Chronicles of offensive football in the Ohio River region
The NFL as we know it owes its existence to a series of innovations that took place decades ago in Cincinnati. So why aren’t the Bengals widely revered for their role in the history of the game? The answer reveals some essential truths about how new ideas shape (and are accepted by) the league — and it begins with a story of painfully unfulfilled potential.
By Chris Wesseling | Published May 21, 2015
A prince who never became king
For of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: “It might have been!”
— John Greenleaf Whittier
The most fortunate NFL franchises are blessed with the halcyon days of a luminary like Tom Brady, Joe Montana or Johnny Unitas. The Bengals are cursed with the myth of Greg Cook, the kind of transcendent talent every offensive mastermind hopes to find once in a lifetime.
A local hero drafted No. 5 overall out of the University of Cincinnati in 1969, Cook shook off a Week 3 muscle tear in his throwing arm to author the greatest rookie quarterback season in pro football history, leading the AFL in completion percentage, passer rating and yards per attempt — while playing for an expansion team in its second year of existence. His 9.411 yards-per-attempt figure and 17.5 yards-per-completion mark are rookie records that remain unsurpassed in the NFL. In fact, among veteran quarterbacks since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, only Kurt Warner (9.9, 2000) and Chris Chandler (9.6, 1998) have bested Cook in yards per attempt, and only Craig Morton (17.8, 1970) has topped him in yards per completion.
Driven by the swashbuckling young quarterback, Cincinnati knocked off the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs in that Week 3 game and handed the Oakland Raiders their only defeat of the regular season a couple of months later. The newly founded Bengals were off and running — until Cook was struck down by the football gods.
It turned out Cook had played most of that year with a rotator-cuff injury suffered against the Chiefs. Though it was similar to what Drew Brees overcame in 2006, early-1970s medical technology had no answer for it, and Cook attempted just three more passes after his rookie season.
“I think Greg Cook would have been mentioned, had he had a full career, with the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the league,” said Sam Wyche, Cook’s backup and eventually the Bengals’ head coach. “He had everything. He had size, a rifle arm, he had a Terry Bradshaw kind or release. … He had running ability, he was good-looking. He would have had the endorsements.”
Wyche might actually be underselling that unique talent. Cook was viewed as Football Adonis. Sports Illustrated’s Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman once described him as a “blond-haired football god.” Legendary Dallas Cowboys talent scout Gil Brandt casually refers to Cook as “the golden boy from Chillicothe, Ohio.”
“Greg Cook was, I believe, the greatest talent to play the position,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once said. “He was Steve Young, but bigger.”
Bengals owner Mike Brown — Paul’s son — believes his organization, and not the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, would have been the team of the ’70s if not for Cook’s tragic injury.
Cook’s success had contributed to a palpable sense of excitement. The Bengals could boast back-to-back AFL Offensive Rookies of the Year (Paul Robinson and Cook), the AFL Defensive Rookie of the Year (Bill Bergey) and the reigning AFL Coach of the Year (Paul Brown). Baseball’s Reds were set to open the sparkling new Riverfront Stadium and host the 1970 MLB All-Star Game. The “Big Red Machine” would go on to dominate the National League just as “WKRP in Cincinnati” ruled television’s airwaves.
“He gave us hope — we went from the expansion team to a team that could beat anybody,” Brown told Cincinnati’s City Beat after Cook’s death in 2012. “Then you had the story of recovery, getting better and not getting better. He was prominent in the news for four or five years and then it faded it away, and the myth never faded away. People still had him in their minds.
“He was the prince who never became king.”
Former Bengals teammate Bob Trumpy, a four-time Pro Bowl tight end, captured the lost opportunity on NFL Network’s “Top 10 One-Shot Wonders”: “I don’t know what he would have done if he’d have played 10 or 12 years. I think my fingers would have been filled with Super Bowl rings.”
There are moments when the fortunes of an NFL franchise can pivot on one play. The Bengals had tied their future to a generational player, only to see their window for greatness slammed shut on a routine quarterback sack.
“What a great, great talent,” a nostalgic Walsh expressed to Zimmerman in 2001. “What a terrible shame.”
But Cook’s legacy isn’t limited to his unofficial status as the best there never was. He is forever intertwined with Walsh, with his fate serving as the impetus for the misnamed West Coast offense.
