanlike conduct penalties called on us if we ran the no-huddle. [The officials] told the network 24 hours before they were going to tell us. Fortunately, Trumpy tipped me off. “Sit down and get ready,” he said.
Marv Levy (Buffalo Bills head coach, 1986–97): I have a vague recollection that we objected to them snapping the ball as soon as we ran subs on to the field. It was borderline in respect to the rules.
Anthony Muñoz: Sam was livid at the pre-game meal—I’ve never seen him so angry.
Sam Wyche: Two hours before kickoff they finally come to tell me. I had a tape recorder on my desk, and put a towel over it to record them. They told me the commissioner was ruling that since Marv was going to fake injuries if we ran it, it would be a penalty on us. I told them to call [Commissioner] Pete Rozelle and say that he was taking away the only offense we had run in five years less than two hours before the AFC Championship game. That it was upsetting the competitive balance in a game that was bet upon as much as this one would be—a lot of gamblers would be very upset by that. They went to call Rozelle, and 20 seconds later they came back saying we could run the no-huddle.
Anthony Muñoz: The next year, the Bills started running the K-gun, their version of the no-huddle. Surprise!
The reinstated offense, combined with a stalwart Bengals defense, forced three turnovers in a 21–10 win.
Solomon Wilcots: That was the first time I’ve seen an offensive lineman win a game single-handedly. Buffalo’s [defensive end] Bruce Smith was in his prime coming off the corner, and Boomer didn’t have a chance. So late in the first half, Bruce goes for a rip move, and [Muñoz] took his arm, slammed it behind his back, and just spiked him off the turf. It was a karate move like Bruce Lee. All of us on the sideline were like, “Whoa, did you see that?!” After that, Bruce wasn’t a factor, Boomer could throw, and we won going away.
Jim Anderson: When [Bengals owner] Paul Brown came into the locker room after the game and did the Ickey Shuffle, that was a moment I’ll never forget. When he spiked the ball, it was bedlam in there, truly a special moment.
Cincinnati traveled to Miami for Super Bowl XXIII to battle the San Francisco 49ers, led by immortals Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. On the eve of the game, Stanley Wilson relapsed, going on a cocaine binge in his hotel bathroom while the Bengals gathered for a final team meeting.
Solomon Wilcots: I got on the elevator with Stanley, his roommate Eddie Brown, and a couple of other guys. Just before the doors closed, Stanley says, “I forgot something in the room” and shot out of the elevator. We didn’t think anything of it. But then we were waiting a long time for the meeting to start.
Reggie Williams: A cameraman from Cincinnati brought in footage of Stanford Jennings’s new daughter, who was born that morning. It was a very warm moment.
Solomon Wilcots: Then Sam comes in and says, “Stanley’s not going to make it.”
Anthony Muñoz: It was an emotional bomb going off in that room.
Reggie Williams: Then, to make it worse, Stanley came downstairs, shook free from the coaches who were helping him, and bolted out the front door. No one saw him again until Monday.
Solomon Wilcots: Guys were livid, slamming their playbooks down, cursing.
Ickey Woods: I was mostly upset for his mom and his family, who he had brought to the game.
Reggie Williams: I was rooming with JB, and he couldn’t sleep—his best blocking back was gone! I was consoling him and pumping him up. “They’re not as fast as you, you can still run on them!” I know he was shook up.
Anthony Muñoz: You couldn’t find a more personable, engaging guy than Stanley. Every time he got suspended, he returned a better back. It was tragic. The demons just got a hold of him.
Sam Wyche: He had an author following him around all season to capture the story of his recovery. Needless to say, that book was never written.
Jim Anderson: Losing Stanley was a tough time for all of us, but I thought we had put it aside by the time we hit the playing field.
Solomon Wilcots: Stanley was a physical element we sorely missed in what turned out to be a very physical game.
Gameday offered more ill omens for the Bengals, including a sloppy field at Joe Robbie Stadium. Surprisingly, the game turned into a defensive battle, despite the fact Cincinnati lost talismanic nose tackle Tim Krumrie to a gruesome broken leg.
