Friday, January 29, 1999

Bengals still stinging over '89 Super loss




BY GEOFF HOBSON
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[esiason]
Boomer Esiason soaks up the pre-game hype at Super Bowl XXIII.
| ZOOM |
        MIAMI — Boomer Esiason was going to Disney World. The Bengals were going to win the Super Bowl, then go back the Super Bowl next year and cement the NFL's newest dynasty.

        But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality. With 34 seconds left, Joe Montana hit John Taylor with a 10-yard touchdown pass that lifted San Francisco to a 20-16 victory 10 Super Bowls ago over a Bengals team that never really recovered.

        As Montana drove down the field at then-Joe Robbie Stadium here, Esiason prepared to shoot the “I'm going to Disney World,” commercial that belonged to the winning quarterback.

        But then Taylor caught the ball.

        “As fast as you could say, "I'm not going to Disney World,' the cameras left me and went to the other sideline,” Esiason said.

        The Super Bowl is back here again, but the Bengals are as far from this game as the moon over Miami. The team that was supposed to dominate the AFC for the next half-decade won only one more playoff game. The Bills, the team the Bengals battered to reach the Super Bowl, later won four straight AFC titles.

        Has anything good happened since Taylor caught the ball? Not much.

        Even before the game, Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson snorted himself out of the league on a cocaine binge. Then came Eric Thomas' knee injury. Ickey Woods' knee injury. Pro Bowl guard Max Montoya foreshadowing the future by defecting to the Raiders in Plan B free agency. Victoria C. Paul Brown's death. A stadium crisis. Ki-Jana Carter's knee injury.

        “The Jungle” is now where Bengals fans chant for Brown's son Mike to be thrown to the lions.

        “It was a little like Cinderella was gone at the stroke of midnight,” said Mike Brown, the club's president and general manager, of that night in Miami. “That was an odd team. It fell apart so quickly. Each and every player had a story. Ickey hurt his knee. Eddie Brown hurt his neck and couldn't play again. Stanley was gone. Eric Thomas, a very good cornerback, ripped up his knee. It was amazing.”

        But some of those Bengals wonder if it was a case of weakness of the mind instead of the flesh. Anthony Munoz, the Hall of Fame tackle now working for ESPN, stood on the sidelines of the stadium now known as Pro Player this week and said he thought he would play at least in one more Super Bowl.

        There are plenty of those Bengals around this week to bare their souls. Munoz, Esiason (ABC), wide receiver Cris Collinsworth (FOX) and defensive back Solomon Wilcots (ESPN) are wearing network blazers. Coach Sam Wyche (CBS) won't be here for the game, but he's got a speaking engagement over the weekend.

        “We had the classic case of guys that lost sight of the hard work it took to get there,” Munoz said. “The demands were so great in the offseason, there was a loss of concentration. You see what focus will do for you if you do win it, like Denver.”

        Former wide receiver Tim McGee said, “Maybe success came so quickly, we just didn't know how to handle it. I thought we'd be back many a time. It was before free agency. Our nucleus was young. Maybe we just didn't know how to cope with what came with winning.”

        Esiason though the Bengals were going to be what the Bills became. But he points to 1986 and 1987, rather than what came after. The 1986 team went 10-6 but missed the playoffs. They went 4-11 in '87, thanks largely to discord from the players' strike.

        “I wonder if we were one-hit wonders,” Esiason said. “The teams we had in '86 and '87 were better. The strike killed us. But it was a special team and a special time. I was proud of how hard our guys played and competed that day. Frankly, I can only remember about two plays.”

        After 10 years, the truth can be told. Esiason said his left shoulder “was killing me. I'd hurt it a few weeks before and I guess they were trying to protect me.” The NFL's 1988 MVP threw just 25 passes.

        Munoz remembers how the 49ers surprised the Bengals by moving their linebackers in different spots to avoid Cincinnati's superior offensive line. The Bengals struggled to 229 yards and no offensive touchdowns. “We should have expected that,” Munoz said. “They weren't going to stand there and get hit in the mouth.”

        There were some internal problems as the game plan unfolded, as the Bengals tried to cope without having Wilson. McGee swore he was wide open on an out and up pattern. The scouting report on the Niner corners was they liked to jump the “out” route. When McGee got off the plane from Miami, he went straight to Spinney Field to watch the tape and that's the only play he watched, or has ever watched from that game.

        It was there.

        Wyche and Esiason haven't watched the tape. Ray Horton, now the Bengals' secondary coach, doesn't have to. He was the guy closest to Taylor when he caught the ball.

        The Bengals were confused when the Niners had Taylor lined up as a tight end and put Jerry Rice and the tight end to the other side. The Niners usually ran out of that formation, but when Rice threw in a wrinkle by going in motion, Horton thought about calling timeout.

        But Horton went through with his assignment, which was to help double-team Rice and prevent his 12th catch of the game. Horton then saw Montana wasn't going to Rice, but by the time he tried to get to Taylor he was about a split second late.

        “All I remember is three different hands taking a swipe at that ball,” Wyche said. “And all of them came within inches. A Hall-of-Fame guy threw the ball right there.”

        Horton returned to a Super Bowl and won it with the Cowboys in his last game, but he said he thinks about those last frantic seconds in Miami and wonders if he should have called time. So does Wyche, but not as much as before.

        “It ate me up for a long time before I realized you have to move on,” he said. “I probably don't think about it because I don't want those feelings to come back.”

        Wyche also thought the Bengals would be back.

        “Most teams don't get there, that's history,” Wyche said. “The next year, we lost a couple of close games. Then there were injuries. That's just enough to do it. It happens.”

        What if? What if cornerback Lewis Billups held on to an interception a few plays before Taylor's TD? Would the 1990s have been so disastrous? Would Montoya had left over a disagreement in money before the '90 season? Would Wyche have left after 1991 following a dispute over resources?

        “That was the begining of the end,” McGee said. “When Max left, that was like a brick coming out of the wall and it began to crumble.”

        Bengals management has been taken to task for not reacting to Plan B free agency in the early '90s. The critics say it was a sign of things to come, when the club wasn't aggressive in the market when unfettererd free agency struck in 1994.

        “The way the franchise is, I can't say the '90s would have been different,” Munoz said. “I don't think it would have mattered if we won. I think we still would have lost guys like Max.”

        There is still a sting for guys like Munoz. Especially this time of year.

        “But you move on,” Munoz said.

       



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