The birth of the “Ohio River offense”
When Walsh first arrived in Cincinnati as Paul Brown’s assistant in 1968, he was steeped in the vertical stretch offenses of Sid Gillman and Al Davis, two of the most influential minds of the era. Cook’s ability to “throw the ball from one end of the field to the other” was ideal for that downfield attack.
The architect of the West Coast offense acknowledged years later that his famed scheme would have been “completely different” if not for Cook’s injury.
“It would have started with the deep strike,” Walsh said, “and everything would have played off that. It would have set records that never would be broken.”
Once the Bengals realized Cook’s arm was shot, however, they were forced to trade for the Buffalo Bills’ Virgil Carter as an emergency replacement.
“Carter was a godsend to us in 1970,” Brown explained in his autobiography, “PB: The Paul Brown Story,” “especially considering we picked him up two weeks before the season began.”
A godsend he may have been, but Carter simply didn’t have the arm to succeed in the long passing attack designed for Cook. So Brown and Walsh went to work, concocting the first incarnation of what would eventually become the West Coast offense: a horizontal, ball-control passing scheme intended to compensate for Carter’s physical shortcomings while also hiding an expansion-team-caliber offensive line.
“We convinced him that by lowering the ball’s trajectory, he could throw with more velocity and even greater accuracy,” Brown wrote. “Combining this with a special roll-out type of offense we designed for him, we had an attack that no one could figure out until the season was almost over.”
The system borrowed heavily from Brown’s dominant Cleveland Browns offenses of the previous generation. But Walsh soon assumed almost total control, devising the game plans and calling plays that featured short quarterback drops and quick progressions.
The offense’s goal was to accumulate 25 first downs. That, combined with solid special teams play, would give the Bengals a reasonable chance to stay competitive minus the luxury of a star quarterback.
“I can always remember Bill Walsh’s big comment, and he made it more than once,” explained former Bengals guard and current color commentator Dave Lapham. ” ‘When you gain four yards on the ground against a defense, they think you’re kicking their ass. When you gain four yards in the passing game against a defense, they think they’re kicking your ass. Four yards is four yards. I’ll take it any way I can get it.’ And that was his whole concept. The idea of that short, controlled passing game as an extension of the running game.”
The result was a precise, efficient offense that masked deficiencies in talent.
Carter arrived in Cincinnati with a career completion rate under 50 percent. After a year with Walsh, he led the NFL with a mark of 62.2 in 1971. In fact, all three of the starting quarterbacks from Walsh’s Bengals tenure — Cook in the AFL, Carter and Ken Anderson in the NFL — would lead their respective leagues in completion percentage at one point.
By the middle of the decade, Walsh was literally programming his quarterbacks. He began scripting plays at Brown’s behest. When the two men met for Saturday morning breakfast, Brown would habitually inquire about Walsh’s “openers” for the next day’s game. What started out as a handful of scripted plays in Cincinnati grew to 15 during Walsh’s year in San Diego and eventually to 25 during his time in San Francisco.
“We had no idea that we were creating a template for the future of offense in the NFL,” Walsh said, via Brian Billick’s book, “More Than a Game.” “We did what we did just to stay competitive, then expanded on it as we continued to have success.”
The misnamed West Coast offense
On Dec. 29, 1985, the New York Giants beat Walsh’s San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, 17-3. Annoyed at the media for anointing Walsh a genius, Giants coach Bill Parcells sneered, “What do you think of that West Coast offense now?”
It was the first known use of the term. Although the moniker would stick to Walsh’s scheme, he never accepted any terminology other than “Midwest Offense” or “Cincinnati Offense.”
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a bipedal pigskin encyclopedia believed to own the world’s largest private library of football books, noted in 2013 that Walsh’s scheme should be known as the Ohio River offense. Walsh, however, eventually conceded that the Ohio River designation was “probably not sexy enough.” Among members of the Walsh coaching tree, there’s an irritated sense that the use of the term “West Coast offense” is a telltale sign of laziness.
If Walsh’s offense was a natural byproduct of Cook’s strange turn of fate, the misnomer was a natural byproduct of a monumental lapse in judgment at the end of Brown’s Hall of Fame coaching career.
Having essentially invented modern football over five decades of coaching, Brown moved from the sidelines to the owner’s box in 1976. It was clear, even then, that Walsh was the brightest mind on the staff.
