For those of us that are placed in between the "millennial" and "generation X", our football viewership has likely been limited to the 1990s up to the present day. One of the best and most exciting teams of that era was the Kurt Warner-led St. Louis Rams that dominated the NFL from roughly 1999-2002. Aside from the feel-good stories surrounding one the NFL's true good guys in Warner, the eye-popping numbers put up by the offense known as "The Greatest Show on Turf" made for must-watch football.
In case you're not familiar with the cast of characters outside of Warner, there were Hall of Fame talents all over the field. Running back, Marshall Faulk, was the team's biggest weapon as both an electric runner and one of the pass-catching backs in NFL history. There were also a glut of outstanding wide receivers, led by Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce, and Az-Zahir Hakim. This group helped to become the first team to score over 500 points in three consecutive seasons, and included two MVPs for Warner and three Offensive Player of the Year Awards for Faulk.
If you had turned back the clock twelve years prior to that, you would have seen a version of "The Greatest Show on Turf" being run by the Cincinnati Bengals.
For a portion of Bengals fans, the highly-productive and charismatic squad from a quarter of a century ago is relegated to film clips and second-hand stories. For others, the sting of the last-minute Joe Montana touchdown pass in the arms of John Taylor hasn't faded. The fact remains that the 1988 Bengals were one of the best teams to never win a Super Bowl ring, but we'll talk more about that this weekend.
The Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason-led Bengals ran an offense that was unparalleled at the time--much like the Rams' from over a decade later. Ironically, at first glance, the cast members of the 1988 Bengals laid the blueprint for the more widely-known Rams squad. One could say that the Super Bowl Cincinnati squad was the original version of "The Greatest Show on Turf".
As a unit, the 1988 Bengals scored 448 points, racked up a whopping 6,057 yards of offense and were the No.1 unit that season. The first place to start with the comparisons, would be at coach. Wyche was an offensive whiz; his career born fro Paul Brown and under the tutelage of Bill Walsh in San Francisco. Really, Wyche was a blend of Rams head coach Dick Vermeil in the motivation department, but also had the brains of offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. Both Martz and Wyche created an offensive system that wore down defenses and lit up the scoreboard.
The next obvious place to look is at quarterback. Both squads had a league MVP that led their teams to the Super Bowl and were field generals that their squads looked up to. Though Esiason's path was a different one from Warner's, both had a massive rebound of a season to lead their respective teams in the annals of NFL lore.
The Bengals had a big-play wide receiver crew themselves, who could compare to the multi-headed monster that the Rams had to their name. For Holt and Bruce, the Bengals had Eddie Brown and Tim McGee, who combined for almost 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns receiving. The Bengals also had a version of the cagy veteran, Ricky Proehl, in Cris Collinsworth. The now-famous Sunday Night Football Emmy-winning announcer had a diminished role in 1988, but was still a valued possession receiver.
The one player that they Bengals didn't have in their receiving corps was a player like Hakim. A guy who could return punts and contribute heavily in the passing game. But, for what they lacked in that area, they had a Pro Bowl tight end in Rodney Holman and a two-pronged rushing attack.
Heading that feared Bengals rushing attack was the duo of James Brooks and Ickey Woods. Brooks was the Bengals' version of Faulk with both players' abilities to contribute in the passing game. In 1988, Brooks rushed for eight touchdowns and caught six others. If you wanted to see the extent of Brooks' effect on the offense, you can check out this clip (though the highlights were from 1990, you get the gist).
Woods was a power back that the Rams didn't have to their possession. Robert Holcombe was a valuable player for St. Louis, but wasn't anywhere near the contributor that Woods was. His 15 touchdowns on the ground rounded out the Bengals offense as truly dynamic, showcasing the ability to do whatever they wanted with the football. He, too, could contribute in the passing game, adding 21 catches.
The parallels go on and on. Both also had Hall of Fame left tackles with the Rams' Orlando Pace following suit to Anthony Munoz--really we could continue on and you might be surprised at the similarities. The offensive systems even had a resemblance to each other.
The Bengals ran a very sophisticated version of the West Coast Offense, while the Rams had more of a "bombs away" approach. Still, both teams lived on the play action because of the abilities of their running backs and both intensively used their backs in the passing game. The key to both offenses, though? It was a "pick your poison" type of situation for opposing defenses. Key on the run? Fine, we'll throw deep on you. Bracket our deep threat wideouts? Alright, we'll run the ball down your throat and kill you with dump-off passes to our backs.
Aside from a couple of differences at running back and tight end, one of the only other differentiating qualities of these two teams is the ring that they own. The Bengals have an AFC Championship piece of jewelry to their name, while St. Louis' show off their title as 1999 World Champions.
Though credit has never been given to the Bengals offense as the innovators to the Rams' traveling highlight reel from last decade, maybe people should start to attribute the success of the Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf" to the Bengals' initial version from 1988.