Thirty years ago, the San Francisco 49ers played the Dallas Cowboys and the Cincinnati Bengals in successive games. The stakes were just a bit higher back in 1981, but the sequence repeats itself this Sunday as the Niners travel to Paul Brown Stadium to face the Bengals on the heels of hosting the Cowboys a week ago.
Usually this space is reserved for a fan of this week's opposition to share their experience with the team. This week is different. For Bengals fans, no other team has impacted our experience as fans more than the San Francisco 49ers.
It all began in 1968 when a young assistant coach from the Oakland Raiders signed on to be legendary coach Paul Brown's offensive assistant with the AFL expansion Cincinnati Bengals. Having worked under Al Davis, Walsh was well-schooled in the principles of the vertical passing game. When Walsh came to Cincinnati, however, he was faced with some personnel challenges.
After losing young superstar quarterback Greg Cook to injury, Walsh was left with Virgil Carter as his starting quarterback. Carter didn't quite possess the arm strength necessary to execute the vertical passing game, but he was mobile and had tremendous accuracy. So Walsh modified his offense to fit Carter's skill set and the "West Coast" offense was born. The Bengals drafted Ken Anderson in 1971. Working with Walsh, Anderson would become the prototype quarterback for this style of offense.
Walsh and Brown had a stormy relationship, however, and when Paul Brown retired in 1975, he named his defensive assistant, Bill "Tiger" Johnson his successor. Walsh resigned and went to San Diego to work with Tommy Prothro. He would become the head coach of the 49ers in 1979. Forrest Gregg would take over the reigns in Cincinnati in 1980.
That set the stage for the magical season of 1981. Both the Bengals and 49ers were reclamation projects coming off dismal seasons. Led by Ken Anderson, the Bengals would compile a 12-4 record on their way to the first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The Bengals last two losses that season came at the hands of the 49ers, a 21-3 loss at home in December, and of course, the infamous 26-21 loss in Super Bowl XVI in Detroit.
The two teams would face off again in 1987 in Riverfront Stadium during week two. Since their Super Bowl meeting, the Niners had gone on under Joe Montana to win another Super Bowl in 1984. The Bengals had again made the playoffs in 1982, but Forrest Gregg resigned after the 1983 season and was replaced by Sam Wyche, a former backup quarterback in Cincinnati who played under Bill Walsh. Wyche's teams struggled early on, but were beginning to show promise behind quarterback Boomer Esiason. The team opened 1987 with a win in Indianapolis and held a 26-20 lead with six seconds remaining in the game. Facing fourth down from his own thirty, Wyche decided against risking a punt block, and handed the ball to running back James Brooks, figuring he could run out the clock. Brooks, however, was tackled with two seconds remaining, allowing the Niners one last play from the Bengals 25. Joe Montana lobbed a pass into the end zone and a young wide receiver by the name of Jerry Rice out-jumped Bengal defenders for the ball, and the Niners won the game. The NFL players would go on strike the next week and the Bengals limped toward a 4-11 finish.
Somehow, Sam Wyche retained his job, and in 1988, the Bengals and 49ers were once again on a collision course, meeting in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami. The Bengals held a 16-13 lead after a Jim Breech field goal put them in the lead with 3:20 remaining. The 49ers were flagged on the ensuing kickoff and backed up to their own eight yard line. What followed was one of the most clutch performances in NFL history as Joe Montana took the Niners 92 yards for the winning touchdown, a 10 yard strike to John Taylor with just 39 seconds left on the clock.
San Francisco would go on to repeat as Super Bowl champions the next season and win another in 1994 with Steve Young. The Bengals have not returned to the championship game.
On Sunday, the shared fortunes of the two teams will continue. On the Niners roster,
Paul Brown passed away in 1991 and Bill Walsh in 2007, but both are immortalized in Canton for their influence on the game.
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