As Brown saw it, however, the progressive-thinking Walsh was too soft to assume head-coaching responsibilities. When Brown tapped Bill “Tiger” Johnson as his successor, Walsh instinctively understood that he had to flee his mentor’s pervasive shadow — or risk being typecast as an assistant.
“His heart had been broken. He contemplated getting out of football,” Walsh’s son, Craig, said on NFL Network’s “Bill Walsh: A Football Life.” “He was just absolutely devastated and didn’t know if he could continue. … He learned later that Paul Brown had blocked him from a number of different coaching opportunities, by giving him a bad review, by saying things that flat out weren’t true.”
Armed with the belief that he was being blackballed as an intellectual lacking toughness, Walsh spent one year on the Chargers’ staff, then settled for the head job at Stanford. Soon thereafter, the DeBartolo family purchased the San Francisco 49ers and immediately began searching for the next Paul Brown.
“Eddie DeBartolo grew up in Northern Ohio, in Youngstown. He idolized Paul Brown,” former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots said. “Paul Brown had gone to Miami of Ohio, he had won a national championship at Ohio State. After World War II, he started the Cleveland Browns and went to the championship game in 10 straight years. So the DeBartolo family admired Paul Brown. If they can’t get Paul Brown, they decided to get Paul Brown’s protégé. And they went and got him. That’s how Bill Walsh ended up there, and the rest is history.”
The DeBartolos recognized from afar what Brown failed to appreciate in eight years of partnership. Bolstered by new rules favoring the passing game, Walsh flooded the field with receivers and running backs in San Francisco, pioneering an up-tempo system that took defenses years to solve. He presided over the triumph of the more telegenic forward pass at the expense of an old-school, smash-mouth, grind-it-out style that had spectators and sportswriters pining for complexity and excitement in the 1970s.
In 1981, Walsh’s high-percentage system produced both the regular-season Most Valuable Player (Ken Anderson, who was running it in Cincinnati) and the Super Bowl MVP (Niners QB Joe Montana).
“The Browns’ Brian Sipe won (the MVP award) the year before,” Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw pointed out in Kevin Cook’s “The Last Headbangers,” “and Sipe didn’t have enough arm to break a windowpane! Suddenly Anderson’s going 20 for 22 against our Steelers defense! I marveled at that. The West Coast offense was the modern approach, and pretty soon Montana and Walsh are going to take it to a whole ‘nother level. It was a new evolution, the start of what we see today.”
To Brown’s credit, he afforded Walsh the autonomy to develop his own philosophy, as well as an innovative offense that would revolutionize football in the decades ahead. The Bengals paid a steep price for Brown’s failure of foresight, however, falling to Walsh in Cincinnati’s only two Super Bowl appearances to date, seven years apart.
The Cincinnati faithful can hardly be blamed for wondering if the 49ers’ domination of the 1980s by way of the West Coast offense could have been their own dynasty, via an unstoppable Ohio River offense. Trumpy was left, once again, to lament a scenario in which his hands would have been decorated with Super Bowl rings if not for a simple twist of fate.
The franchise would go on to foster another monumental innovation in offensive football in the 1980s — only to again have the credit widely misplaced.
The rise of the no-huddle offense
When Walsh took over in San Francisco, he brought along Sam Wyche, Cook’s former backup with the Bengals, to coach the passing game. Mentoring Montana in the early 1980s, Wyche was struck with an epiphany that would revolutionize offenses into the 21st century.
Wyche noticed that Niners wide receiver Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah, a world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, was short of breath and needed a few seconds to recover from the previous play.
“Well, then the idea stuck in my head,” Wyche explained. “If I can recover in 20 seconds and it takes you 30 seconds to recover, the next play, you’re going to be a little bit tired. The play after that, you’re going to be a little bit more tired. Pretty soon, you’re not playing your opponent at their best. You’re playing a tired opponent.”
Wyche had to wait to test his hypothesis until he landed his first head-coaching job, at Indiana University in 1983. Realizing he didn’t have the personnel to compete with the Big Ten powerhouses, Wyche began experimenting with the no-huddle offense, in an attempt to level the playing field.
Just as the DeBartolo family targeted Walsh, Paul Brown turned back to a former disciple in 1984, neatly completing a circle. In 1968, when Wyche was a rookie, Brown held up Wyche’s annotated copy of the Bengals’ playbook as a model for other players. When Brown hired Wyche as his head coach 16 years later, he gave that very playbook back to his one-time signal-caller, as a gesture of honor.
