Best NFL Worst-To-First Teams By Decade: 1981 Cincinnati Bengals

Cinderella Story, rags-to-riches, poorhouse-to-penthouse, and as the late great Dusty Rhodes put it, wined and dined with kings and queens – slept in alleys and dined on pork ‘n’ beans. All these sayings have something in common, describing a situation the National Football League has seen plenty of over the past 50-plus years. In six decades, many teams have gone from pauper to prince (there’s another one) in a league that sports the most parity on the planet. So let’s jump into the Me-First Decade with this franchise’s most significant team turnaround at the time and perhaps the best quarterback bounce-back season ever.

Bengal Beginnings

Unlike our ’70s selection, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cincinnati Bengals were no laughing stock after they joined the NFL merger of 1970. Already with two years in the American Football League under their belt, the Bengals came in and won the AFC Central in their first National Football League season. Bengals bench boss Paul Brown was named Coach of the Year, and despite losing in the divisional round of the playoffs, 1970 was a successful league debut for the franchise.

Another division title would come in 1973, followed by another early exit from the postseason. Three playoff appearances, two division titles, and seven seasons of .500 or better would cap off their first decade in the NFL before the franchise’s first big turnaround.

Mr. Anderson: Superstar Season For Seasoned Superstar

To say Ken Anderson arrived in 1981 would be a huge understatement. Sure he had already been the starting quarterback in Cincy since ’72, but both Anderson and the team were downright bad to end the decade. The Bengals mirrored their leader’s struggles with back-t0-back 4-12 marks to complete the seventies before going 6-10 in 1980, finishing in the division basement in all three years. A broken hand in ’78 cost Anderson four games; he was sacked more than any other QB in ’79 and threw for career-lows in yards and touchdowns in 1980. 

From Benched to Bounceback

Whether head coach Forrest Gregg was a genius is up for debate. While his NFL coaching record of 75-85-1 would suggest not so much, what he did in Week 1 that season has to be considered a shrewd motivation move in hindsight. After the 32-year-old tossed two picks and the Bengals were down 21-0 in the season opener, it looked like Cincy was headed toward another season that resembled the previous three. Instead, Gregg benched his starter and put in third-stringer Turk Schonert. Schonert led the Bengals back to win the opener, and a fire was lit under Anderson in the process.

Not only did four-time Pro Bowler start every game that season but he put up career highs in, well, everything. Anderson put up personal bests in yards (3,754), TD passes (29), and a league-high QB rating of 98.4. He would win the NFL’s MVP, OPOY, and CPOY.

Franchise Firsts

In addition to a mantle full of personal hardware, Anderson led the Bengals to a franchise-best 12 wins. 

He then carried Cincinnati to a victory over the Buffalo Bills to pick up the franchise’s first-ever playoff win. The Bengals then went on to roll over the San Diego Chargers and grab their first AFC Championship in The Freezer Bowl, a game played in Cincy where temperatures reached nine degrees below zero with a wind-chill of minus-59.

Whether Anderson and his crew still had frostbite when they suited up for Super Bowl XVI two weeks later at the Pontiac Silverdome or second-year San Fran starter Joe Montana was just too hot, they couldn’t bring home their first league championship.

Anderson led a late fourth-quarter drive that made the score 26-21 with 16 seconds left but could not complete the comeback. In Montana, Cincinnati got a sneak peek at a player that would show them exactly what completing a comeback looks like against their biggest season-to-season turnaround team seven years later.

We will look at Cincy vs. the Comeback Kid Part II, the NFL’s dance of the decade, and Boomerball in the next edition of the best worst-to-first teams of each decade. Look out for the ’88 Bengals.