No. 5: Ken "The Rattler" Riley
When a list is made that includes former Bengals players that should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Bengals cornerback Ken "The Rattler" Riley is highly regarded, if not the first behind quarterback Ken Anderson. The numbers speak for themselves. Riley ranked fourth all-time in the NFL with 65 interceptions at the time of his retirement; since then dropping to fifth after Rod Woodson's retirement. Paul Krause (81), Emlen Tunnell (79), Woodson (71), and Night Train Lane (68), are all Hall of Famers, ranked ahead of Riley with Ronnie Lott (63) and Dick LeBeau (62) just behind him -- also in the Hall of Fame. Of the players inside the top-ten interception mark in NFL history, seven are in the Hall of Fame and Darren Sharper only recently retired.
Riley once said of his Hall of Fame snub:
"I think my numbers are deserving of the Hall of Fame. I've always been a modest and low-key type guy. I've always thought your work would speak for you. It's like it's working against me now because the older you get and the longer you stay out of it, people forget who you are."
Later, Riley said:
"It's not my demeanor to speak out on my own behalf, but I am a little hurt when I sit back and look at some of the accomplishments and compare them to the former players who are getting inducted,'
What posed as the biggest confrontation for Riley's Hall of Fame bid was that he was never considered great during any given season throughout his 15-year career. He never led the league in interceptions and was never voted into the AFL All-Star Game or the NFL Pro Bowl. He was named First-Team All-Pro in 1983, his final season. Riley wasn't even thought of as the best defensive back on his own team when Lemar Parrish was playing with the Bengals.
If there existed a glimmer of appreciation regarding the team's fantastic history, erected would be a Bengals Hall of Fame, or at least a Wall-of-Honor, and Riley would certainly be apart of it. Along with holding the franchise record for most interceptions (65), no player has played more games in a Bengals uniform than Riley (207), retiring 15 seasons after he was drafted out of Florida A&M in 1969. Until Deltha O'Neal generated10 interception in 2006, Riley's nine interceptions in 1976 was the franchise mark for picks in a season.
No Bengals player recorded more interception return yards (596), interceptions returned for a touchdown (5) in a Bengals uniform. His franchise record of three interceptions in a game is shared with Parrish, Louis Breeden, David Fulcher, O'Neal and Leon Hall; Riley and Fulcher are the only players to do it twice. Riley's two interceptions returned for a touchdown in 1983 is a franchise record tied with Parrish (there's that name again), Tommy Casanova, Scott Perry and Ray Griffin.
Riley wasn't drafted for defensive back greatness out of college. In fact he wasn't even a defensive back. He was a quarterback. It wasn't until the Bengals drafted him when the legendary Paul Brown converted Riley into one of the best cornerbacks in franchise history.
There's no doubt that Riley's argument for the Hall of Fame is a strong one. Even so, he'll go down as one of the best players in franchise history and one of the most successful draft stories.
No 4: "The Original" Bob Johnson
Bengals center Bob Johnson will always be remembered as the first player ever drafted by this version of the Cincinnati Bengals. (Note: we've actually had more than one Cincinnati Bengals franchise before in the mid-to-late-30s). Paul Brown received approval from Cincinnati to build a football team in 1967 and began with a philosophy that corresponded to a style that was played at the height of his coaching career; a philosophical core that exists today.
You're only as good as your offensive line that protects the quarterback and opens lanes for the running game. With a football team to build, Brown knew he would have to build his core on the line; starting with arguably the most vital position of all... center.
Back when football was a tougher and grittier version than today, center was arguably the most important position because it was the centerpiece that called the offensive line's play (which largely still applies today) and there were vastly more interior runs against compressed defenses. The better the center, the better the offensive line played all around. In Brown's mind, you build from the center out.
This was also a time when the Senior Bowl had a slight rivalry. A sense of pride, much like baseball's All Star game during Pete Rose's era, existed. Heading into the 1968 Senior Bowl, the South had only won two of their previous 11 games. And Tennessee center Bob Johnson thought it was time to rectify that.
"There was a definite feeling on our team that we wanted to do something about the South's poor showing in the all-star games and the bowl games," said Johnson at the time, whose Tennessee team lost in the Orange Bowl to Oklahoma.
"The Senior Bowl is the biggest among them, even if the Southeastern Conference went 1-4 in the bowl games like we did, I feel we made up a lot of ground by winning this one."
The South won 34-21.
