The biggest issue surrounding the Cincinnati Bengals right now is Ickey Woods’ ponytail.
A year ago, it was Sam Wyche’s scalp.
That, if nothing else, ought to tell you how far this team has come in one year. Far enough to enter the Coliseum for today’s 1 p.m. game with the Raiders with a 4-0 record. And far enough to be one of only three unbeaten teams as the National Football League begins Week 5. The Raiders are 2-2.
Everybody in Cincinnati, it seemed, was after Wyche last year when the club collapsed early and never recovered en route to a 4-11 season.
It started with the second game. After winning their opener, the Bengals had a 26-20 lead over the San Francisco 49ers and the ball on their 25-yard line on fourth down with just 6 seconds left.
There are a lot of things a team can do here: Run back to the end zone and take a safety. Punt.
Wyche did neither of the above.
Instead, he called for running back James Brooks to run a sweep. Brooks failed to get a first down, and wouldn’t you know it, the 49ers pulled it out when Joe Montana hit Jerry Rice with a 25-yard touchdown pass as time expired.
The scalp hunters were out.
But it wasn’t just the fans. When the strike hit a week later, the regular players were left to work out on their own. As a gag, Brooks took a handoff during one practice, trotted back into the end zone and knelt while teammates chanted, “Safety! Safety!”
Subtle it wasn’t.
The strike was especially bitter in Cincinnati, where Bengal quarterback Boomer Esiason was a highly visible, highly vocal advocate for the NFL Players Assn.
And even when the strike ended, the misery didn’t. Last season, the Bengals lost 4 games they led in the fourth quarter. Wyche let the clock run out in a game when he miscalculated the amount of time it would take to get his field goal unit onto the field. There were key injuries to Brooks and star receiver Cris Collinsworth.
So what happened? What has caused the turnaround?
“When we came to camp,” Wyche said, “we didn’t have sports psychologists or vitamin supplements. I’ve got no clever answers. It’s just been plain hard work.
“We’ve been very careful not to look backward. It was very tough because most questions were prefaced, ‘Compared to last year,’ or ‘In light of what happened last year.’ We kept our eyes going ahead to the next opponent and that was as far as we looked. We said we are going to beat the Phoenix Cardinals in our opener and everything we did in training camp was geared toward that.”
Not that there weren’t distractions. Before that opener, linebacker Emanuel King and defensive back Daryl Smith were each suspended for 30 days for substance abuse.
But nothing has stopped the Bengals this time. The club has the top offense in the American Football Conference. Esiason is the top-rated quarterback in the NFL at 104.7. He already has thrown for 1,040 yards and has 9 touchdown passes and just 3 interceptions. Receiver Eddie Brown leads the conference in yards gained with 417, averaging 27.8 a catch. Brooks is fourth in the AFC in rushing with 288 yards.
And don’t forget Woods, more than just a pretty hairdo. A second-round draft choice out of Nevada Las Vegas, where he was the nation’s top rusher last season, Woods is third on the Bengals in that department behind Brooks and Stanley Wilson. Woods scored his first 2 touchdowns against the Cleveland Browns last week.
But it hasn’t been all offense, Wyche insisted.
“Even though statistically we’re down near the bottom,” he said, “our defense is the one that has really put us in 4-0 status. They have knocked the ball loose from opponents, and come up with key interceptions at the end of a ballgame and good goal-line stands. That is as much as anything the reason that we’re 4-0, because our offense, believe me, really has not had that hot day they’ve experienced in the past.
“David Fulcher is having an All-Pro year at strong safety, Solomon Wilcots at free safety is very aggressive and clever, and then there’s Lewis Billups and Eric Thomas. We have not played against two corners that have been better.”
And how about the coach? Has he gotten smarter?
“A couple of people have indicated,” Wyche said, “that they think somehow I’m taking smart pills. I’ve probably got the same intellect, and I’ve read that isn’t good enough.”
Raider Coach Mike Shanahan could not have enjoyed everything that he read about himself in recent weeks.
But this week has been different. This has been the first week since he got here that he hasn’t been badgered with questions about who his starting quarterback will be.
Jay Schroeder answered all such questions Monday night in Denver when he made his Raider debut a stunning success by leading his club back from a 24-0 halftime deficit to pull out a 30-27 overtime victory over the Broncos, thus moving the club into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC West.
The big question for the Raiders this week is in the secondary, where injuries have sent three starters from opening day (Vann McElroy, Stacey Toran and Terry McDaniel) and one from last year (Lionel Washington) to the sideline. Only right cornerback Mike Haynes remains. He will be joined by rookie fifth-round draft choice Dennis Price on the left corner, Russell Carter at strong safety and Eddie Anderson at free safety.
It’s not going to be easy against the conference’s top offense and top quarterback, but the Raiders bring with them the momentum that started in Denver.
“Anytime you go from a situation where you could be in last place to right there at the top, it gives you that emotional lift,” Shanahan said.
No argument there, least of all from the opposing sideline, where Sam Wyche knows all about such hairy situations with happy endings.
Raider center Bill Lewis (ankle sprain) is not expected to play, but offensive tackle Don Mosebar (also an ankle sprain) may see some action. . . . For Cincinnati, both wide receiver Mike Martin (sore Achilles’ tendon) and guard Max Montoya (groin injury) may not play. . . . Both Emanuel King and Daryl Smith are eligible to return today, but King has been bothered by back spasms this week. Tight end Eric Kattus is out with a knee injury. . . . The Bengals have never won on the road against the Raiders. That includes 7 games in Oakland and 1 at the Coliseum in 1985.