The Cincinnati Bengals were losing 17-10 to the undefeated Denver Broncos on October 23, 1977. Quarterback Ken Anderson, starting despite suffering badly damaged strained knee ligaments against the Pittsburgh Steelers a week earlier, completed nine of 17 passes for only 67 yards passing and an interception. Bengals head coach Bill Johnson had enough, pulling Anderson out of the game to the roaring cheer of Riverfront Stadium. Backup quarterback John Reaves, who complained publicly that he should be the starting quarterback against the Broncos, completed six of 11 passes for 92 yards passing and the Bengals ended up losing 24-13.
Reaves kept the pressure on Johnson, thinking he should start in place of the injured Ken Anderson the following week against the Houston Oilers. Johnson, feeling a sense of "damned if I do, damned if I don't", started Reaves. After completing five passes for 69 yards and throwing two interceptions, Anderson replaced Reeves in the second half. Anderson made the most of it, completing 12 of 16 passes for 107 yards passing, leading the Bengals during a game-winning drive that ended with a field goal in overtime.
"I'm so high right now," said Anderson after the October 30th game. "I don't know what I'm doing." A badly bruised thigh and his knee injury, along with a public outcry from his backup quarterback, forced Johnson to select Reeve. After what happened against Houston, Anderson remained as the starting quarterback, winning five of the next seven games to finish second in the AFC Central at 8-6.
Unfortunately for Anderson, injuries kept mounting. He broke his throwing hand during the preseason in 1978. And it showed. He started the first 12 games that year, losing eight of the team's first nine games (not by himself, mind you) and posting 10 touchdowns against 22 interceptions that season.
Injuries were mounting and his performances were suffering. At this point the Cincinnati Bengals decided to look towards the future, selecting Washington State quarterback Jack Thompson third overall in the 1979 NFL Draft.
Anderson suffered back spasms and was forced to leave the game against the New England Patriots on September 17, 1979. After Bengals fans reportedly cheered, Jack Thompson, who was deeply concerned about Anderson at the time, led a Bengals team that fans booed.
"We didn't quit, but to hear boos, it sadden you," Thompson said at the time. "It's sad, but that's the way it is. Everyone wants a winner."
Yet Anderson still started 15 games in 1979, posting 16 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. While still grooming Thompson, Anderson started another 12 games in 1980, throwing 13 interceptions and posting a 5-7 record. Thankfully for Anderson, Thompson just wasn't growing well enough to take over as the Bengals starting quarterback.
Then 1981 happened.
During the first game of the year, Anderson posted two first half interceptions against the Seattle Seahawks, forcing head coach Forrest Gregg to bench the quarterback in favor of third-string quarterback Turk Schonert at half-time with Cincinnati facing a 10-21 deficit. Largely thanks to Pete Johnson and Archie Griffin scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns, Schonert led the Bengals to a nice comeback win, beating the Seahawks 27-21.
Coach Gregg didn't immediately name Anderson the starting quarterback against the New York Jets the following week. He considered Schonert, as well as Jack Thompson. Eventually Gregg picked Anderson and the Bengals quarterback had one of the best seasons in franchise history. Anderson threw multiple touchdown passes in ten games, threw more than one interception once, led one of the league's top ranked offenses and posted a league-high 98.4 passer rating.
Anderson was elected to the Pro Bowl that year, named as the First-Team All-Pro quarterback, the AP MVP, the PFWA MVP, the AP Offensive Player of the Year and the AP Comeback Player of the Year. He was by all definitions, the best player in the NFL that year.
Oh yea. And he led the Bengals to their first ever Super Bowl. Even though he posted 300 yards passing, completing 25 of 34 passes, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another, the Bengals would go on to lose 26-21. Damn Joe Montana. Damn Bill Walsh. And damn those damned 49ers.
During the strike-shortened 1982 season, Anderson would post a 70.6% completion rate, though his career never played out the way that season did in 1981. In the five seasons after the Super Bowl, Anderson would go on to throw 37 touchdowns and 36 interceptions. Anderson has been named a Hall of Fame finalist in 1996 and 1998, but never receiving the vote to be enshrined. There's arguments for and against Anderson's entry into the Hall of Fame. But one thing is for certain, the quarterback drafted in the third round of the 1971 NFL Draft out of Augustana wasn't so sure he'd make it that far in the late 70s.
Anderson's career dimmed in the early 80s, eventually giving way to the team's youngest starting quarterback, Boomer Esiason.
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