After graduating with honors in engineering, Johnson entered the NFL Draft and was selected second overall behind Hall of Fame offensive tackle Ron Yary in 1968. Nicknamed as "the Original Bengal", Johnson became the first Bengals player drafted in frachise history. The Bengals signed him on June 14, 1968 with Paul Brown saying that the signing "ensures us he'll be in professional football for a long time." Johnson would be a team captain throughout much of career in Cincinnati.
During the final game of the 1978 regular season, the Bengals honored Johnson as the "original" Bengal, playing 11 seasons with the team. The team presented Johnson with a silver service set and his own uniform to keep. Most importantly, they retired his number after the game against the Cleveland Browns, where Brown was at his peak emotionally.
Retirement didn't last very long.
After Blair Bush suffered a knee injury in 1979, the Bengals asked Johnson to come out of retirement as a long-snapper. Which he did.
"I think it's a cute situation," joked Johnson. "I told Mike Brown that I wouldn't charge him much to do this, but he'll have to pay a price to get my jerseys back. I'm viewing this as a five-week thing to help the team out of a spot. I think I owe them this sort of thing. There's no way I'm coming out of retirement. I don't want to put my 220 pounds against (290-pound Houston nose guard) Curley Culp any more than I have to," Johnson said.
Johnson re-retired after the 1979 season for good. Johnson has another distinction, aside from being the first Bengals player drafted in franchise history. His #54 is the only number retired by the team.
In 1976, Johnson said:
"You know, it doesn't seem like nine years since I joined the Bengals, but if you go back year-by-year we have played so many games that it seems like more than nine years."
"Personally, I am glad to be here. People kid me about being the original Bengal, but I've seen everything that's ever happened to this franchise. It gets exciting sometimes to think back to the first training camp we ever had and see the type of team we have now."
Johnson spent five seasons in the Bengals radio booth as a color analyst from 1981 through 1985. Years later the Bengals signed long-snapper Adam Johnson, Bob's nephew, to the practice squad in 2006.
No. 3: Boomer Esiason
Whenever the name Ken Anderson surfaces in the glorious golden halls of all-time Bengals greats, Boomer Esiason trails... but just barely. Depending on one's point of view, you might even set him ahead of Anderson. Regardless, both quarterbacks have always seemed interchangeable, with the source of any argument being the age of the fan. Yet they were equal in so many ways. Kenny Anderson led the Bengals to a Super Bowl. So did Boomer Esiason, who was Anderson's protege during the twilight of his (arguably Hall of Fame) career in the mid-80s.
Yes. Anderson holds most passing records in franchise history. But Anderson is also the most tenured Bengals player with 16 years of service while Boomer Esiason quickly (and wisely at the time) fled a sinking ship by seeking a trade after Sam Wyche left the organization. It explains why Anderson holds most of the career records for quarterbacks; though Boomer Esiason ranks second on most statistical categories, well on his way to holding virtually every record in franchise history if Cincinnati would have invested on those squads in the late 80s.
And to his credit, he does own records, with 23 career 300-yard games and five 300-yard games in a season -- a record tied by Carson Palmer. And before Palmer, Esiason held the record for most yards passing in a season (1986) and most yards passing in a game (490 yards on October 7, 1990 at the Los Angeles Rams). No Bengals quarterback recorded a higher career average yard/attempt than Boomer's 7.62. And despite playing six seasons and 58 games less than Anderson in Cincinnati, Boomer fell ten touchdowns shy of the franchise record for a career.
Yet, Esiason's career in Cincinnati snapped out of existence. Just like that. It began on Christmas Eve in 1991 -- a date that literally set the tone for the next 15 years. During a meeting between head coach Sam Wyche and President Mike Brown, something happened, because when it was over, conflicting reports emerged. While the Bengals said Wyche resigned, Sam Wyche disputed it.
"I was simply fired by Mike Brown at a meeting today," Wyche said in a statement released by his lawyers. "I have no idea why the Bengals have chosen to announce this as my decision to leave."
The distinction was important, if not Mike Brownion. Because if Wyche were fired, he was due $1 million for the two years remaining on his contract, whereas he wouldn't see a penny through resignation. Wyche was quickly hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the head coach, partially responsible for drafting players like Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch. And the Bengals organization was buried under cloud and ash for an entire generation, felt even today through saturating pessimism when things begin crumbling. The fall. The decline. Christmas Eve 1991 when it all began.