Wyche found immediate success, beginning a run of six consecutive top-five finishes in total offense. Constantly seeking a better way to run an NFL offense, Wyche became the first coach to employ the no-huddle as a standard method of attack rather than reserving it for two-minute drills.
“It just became, to me, logical,” Wyche explained. “Who in the world said you had to go back 8 yards right behind the center and caucus for 20 seconds and allow the defense to get rested up and make substitutions? It just made no sense to me as an offensive coach. So we took that away from them with the no-huddle.”
By 1986, the Bengals’ no-huddle was a bona fide NFL phenomenon, even if Wyche was using it on fewer than half of the plays.
“Sam was very conscious, through his association with Bill and the 49ers, of being on the cutting edge,” Lapham said. “So he was always trying to get on the cutting edge and take it to the limit. And he enjoyed that. Sam’s a very bright guy. He’s an idea machine. The game plan meetings that he and (offensive coordinator) Bruce Coslet had when they were putting together an offense in those years were pretty amazing.”
A disastrous, strike-shortened 1987 season nearly cost Wyche his job and turned fans against quarterback Boomer Esiason — but the Bengals finally hit their stride as the toast of the league in 1988.
Operating almost exclusively out of the no-huddle, Cincinnati finished first in points, yards, rushing, first downs and yards per pass attempt, while Esiason took home the MVP award. In the backfield, Ickey Woods and James Brooks each averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry, combining for nearly 2,500 yards from scrimmage and 29 total touchdowns. Thanks in part to Esiason’s mastery of the play-action fake, top receiver “Downtown” Eddie Brown averaged a field-stretching 24.0 yards per catch.
The magic of the no-huddle went beyond the numbers. Wyche understood that he was introducing a more exciting brand of football, doubling the 12 minutes of real-time action in a football game. An increasingly rabid Riverfront Stadium transformed into “The Jungle,” the Super Bowl XVI “Who Dey” cheer became ubiquitous in Cincinnati, and the “Ickey Shuffle” emerged as a full-fledged pop-culture craze.
“Welcome to the Jungle. It was insane,” Esiason explained in “America’s Game: The Missing Rings.” “If anyone ever wanted to do a study on fan behavior, all you had to do is take a look at the ’87 Bengals and compare it to the ’88 Bengals. Because the ’87 Bengals were booed at home, but in ’88 all those Bengals fans that were embarrassed the year before all became one. The contrast in both years with the same people involved was remarkable.”
Esiason’s high football IQ and absolute command of the offense as a quintessential field general stood in contrast to other high-level quarterbacks of the era. Wyche, Wilcots and Lapham all point out that Esiason was making all of the pre-snap reads in 1988 that Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are celebrated for orchestrating today.
Wyche explained to The MMQB in January that the teams with true field generals and players smart enough to follow instructions increase their odds of winning by 2 or 3 percent.
“If their tempo is good, and they don’t make mistakes, they can go up another couple of percentage points,” Wyche told the site. “Pretty soon you’re up to where you’ve got about a 5 to an 8 percent edge on your opponent by the end of the game.”
The Bengals enjoyed not just that 5 to 8 percent edge but also an innovative offensive system that placed the defense at an inherent disadvantage.
“Once he got me refined, where he wanted me,” Esiason said in the documentary, “we took Bill Walsh’s 49ers West Coast, very cerebral system to another level of thinking. It was remarkable.”
But its propagation around the rest of the league was not without contention.
The NFL’s no-huddle controversy
By the time the 1988 playoffs rolled around, opposing defenses had hatched their own deceptive scheme to answer the no-huddle attack.
Seattle Seahawks coach Chuck Knox instructed defensive players Joe Nash and Ken Clarke to fake injuries — moves of questionable sportsmanship. The duo mysteriously collapsed six different times in an attempt to slow the Bengals’ attack.
Having already lost to Wyche in the preseason and regular season, Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy threatened to mimic the Seahawks’ strategy in the AFC Championship Game.
