By now, Week 7 of the National Football League season, Sam Wyche was supposed to be fired, Boomer Esiason was due to be traded or benched and the Cincinnati Bengals were supposed to be at the bottom of the heap, heads buried, season lost.
But with midseason rapidly approaching, Wyche is the latest coaching genius, Esiason is the early favorite for player of the year and the Bengals are 6-0 and very, very hot. The turnaround from last year’s 4-11 season, filled with game-ending mishaps of the lowest order, is so stunning, so completely impossible to comprehend, that the Bengals don’t even take their own explanations too seriously.
Take Esiason, for example. Last year, he had the worst season of his life, high school, the University of Maryland or at Cincinnati. The fans booed him so badly, cursed him with such venom, that he requested a trade, preferably to the Washington Redskins. Now he’s thrown more touchdown passes than Dan Marino and John Elway combined. Don’t ask him to explain.
“I can’t put my finger on it, emotionally, physically. You just can’t,” Esiason said this week. “I don’t know who it is, or what it is. Is there a player who’s making the difference? Is there a coach? No. I don’t know. You’re really talking about, I guess, the emotional makeup and attitude of a football team. It’s all there right now. Whatever’s happened, it’s almost like this team is in ‘The Twilight Zone.’ That’s where we are, ‘The Twilight Zone.’ ”
And the Bengals wouldn’t mind staying suspended there for a few more weeks, because it’s much more desirable than the Bermuda Triangle, where the Bengals drifted last year. Can’t get the field goal team on in the final seconds, forget to call a timeout with the game on the line, bad decisions, even worse plays, the Bengals had it all. Which is to say, they had nothing.
Now, they have Esiason with 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions, a safety named David Fulcher who’s playing like vintage Jack Tatum, a fullback named Ickey Woods who must have forgotten he was a rookie last week when he carried for 139 yards, and strong team unity. Not only have the Bengals not blown a game in the fourth quarter, they’ve beaten the Cardinals with two goal-line stands and the Steelers with an interception near the end zone late in the game.
So, everybody wants to know what Wyche did, why he walked into camp and told Esiason, “This is going to be one of the great sports stories in 1988.”
Wyche insisted he wasn’t going to try any gimmicks. “We weren’t going to have any guest speakers, any vitamin supplement programs, any sports psychologists coming in, no rapid eye movement experts coming in to examine us,” he said.
Wyche--a man known as either an innovator or a wacko, depending on who you talk to--decided to conduct a little experiment during camp. He felt the offensive and defensive players did not mix enough, and that black and white players didn’t mix nearly enough. So, Wyche decided to force a black offensive player to room with a white defensive player, and a white offensive player to room with a black defensive player, and so on.
The Wyche-watchers really had some ammunition now. Wyche thought the team would need to be more unified than ever. He said his idea was to “force the players to spend 40 or 50 quality minutes a day with someone they wouldn’t normally see outside of football. The team had to be very close, very tight, because we would have nothing but attackers. All those people who said (owner) Paul Brown was wrong to keep me would still have their swords sharp. But everybody completely thought I’d gone off the deep end. Everybody said it would lead to all kinds of problems, and that ‘Sam has really ruined the ball club.’ ”
Some of the skeptics included his own players. Esiason, never one to hold his feelings in, blasted the roommate shuffle. “Sam’s big deal,” Esiason said, “was, ‘Did you ever notice how the black guys eat dinner on one side of the room while all the white guys eat on the other side of the room?’ I said, ‘Sam, you can’t force team bonding. People are different, it doesn’t mean there’s a racial problem on this team, because there isn’t. You can’t force people to assimilate if they don’t want to. This is ridiculous, this is just something else this team doesn’t need.’
“I was so wrong to come out against it. Sam took a chance and it turned out to be one of the best things that could ever happen to this team. We turned it into such a fun thing. You wind up knowing things about a guy’s wife, or his family or his problems or his joys . . .
“Sam’s game plan was that we had nothing to lose. He said to me, ‘What are they going to do, fire me?’ In the preseason, he bred a winner. He convinced us.”
Wyche bore the brunt of the criticism for last year’s woes. Instead of punting in the second game of the season, against the 49ers, he told Esiason to kneel down, thinking the 49ers would not have enough time to score. He was wrong. Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Jerry Rice on the next and final play and the Bengals, instead of being 2-0 before the strike, were 1-1 and reeling.
It was almost a foregone conclusion among outsiders that a team with this much offensive talent, a team that had gone 10-6 the previous year, had to find a new coach. But owner Paul Brown said it wasn’t even a tough decision. “I didn’t agonize over it at all,” he said this week, watching Wyche conduct practice. “To me, there was never any thought other than last season was an aberration.”
Wyche doesn’t like to hear last season introduced into conversation. “I don’t think people get up in the morning and say, ‘Geez, I had a rough time a year ago; I hope I don’t have another rough one,’ ” he said.
If Wyche avoids lingering over the memory of last season, Esiason almost is obsessed with it. He always has been one of the most outgoing players in the league, a gregarious ambassador for football who is trusting to a fault. But that seems to have changed.