The initial firing/resignation of Sam Wyche, along with the team hiring an unproven and unqualified David Shula, severely fractured Boomer Esiason's loyalty to the Bengals. Esiason slipped into Mike Brown's office afterwards and demanded a trade. Brown agreed to capitulate, provided that Boomer stick around for another season while the team grooms a replacement -- because franchise quarterbacks are fully stocked in Aisle 17 at the Kroger Superstore. Good on his word, Brown drafted David Klingler and after the 1992 season, Esiason was traded to the New York Jets for a third-round pick.
Released after only three seasons with the Jets, Esiason spent a year with the Arizona Cardinals, even posting 522 yards passing against the Washington Redskins; third-most in a single game in league history.
Esiason was the verge of retirement in 1997 until something unexpected happened.
The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback signed a two-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals on April 6, 1997, backing up starting quarterback Jeff Blake. Bengals head coach Bruce Coslett was also Esiason's head coach during his first year with the Jets.
Why would you sign Esiason as a backup quarterback? Blake was named to the Pro Bowl in 1995 with Darnay Scott and Carl Pickens a constant threat on the outside. He was the young up-and-comer while Boomer was the gunslinger riding into the sunset; back where it all began.
Unfortunately the Jeff Blake led offense struggled. The Bengals opened the season with a 3-8 record in 1997 while Blake only generated eight passing touchdowns. Blake was benched against the Indianapolis Colts on November 11, 1997 and Esiason led the team with 21 second-half points and a 28-13 win.
Two weeks later, Coslett started Esiason. In return, he destroyed... everyone. Starting the final five games of the season, the Bengals went 4-1 and Esiason posted 11 touchdowns and only two picks with a season-long passer rating of 106.9. In four of the team's final five games, the Bengals scored 31 points or more; they scored 31 points only once in the 11 preceding games with Blake as the quarterback.
Boomer was back, baby. Hope permeated throughout the city. The glorious late 80s was upon us. It was epic.
Then he retired for good.
Offered a five-year deal with ABC's Monday Night Football, Esiason decided to end his playing career, turning to the next phase in his life. Television, where you can see him every Sunday morning (ripping the Bengals... or at least being tough on them as a big brother would). Mike Brown provided a moving goodbye on Boomer's career in Cincinnati.
"Everyone in Cincinnati is always going to be fond of Boomer. He leaves here as one of the shining lights in Bengals lore. He was just a great field general. He had a presence on the field that was unequaled. And off the field, he was an exemplar. Look at all he has done with the Cystic Fibrosis crusade. Everyone admires him for that."
No. 2: Lemar Parrish
As we've pointed out earlier, the riddle of Ken Riley's absence in the Hall of Fame baffles. How has someone with 65 career interceptions not enshrined, honored and remembered in the halls of NFL history outside of the community that bemoans the snub? The truth is, Riley, while great, wasn't even the best defensive back with the Bengals earlier in his career. No. An accurate description would be that Riley played alongside a great defensive back, making for a lethal cornerback combination... back in the day.
Riley's partner? A seventh round draft pick in the 1970 NFL Draft out of Lincoln named Lemar Parrish.
During their eight seasons together in Cincinnati, the duo of Riley and Parrish combined for 57 interceptions with six returned for touchdowns through 1977. The Riley/Parrish combination didn't last when Parrish began demanding a trade. On January 24, 1976, just before that season's Pro Bowl, Parrish was quoted as saying, "I just want out", renewing a hostility that existed between Parrish and former Bengals coach Paul Brown.
Parrish said that under Paul Brown, veterans "are treated like a kid out of college. Paul wants to pay his starters down, he doesn't want to pay anything." Like father, like son, we suppose. Maybe the issue we've related to Mike Brown isn't so much an isolated personality -- rather heredity carried down from his father.
"Paul never showed any affection for the guys," he added. "I don't care how good you are or how good you play, a guy likes to hear something from the coach."
In an unrelated note, the players threatened to boycott the Pro Bowl that year because the game did not "provide customary help to the players' pension so long as the players' association does not have a signed contract with the NFL." I just shivered.
Closer towards the 1976 regular season, Parrish made it known that he'd like to join the Washington Redskins. In very Chad Ochocinco-like behavior, Parrish, through the newspaper, had a message for Redskins head coach George Allen.
"Tell George hello and I'll be seein' him soon. I'd like to go to Washington because of George Allen. I've always wanted to play for him."
