Over the past couple of weeks, the NFL Network has dedicated quite a bit of time and footage dedicated to the Cincinnati Bengals. It's a refreshing change of scenery and a nice turn from the status quo, where the team is often overlooked for bigger-market teams. If you've been watching recently, you would have seen an interesting 1998 game against Barry Sanders and the Detroit Lions, the re-airing of the 2009 "Hard Knocks" documentary, and an incredibly well-done episode of "America's Game", chronicling the 1988 Bengals team.
If you haven't seen it yet (cough, Josh Kirkendall, cough), it can also be seen on YouTube--I'm adding it to this post, so you're welcome. If you're a Bengals fan and don't get chills during some of the footage, then I don't know what's wrong with you. Aside from getting an awesome perspective into who Sam Wyche and Tim Krumrie were, we saw the "Ickey Shuffle" craze. What really caught my eye was the greatness of Boomer Esiason.
Aside from having great leadership skills (Wyche calls him a "Field General"), Esiason led one of the best offenses that the league has ever seen with a lethal combination of a hurry-up approach and an incomparable play-action fake. If you remember this offense, it's crazy how effective that the play-action pass was and it was largely due to Esiason's "disappearing ball trick" that he employed in the play.
In the video below, you'll see the play-action fake in all of its Esiason-like glory at around 16:45 on to about the 17-minute mark:
Krumrie said it best in the documentary when he said: "You had to think. And, the old saying goes, 'every time you think as a football player, you hurt the team." Instead of just lining up and reacting to the play, he (Esiason and Wyche) made you think before you had to do something. 'What is he (Esiason and Wyche) going to do next?'". The key to their offensive success was to have the defense on their heels. The vast majority of the time, they achieved that goal.
Ironically, since Jay Gruden took the reigns as the offensive coordinator back in 2011, he has wanted the unit to have an effective running game and subsequent ability to use the play-action. Having this ability would greatly diminish the pressure on young quarterback Andy Dalton and that is the goal. There is just one problem: the Bengals haven't been able to perform the play action well, much less to the degree that Esiason did.
There are a few key ingredients for the play-action pass to be a success, be it in 1988 or 2013. The Bengals from 25 years ago had all of these ingredients down to perfection. Aside from Boomer's incredible ability to be a magician with the football during the play, every team has the ability to get the other pieces necessary to complete the play action puzzle. Let's review them:
1.) A multi-headed monster in the running game. The Bengals had one of the best running attacks in the league in 1988, where they rushed for a whopping 2,710 yards and a 4.8 yards per carry average. James Brooks and Ickey Woods rushed for almost 2,000 yards between the two of them and combined for 23 rushing touchdowns (Woods had 15, Brooks eight). Stanley Wilson added almost 400 yards on the ground and even the 6'5" Esiason ran for almost 250 yards himself. It was the"thunder and lightning" approach that set so many things up in the passing game. It also helped that the team had a great guard in Max Montoya and arguably the best left tackle to ever play in the NFL in Anthony Munoz.
The 2013 Bengals have their thumper in BenJarvus Green-Ellis and have added a little lightning with Giovani Bernard, Rex Burkhead and even Bernard Scott, if he's able to latch on to the final roster. They made an effort to re-stock the position, so we will see if their reallocation of resources to the position pays off.
2.) Having multiple running backs who can catch out of the backfield. It's been something that I had personally been harping on up to this year's draft--Dalton needs more passing options out of his running back stable. Esiason and the 1988 Bengals had a number of options, be it Brooks, Wilson, Stanford Jennings or even Woods. No one contributed more than Brooks, who had 29 catches and six touchdown receptions on the year and was a double-threat player. Check out the video at around 16:40 and 17:00 and you'll see what Brooks could do in the passing game. Frequently, these backs were covered by slower linebackers, but their wide receiver-like abilities made it a total mismatch. Advantage, Esiason and the Bengals.
The Bengals grabbed a couple of backs in this year's draft that should be able to participate in the passing game in Bernard and Burkhead, but we'll see if they can indeed translate those skills to the NFL. If they can, it will be a huge plus for Dalton and the Bengals in 2013 and beyond.
3.) The ability to use tight ends in the passing game. One of the best tight ends in Bengals history was Rodney Holman and he was instrumental in the team's success from 1988-1990. Though his best statistical season was in 1989, Holman still had a big impact in the team's Super Bowl run. Having a reliable tight end to throw to makes the play-action pass that much easier to run. When you run this play, formations usually have only one or two wide receivers because the offense wants to give the impression that they are running the football. Usually, the tight end(s) on the field would make a quick chip block and run a pattern to the open part of the field. Holman was one of Esiason's favorite targets and was a good blocker as well. There were some capable pass-catchers behind Holman in Eric Kattus and Jim Riggs, though their stats weren't impressive in 1988.
The Bengals have loaded up at the tight end position of late. After spending a 2010 first round selection on Jermaine Gresham, they added another talented fourth-rounder in 2011 with Orson Charles. Then Cincinnati surprised some this year by spending another first-round selection on the athletic Tyler Eifert. A couple of veterans round out the Training Camp roster in Alex Smith and Richard Quinn, making this one of the most talented positions on the team.
Aside from all of those elements, it was Boomer's game of "now you see it, now you don't" (in the words of the narrator in the documentary) that made the play-action successful. Quite honestly, I've never seen the play ran as successfully as the 1988 Bengals did on a regular basis, nor have I seen a quarterback that sold the fake as well as Esiason. And I've watched quite a bit of football over the years.