Esiason was the team’s union representative and the Browns, Paul and his son Mike, are about as conservative as NFL owners come. When Boomer sat in front of the bus that was to pick up replacement players from the team’s practice field during last season’s strike, the ultraconservative town of Cincinnati turned on the quarterback.
That was one of only two real run-ins--"blowouts,” Esiason calls them--that the coach and his quarterback have had in five seasons. Esiason made his displeasure well known when he was benched in Houston, and again “when we were out on the picket line and (Wyche) called us silly. He said he was being sarcastic, but the players didn’t think so and it was on me, as the leader and union rep, to make a comment.”
And the heat was on Esiason when the strike was over. The fans saw him as a player making $1.2 million for the next five years, as the leader of a team that was embarrassing itself week after week. Now, with the Bengals 6-0 and strangers offering Esiason high-fives as he walks through the streets of Cincinnati, he can’t let go of last year. Can’t and doesn’t want to.
“There’s a distinctive looking gentleman who was cursing me out after every game,” he said. “I will never forgive that guy; I know exactly where he sits. He’s still sitting there. After a Pittsburgh game last year, I threw for 409 yards and got hit on 37 of the 45 times I dropped back, and here’s this guy cursing me. I was completely battered after that game. Now, the guy is standing there, after last week’s game, saying, ‘Hey, Boomer, you’re the greatest,’ as if nothing happened last year . . .
“Last year about this time I was interested in going anywhere but Cincinnati. Could have been Washington, could have been New England, could have been New York. That’s why I made the statement about wanting to be traded, because who wanted to live in a hell like that? I’ll never forget last year. It will always be in the back of my mind. I’m much more skeptical of people now.
“I came back to Washington and everybody was asking me, ‘Man are you coming to Washington?’ When you asked me in January and February, yes, I was hoping. But another side of me said, ‘I’ve got to come back here and show these people they’re wrong about me and they’re wrong about this team.’ It’s been eating at me since the last game of last season.”
Even now, as he completes nearly 60% of his passes and is rated above every quarterback in the NFL in passing, Esiason will throw an incomplete pass and start lecturing himself, “ ‘Think about last year, think about last year.’ I use the hell out of it and it motivates me. The only bad thing about it is that I’m so consumed with it. I will not . . . we will not be undone this time. I’m just focused on this. I don’t want to make appearances, I don’t want to do interviews. This is unlike me. I was always more easygoing than this. I know I’ve changed. I was hardened by what happened last year.”
So, he wanted out, and a trade for Jay Schroeder was in his dreams. But Paul and Mike Brown wouldn’t even entertain the thought.
“It was traumatic for him,” Mike Brown said. “He had his heart in a cause (the strike) and he paid for it. It was a lesson in life for him. He got his feelings hurt. I’ve seen some great quarterbacks go through that. In Terry Bradshaw’s first couple of years at Pittsburgh, he didn’t hear very many kind things. So Boomer’s not the first guy to get an earful. He did get a dose, though.
“We let him know he was the guy and he was going to be the guy. He hadn’t lost any of his position with us.”
The Browns let Esiason know that during a breakfast he initiated in Phoenix during the league’s winter meetings to clear the air. Getting in his two cents’ worth, Esiason said he thought they should keep Wyche, and he would come back and think of nothing but football. The Browns aren’t his favorite people, to say the least, but it certainly isn’t affecting the way he’s playing.
A lot of people in Cincinnati thought Esiason was just posturing, that he really didn’t want Wyche back. Esiason says that’s simply not the case. “The players on this team made so many stupid mistakes last year,” he said. “I’m sure Sam would tell you he made some mistakes last year, but 95% of them were made by players on the field. Right now, the Steelers’ veterans are making dopey mistakes, but everybody’s on Chuck Noll.
“One night, when they were calling for his head--it was probably about Week 12--(then-center) Dave Rimington, (backup quarterback) Mike Norseth and I took him to a comedy club. We just sat there and drank beers and he looked so run down and out of it. He couldn’t sleep or anything, and it was like (former Philadelphia Eagles coach) Dick Vermeil (who claimed to have burned out) all over again. And something happened that night, a sort of renewed mutual respect for each other.”
Esiason had one criticism and voiced it. In past years, Wyche admits he might have been a lot less receptive. But the coach, at 43, is maturing right along with his quarterback. “I told them, let’s go back to the basics. Not as many new plays. We go to training camp and put in certain things, the hooks, the goes, the comebacks, the corner routes. Then all of a sudden in games we’re running routes we’ve never run, based on what other teams did the previous week. We don’t do that to nearly the extent this season, which is one of the reasons we’re as sharp as we are throwing the ball.”
Going into this weekend, Wyche has told the team that the first opponent they underestimate will be the first team the Bengals lose to. When Houston and Cleveland get Warren Moon and Bernie Kosar back, the AFC Central still could be a fight, and the Bengals are going to have to prove they can win the big games down the stretch.
The Bengals aren’t the ’85 Bears or ’86 Giants, at least not yet. “Everybody still has doubts, but those doubts are good because it means we have a cautious optimism instead of the cocky optimism we had last year,” Esiason said. “What we do know is this is a whole new rebirth of the winning attitude that was lost last year.”