Set to expire after the 1977 season, Lemar Parrish made it know that if the Bengals want to keep him, they'll have to pay him.
"No cornerback in the league is better than I am, but a lot are getting paid better than I am."
According to Parrish at the time, if the Bengals didn't enhance Parrish's contract to the $100,000/year level, he would press harder for a trade.
"If they can't meet my salary standards, I got to move. I can't spend glory."
Parrish was traded to the Redskins after the 1977 season.
Fortunately, the conflict between the team and player dissolved over time, highlighting the traditions of remembering great players in Cincinnati's history.
While Riley is often remembered for his interceptions, Parrish is identified as the better cornerback. He had the swagger to easily call himself the greatest player at the time and back it up. During his eight seasons with the Bengals, Parrish was elected to the Pro Bowl during six. Though his 25 interceptions ranks fourth in franchise history, he holds franchise records with most interceptions in a game (3), second with four interceptions returned for a touchdown and most interceptions returned for a touchdown in a season (2); which happened in the same game (December 17, 1972 at Houston). His 354 career interception return yards ranks third all-time.
Along with being one of the best defensive backs in the league, Parrish was perhaps the most gifted return man in franchise history. If you combine his kickoff, punt, interception and fumble returns, Parrish recorded 12 touchdowns with the Bengals, scoring every possible way on defense and special teams. Parrish led the NFL three times with most punt return touchdowns, twice led the NFL with most fumble recoveries that led to a score and led the NFL in 1977 with most interception returns for a touchdown.
We're not finished.
Parrish's 24.7-yard average per kickoff return is a franchise best. As is his 18.8-yard punt return average in 1974 -- no one has come close. Parrish's four punt returns for touchdowns doubles any other player in franchise history and his two punt returns for touchdowns in 1974 has only been matched once (Craig Yeast in 1999). Before Carl Pickens' 95-yard punt return in 1992 against the Green Bay Packers, Parrish's 90-yard touchdown against the Washington Redskins on October 6, 1974 was the franchise's long punt return. He's also one of 10 players to record a touchdown return on kickoffs in a season (no player has scored two in a single season).
Additionally, his 130 punt returns ranks second behind returner Mike Martin, as does his 1,201 punt return yards. Parrish's 338 punt return yards in 1974 was a record at the time, until Mike Martin' 376 set the franchise record for most punt return yards in a season. Quan Cosby later blew that record out of the water, recording 474 yards on punt returns in 2009.
Get my point? He's a legend.
No. 1: Anthony Munoz
Selected third overall during the 1980 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Anthony Munoz would achieve so much more than any Bengals player ever has in the history of the franchise. An 11-time Pro Bowl player, a nine-time AP First-Team All-Pro selection, Munoz was named to the 1980s All-Decade Team, the NFL's 75th Anniversary All-Time team and enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 1998. He's one of a handful of players to participate in both of Cincinnati's Super Bowls, starting Super Bowls XVI and XXIII.
Everything was just as smooth as that, right?
On May 22, 1980, reports surfaced that the Cincinnati Bengals broke talks with Anthony Munoz's agent, Mike Trope. Trope immediately claimed that Bengals vice President Mike Brown reneged on a verbal agreement and a month later, a $13 million lawsuit was filed against the Bengals charging a "breech of contract". Since the team didn't sign Munoz, his attorney claimed that the verbal agreement was similar to a signed deal, therefore he should become a free agent.
Things took a twisted turn into the the realm of unintentional racial slurs. Mike Brown sent Munoz something that prompted the prospect tackle to say, "I would feel very uncomfortable playing there," Munoz said in early July of 1980. "I don't want to play for the Bengals. That's what it comes down to."
Brown sent Munoz a Cincinnati Post article with commentary that read the "Bengals should tell Munoz and Trope to 'get lost' and called Munoz a 'Big Burrito'".
"With the large number of Spanish-speaking people here in southern California, that writer would have been lynched if that story was published out here," said Munoz. "I'm upset that the article was sent to me by the Bengals. For someone to send something like that, I feel, is just putting fuel on the fire."
Mike Brown denied that he sent the article.
A month later, the Bengals signed Munoz and the future Hall of Famer said at the time, "The contract had the numbers I wanted." The lawsuits were finally dropped and the marriage between the Bengals and Munoz finally began.
And Munoz would go to become the best Bengals player of all-time.