Under Paul Brown, who turned 80 last month, the Cincinnati Bengals have been put together carefully in the last several years.
Brown’s philosophy is to trade off any prospect, no matter how highly touted, if he doesn’t make Cincinnati’s first team in 2 or 3 years--dealing him off, if possible, for draft choices.
So on draft day in recent Aprils, the Bengals have usually shown up with a number of high choices. And as a result, they are long on youth and quality. Not too much experience, maybe, but too much talent for most teams.
Too much, certainly, for the Raiders, who were blown away Sunday, 45-21, as Cincinnati’s quarterback, Boomer Esiason, 27, made a wreck of their pass defense.
“I told (the Bengals) last week that if we play our best game, you can win big (against the Raiders),” Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche said. He also called attention to a strange new fact of life in pro football: “After 5 games, we’re the only undefeated team in the (National Football League).”
The Bengals? Yes. Last year’s 4-11 team is 5-0.
Contemptuous of his opponent, Wyche expected to win big in Los Angeles because, as he said: "(The Bengals) have the players who can do that.”
They do, indeed. This is a team that lines up seven good No. 1 draft choices, including the NFL’s best blocker, Anthony Munoz of USC, and an extraordinary little receiver, Eddie Brown.
The Bengals also employ seven good No. 2 choices, including fullback Ickey Woods, a candidate for pro football rookie of the year, and Esiason himself.
One of the NFL’s biggest quarterbacks, Esiason, a muscular left-hander from Maryland, stands 6 feet 4 1/2 inches and weighs 230 pounds.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, with a 24-7 lead at halftime, Esiason didn’t do what John Elway had done Monday night in Denver with a 24-0 lead at halftime. Esiason didn’t throw it away. Instead he put the Raiders away.
It is more than clear now, after 5 weeks, that defense is mainly what’s wrong with the 1988 Raiders.
The new quarterback, Jay Schroeder, again played acceptably--considering that this is his July. He’s still learning the offense. The real problem is that the people who know the defense can’t play it.
"(The Raiders) have a good pass rush,” Wyche said. “But going into the game, we felt that it was not something we couldn’t handle.”
Wyche’s offensive line, one of the league’s strongest, handled it easily, giving Esiason sufficient time in the pocket.
The Raiders’ problem area is their defensive front seven. Howie Long is just another player this year. Bill Pickel seldom gets much rush. Sean Jones has been traded. And the linebackers aren’t a big help, either, against runs or passes.
The front seven was good enough in the years when cornerbacks Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes were single-covering the other team’s most dangerous two receivers, leaving the other nine Raiders to handle everything else.
But Hayes is gone now, Haynes is 35, and Raider safeties are obliged to spend their time in pass coverages. There’s nobody left to rush the passer.
When the game was still on the line, in the second quarter, after Cincinnati had started slowly, the Bengal offense took the Raider defense apart with two long drives to take the 17-point halftime lead.
Esiason was the central figure in both drives, which covered 86 and 73 yards.
The big play on his first move was on third and 10, when Esiason escaped from a sack trap, picked out Tim McGee and hit him for a 24-yard gain.
Next, on his 73-yard advance just before the half, Esiason overcame second and 23 with a 32-yard pass to halfback Stanford Jennings. Then, tackled as he threw, Esiason reached McGee with a 9-yard pass in the end zone on third and 8.
These were all professional plays by Esiason, who hasn’t always made that kind. In previous years, he showed a tendency to blow up at times.
But he’s older now. This is his fifth year in the league. And he is surrounded by star players.
The Bengals, who have given up only 5 sacks in 4 games, support Esiason with 2 or 3 of almost everything--Woods and Stanley Wilson at fullback, Jennings and James Brooks at halfback, McGee, Cris Collinsworth and young Ira Hillary at split end.
As recruited by Brown, the Bengals are something like a Pro Bowl team this year in all departments except, possibly, their defensive line.
And the Raiders didn’t have enough offensive line to make you notice that.