David Fulcher: The field was bad, especially between the 40-yard lines.
Sam Wyche: The field was coming up in chunks. Our cutback runners would try to plant, and the turf would just give way.
David Fulcher: [Krumrie] was going to make a tackle on Roger Craig, and his left leg swung in front. He had all his weight on the leg when Craig’s foot connected with Timmy’s shin like a baseball bat. I was five yards away, and it was bad, man.
Sam Wyche: He broke two bones in three places. The doctors called it a “floppy break,” meaning there was no bone structure to hold his leg together.
David Fulcher: His replacements played well. We just didn’t score any points.
Ickey Woods: We turned into a passing team for some reason, and that wasn’t really our game. I was averaging four yards per carry, but Sam told us we could pass it on them as well as run it. JB and I were highly upset about that.
Solomon Wilcots: Every inch of grass was contested. It was such a hard-hitting game, and the tackling was incredible. Our offense averaged 400 yards per game. They had an historic offense too, but no one could do much. [The Bengals finished the game with only 229 total yards of offense.]
Sam Wyche: We had an off-day by our standards. So did they—until the end.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Bengals holding a 13–6 lead, cornerback Lewis Billups dropped a sure interception in the end zone. Montana hit Rice to tie the game on the next play.
Reggie Williams: The team was shell-shocked. I always think about that moment. Could I have done better? I should have called timeout to get our minds right. But I didn’t.
After San Francisco’s Mike Cofer missed a field goal, Jim Breech of the Bengals nailed a 40-yarder with the wind in his face to give Cincinnati a 16-13 lead. After a penalty on the kickoff, Joe Montana trotted out to the 49ers huddle with 3:20 left, 92 yards from the Cincinnati end zone, and proceeded to direct one of the Super Bowl’s most fabled drives.
Anthony Muñoz: I watched from the sideline praying that I could be reincarnated just for a play as a pass rusher and get after Montana. It was agonizing.
David Fulcher: If we hadn’t played prevent defense and went right at Joe on that last drive, we may have won it.
Sam Wyche: We rushed five the first play and forced him into the hot read and it worked. We probably should have stayed in that attack mode, but we didn’t.
Reggie Williams: Dick LeBeau opted for our only defensive set that I wasn’t in. Tim Krumrie was long gone. There were now no defensive captains to reinforce the focus of every player’s role each and every huddle. The clock seemed to be taking one tick forward and two tocks back. It was a slow-motion nightmare to watch the inevitable unfold.
Solomon Wilcots: The most significant play was that 2nd and 20 [with 1:17 left and the Niners at the Bengals 45-yard line]. Dick called for us to double-blitz and double-up Jerry Rice. We took a bad angle on the play and Jerry went running off into the night. Rickey Dixon finally hauled him down [after 27 yards]. Now I wish Rickey would have let him score. The one tackle we missed was the one that really cost us. Two plays later they scored the winning touchdown.
Montana’s 10-yard pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left broke the Bengals’ hearts. The defeat poleaxed the team that had found ways to win all season.
Solomon Wilcots: We were stunned. I never got over it. I didn’t sleep for months. I would wake up in the middle of the night hoping it was all a dream. The game’s tomorrow, right? Then I would remember the truth.
Sam Wyche: I’ve never looked at the game film in total. I never watched The Missing Rings NFL Films show about us either. I don’t want to rip that wound open again.
Jim Anderson: It’s an empty feeling afterward. If you don’t win that game, it’s as if nothing you did before that mattered. A huge throng of fans welcomed us home after the game. None of us felt we deserved the accolades. We felt we had let them down.
David Fulcher: It’s hard to forget about it when ESPN or NFL Network are always showing it. I saw it just the other day. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t change.
Ickey Woods: We brought a lot of life to the city. The camaraderie among the guys was special that season. We just came up a little bit short.
Originally published in the September 2014 issue.