Best NFL Worst-To-First Teams By Decade: 1988 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 late 80s for this franchise’s biggest single-season turnaround and one of the best of the decade.

The Cincinnati Crash of ’87

While it may not have been as severe as the ’87 stock market crash known as Black Monday, Cincinnati experienced a crash of its own that started to take shape just a day before. Less than 24 hours before the largest one-day drop in Dow Jones history on Monday, October 19th, the Bengals lost their third game of the season, a 34-0 drubbing in front of their home fans to the Cleveland Browns. Cincy’s slide would grow to four straight, and they’d lose nine of their final 11 games to finish 4-11 in the AFC Central’s basement. A far cry from their 10-6 mark in 1986.

Hazy Shade of Winter

The team had just one home win at Riverfront Stadium in ’87, and without a playoff appearance in six years, people in Cincinnati were as likely to know all-girl band the Bangles as they were these Bengals. A long offseason that started in late December gave extra time for starting quarterback Boomer Esiason and head coach Sam Wyche to repair their stormy relationship. 

Not Just Another Manic Monday

While Cincinnati would not appear on Monday Night Football in ’88, they made fans forget about the losing monotony of 1987 in a hurry. The Bengals won more games at home by Week 4 when they got payback against the Browns for the blowout shutout at Riverfront a year earlier. They jumped out to a 6-0 start and made fans wish every day were Sunday by going a perfect 8-0 at home.

Boomer and the Shuffle

Wyche and Esiason clicked like never before, with Boomer blasting personal bests in several categories. The Bengals pivot led the league with a 97.4 passer rating while throwing for over 3,500 yards and 28 touchdowns on his way to being named league MVP. Boomer also inadvertently helped create the NFL’s dance of the decade by handing the ball off over 200 times to rookie Ickey Woods.

The light on his feet fullback rumbled to over 1,000 yards and led the league with an average of 5.3 yards per attempt. His AFC-best 15 touchdowns on the ground led to some of his best footwork, the Ickey Shuffle. The TD celebration gained mainstream appeal and helped put the Bengals on the map as they headed toward the playoffs.

The Rest of the Band

You can’t make beautiful music on the field with just two players. The less heralded supporting cast of football’s Bengals was crucial in making Cincinnati the highest-scoring team of 1988. Wideout Eddie Brown led the AFC and set a franchise mark with 1,273 receiving yards on his way to the Pro Bowl.

James Brooks was the other face of Cincy’s two-headed monster out of the backfield. The tailback contributed 931 yards to the NFL’s leading rushing team and was a crucial weapon in all facets of the offense. 

Hall of Famer and ‘88 NFL Offensive Lineman of the Year Anthony Munoz protected Esiason while also creating holes for the running game to succeed. Alongside one of the best linemen to ever play the game, Max Montoya joined Munoz as a Pro Bowl selection that year.

The Show Is Held Over

For the first time since the strike-shortened season of 1982, Cincinnati was playing in the postseason and with home field advantage as the AFC’s top seed. Little did they know then how eerily similar things would end up to their last big playoff run.

The Ickey Shuffle was on full display in the divisional round. Woods ran for a game-high 126 yards to go with a score in Cincinnati’s 21-13 victory over the Seattle Seahawks on December 31st, 1988. Whether there was a New Year’s Eve party in Cincinnati or not that night, Woods saved plenty of dance moves for Buffalo in the AFC Championship.

A week after shuffling over Seattle, Ickey shuffled all over Buffalo to the tune of a game-high 102 yards to go along with a pair of touchdowns. The defense stepped up, too, holding running Thurman Thomas to just six yards while picking off Jim Kelly three times in the 21-10 victory. Super Bowl XXIII awaited.

Rock Star Status

While Jerry Rice and Joe Montana were already frontmen in the NFL, this was the highest stage for Boomer Esiason and Ickey Woods. The Bengals’ dynamic duo came in as +7 point underdogs to San Francisco’s superhero pair, but that didn’t stop Cincinnati from putting up a fight.

A few first-half miscues and big defensive plays kept the Bengals in the game as they went to the locker room knotted at three, the first halftime tie in Super Bowl history. 

With Esiason and Woods having quiet games, special teams stepped up in the second half as Stanford Jennings stunned San Fran with a 93- yard kickoff return touchdown to take a 13-6 lead.

Joe Cool’s Encore Performance

What was coming next was all too familiar to Bengals fans, having seen Montana lead the 49ers to a Super Bowl win over Cincinnati in 1982.

Montana opened the fourth quarter with a four-play, 82-yard drive, culminating in a 14-yard touchdown pass to fellow rockstar Rice.

With the score knotted at 13, the Bengals bandmates answered. Boomer led a 10-play, 46-yard drive, which included 21 yards on the ground from Woods. The series did not end on an Ickey shuffle as Cincy settled for a 40-yard field goal to take a 16-13 lead.

With just over three minutes left on the clock, Montana would bring the house down with his final number. The 11-play, 92-yard drive ended in a 10-yard touchdown pass to John Taylor with 39 seconds left and ended Cincy’s Super Bowl dreams.

It was Back to the Future for the Bengals as Montana’s Niners again bested them in the Super Bowl, but second-best to a dynasty like those 49ers is nothing to sneeze at. 

In a year following a four-win campaign, the ’88 Bengals might be the best team not to win it all.