Hours before kickoff, Trumpy — working as a broadcast analyst — warned Wyche that officials planned to penalize the no-huddle, because Commissioner Pete Rozelle did not want Levy to make a mockery of a high-profile game. Wyche passed along a warning of his own that his postgame press conference would be sure to touch on issues of tampering with the competitive balance of the game under that scenario. The league promptly backed down, allowing an irate Wyche to utilize the offense he had been running all season.
“I’ve never seen him so angry,” Hall of Fame tackle Anthony Muñoz said, of Wyche’s reaction.
“Marv Levy’s headline was that the ‘No Huddle is No Fair,’ ” Wyche quipped on “America’s Game: The Missing Rings.” “This was right after the ’88 season, and the next year, they’re running it and actually the next year is when they ‘invented it.’ “
The Bengals would go on to topple the Bills for the third time that year, setting up a rematch of Super Bowl XVI against the Niners. Walsh came back to haunt Paul Brown once again, aided by Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie’s gruesome broken leg, cornerback Lewis Billups’ fourth-quarter drop of an end-zone interception and fullback Stanley Wilson’s disturbing cocaine arrest.
Two years later, as Wyche alluded, Levy and Jim Kelly were showered with accolades for “inventing” the more limited K-Gun offense in Buffalo, which was featured in four Super Bowl losses.
“And now Levy’s the smartest guy and the greatest thing since potato chips,” Lapham joked. “And Sam’s the one that introduced that whole thing to everyone.”
Legacy of the Ohio River offenses
Football’s great dichotomy lies in the juxtaposition of its hidebound conservative social culture against professional sports’ most incessant tactical innovation. In other words, revolutionary ideas are derided until they become integrated.
Walsh’s 1997 book, “Finding the Winning Edge,” is football’s version of accepted scripture, guiding today’s NFL and college coaches.
Between those covers, Walsh revealed that his offense was summarily dismissed as “nickel and dime” football. Worse, it was ridiculed by the old guard as a “finesse” or even “sissy” playing style.
“We were labeled a finesse team,” said George Seifert, Walsh’s successor. “Here comes the finesse, dink and dunk, white-wine drinking 49ers from San Francisco, California.”
Similarly, Wyche’s no-huddle offense was laughed off as “popcorn football.” Rather than being hailed as a visionary, Wyche was lampooned as “Wicky Wacky” by a Steelers assistant coach.
“I will tell you, unapologetically, I had to fight for the no-huddle to be accepted for years,” Wyche said, “before anybody even tried it.”
Castigating his critics, Walsh noted the “nickels and dimes” that the developers of the so-called West Coast offense brought to the game have become the “coin of the realm.”
Three decades after Parcells’ initial dismissal and Levy’s playoff complaints, the offenses devised by Walsh and Wyche on the banks of the Ohio River have proliferated, begetting the more sophisticated attacks used in today’s pass-heavy NFL.
“The West Coast offense does not exist anymore in the NFL,” Billick says, “only because everybody’s running it.
“There’s been nothing new in this game for a long, long time. Because we coaches are the biggest thieves in the world. We’ll see something, we’ll analyze it, we’ll implement it and then we’ll take credit for it. That’s the evolution of the game. But it still doesn’t belie the genius of Bill Walsh and what that offense was about. And just the fact that everybody’s running some element of it.”
Walsh came to be revered as “the Genius.” Wyche’s contributions, meanwhile, have largely gone overlooked — or worse, been misattributed.
“I think Sam Wyche is very undervalued or underappreciated for what he lent to the game,” Brandt says. “He was kind of like a mad scientist.”
Professional football finally came around to Wyche’s no-huddle attack late last decade. In 2001, NFL teams operated out of the shotgun formation on just 14 percent of plays, per Football Outsiders. Before 2007, no team had ever used the shotgun on more than half of its offensive plays. Last season, 26 teams were over the 50 percent mark.
Wyche is now a volunteer coach at Pickens High School in South Carolina. He doesn’t have a cushy consulting job, much less a reputation on par with the NFL’s great innovators. Rather than a Hall of Fame candidate valued for his lasting contribution to the game, he has become a footnote to the 1980s.
“It used to bother me,” Wyche told Grantland’s Rob Weintraub in 2014. “Sadly, there are no copyrights or patents in the football industry. But there are plenty of good ideas through history where the credit doesn’t go to the ‘idea man.’ “
Wyche knows the drill all too well. History is written by the victors.
Follow Chris Wesseling on Twitter @chriswesseling.
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