Objectively speaking, it's hard to disagree with the notion that the AFC North is the toughest division in the NFL. A quarter of the Bengals' games every season come against the perennial powerhouses known as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. Throw in two more games against the pesky Browns and one-third of the schedule always makes a Bengals fan cringe.
Say what you want about the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they know how to win. They are such a well-oiled machine that a supremely disappointing season for them was last year's 8-8 season. In some cities, that is a reason to celebrate. Then you have the Baltimore Ravens, who not only won the Super Bowl last season, but have gone to the playoffs every year under John Harbaugh. Even when their reign appeared to be coming to a halt this offseason, they re-stocked themselves to be set up well for the future. And though the Cleveland Browns haven't had much to celebrate since their re-birth in 1999, they still are a thorn in the side of each of the other three teams.
The coaches for each team have a certain aura about their respective personalities as well. You have Mike Tomlin heading the Steelers, who is young, confident and seems like a players coach. There's Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati, who is an enigmatic guy--one who can show disdain for the media at times, but also gave us a glimpse at his true character in the 2009 "Hard Knocks" documentary. Lewis is known as a cerebral guy who knows how to build a roster. Harbaugh isn't nearly the character that his brother Jim is, but he definitely does not lack confidence or bravado. Rob Chudzinski is the new guy on the block who will have to prove himself to the rest of the division.
What has fueled and continues to fuel the rivalries today is the mixture of hard-nosed football, big personalities, the close geographical proximity of the cities and a lot of success between the franchises. Though a lot has changed over the past 25 years, the rivalries can be traced back to that time.
The old AFC Central division was comprised of the Browns, Steelers and Bengals, but also had the Houston Oilers. They were a bit of an outsider, given their location, but they made coaches blood boil. Most Bengals fans of today remember their move to Tennessee when they had some success with the "Music City Miracle", while being led by the late quarterback Steve McNair, as well as running back, Eddie George. The truth is that their success went further back than that.
Before there was Jim Harbaugh, there was Jerry Glanville. He was a small guy from the south that had a big mouth and personality. He also was a good football coach that fielded a fierce, and somewhat dirty football team. From 1987-1989, Glanville took the Oilers to three straight playoff berths.
When one thinks back to the Glanville-led Oilers, it's easy to look at the offense as a big key. Warren Moon had great weapons in the passing game in Drew Hill, Haywood Jeffries and Ernest Givins. Glanville also had a sound running game, thanks to Mike Rozier, Allen Pinkett and Alonzo Highsmith. It was a huge reason for the Oilers' success.
But, what Glanville taught his defense was to make up for their talent shortcomings with effort--even if it meant that that effort came well after the whistle. Though the unit was comprised of few household names, Glanville got the most out of them and they doled out huge hits to the opposition on a weekly basis. Led by defensive lineman Sean Jones and defensive back Cris Dishman, the Oiler defense was built on swagger and intimidation. It was this style of play and Glanville's staunch support of it that led to some of the most heated rivalries that the league had ever seen.
The NFL could have built a miniature Mount Rushmore to the coaches in the AFC Central in the late 1980s. The level-headed, but highly-successful Chuck Noll ran the show in Pittsburgh, Marty Schottenheimer was the head man in Cleveland and the great Sam Wyche built a brief dynasty with the Bengals. Throw in Glanville and the Oilers' back-to-back-to-back postseason berths and it made for a highly competitive division.
Glanville instantly became the villain of the division, with his all back outfits standing out in stark contrast from the Oiler powder blue uniforms. Aside from leaving home game tickets at the box office for the deceased Elvis Presley, Glanville liked to rub his rivals the wrong way. On one occasion during a post game handshake, Noll told Glanville off for his team's "cheap" style of play. Glanville laughed the situation off.
No rivalry during this time equalled that of the one between Glanville and Wyche. In the below video clip on the rivalry between Glanville and the division, Wyche said "Jerry (Glanville) and I got into a situation where it became, really, a hatred, at some point". Wow.
When the Bengals and Oilers of the late 1980s got together, you could expect a lot of points to be put up on the scoreboard--be it a lopsided one or not. In the Bengals' Super Bowl run in 1988, they beat the Oilers at home 44-21 in Week Eight. In Week 15, the Oilers pounded Cincinnati to the tune of 41-6. Even though both teams were headed to the playoffs and the game didn't mean much for the Bengals, it didn't sit well with Wyche.
The rivalry hit its peak the following year on December 17th, 1989. The Oilers were headed to the postseason and the Bengals weren't, but that didn't stop Wyche from giving Glanville a taste of his own medicine. Up 58-7 with just a minute left in the game, Wyche had his offense still drive down the field and kick a field goal with just seconds left on the clock, to extend the lead to 61-7. Said Glanville of the game: "He (Wyche) tried to beat us by a hundred; stopped at 60 only because the time ran out".
It's hard to imagine that the league would allow these types of rivalries and actions from head coaches 25 years later, given its penchant for wanting to be the ultimate PR machine. The unfortunate truth is that we'll likely never see rivalries like the Glanville/Wyche/AFC Central hate-fest that we saw a quarter of a century ago. And that's a shame.
In the meantime, Happy Memorial Day: