For any type of organization, hiring decisions are paramount—particularly when it comes to leadership positions. The NFL is a business where getting the correct people in place within a franchise’s staff is the most critical aspect when constructing a championship team.
Upon his retirement in 1976, iconic Bengals owner Paul Brown made a decision that would shape his team to the present day. The old-school Brown opted to hire Bill “Tiger” Johnson, over the up-and-coming offensive genius that was Bill Walsh, and while there were some similarities in successes and failures early on, Walsh went on to win three Super Bowls with the 49ers—two at the Bengals’ expense.
Revisionist history is one of the most often-used tool in a Bengals fan’s arsenal. “What if’s” litter the team’s legacy, including the idea of Walsh staying with the Bengals. We decided to talk about this topic on this week’s Orange and Black Insider, especially triggered by some of the great work done by Jim Owczarski of The Cincinnati Enquirer, who recently chronicled the events from four decades ago.
While we asked a number of hypothetical questions on OBI this week, it really boiled down to two critical ones.
Could Walsh have made Boomer Esiason into Joe Montana?
Aside from Tom Brady, Montana is widely-regarded as the best quarterback to ever play in the NFL. A large portion of that sentiment resides in Walsh creating a system filled with other great players and a scheme (later coined as “The West Coast Offense”) to play to Montana’s strengths.
Sam Wyche, the guy who eventually ended up getting the job Walsh wanted, (just eight years later) took many ideas on offense from the guru. Wyche was a quarterback with the Bengals under Walsh’s tutelage and then joined him as an assistant coach in the late 1970s in San Francisco. Ironically, his first year as the team’s head coach was the same year Wyche took Esiason in the second round of his inaugural draft.
When you look at the Bengals and the team that made it to Super Bowl XXIII, there are some very interesting similarities to the 1980s juggernaut Walsh built. In those days, San Francisco relied on Montana, running back Roger Craig, receivers Jerry Rice and John Taylor, as well as ancillary pieces like tight end Brent Jones and defensive end Charles Haley.
While the Bengals didn’t have Rice, they did have a multi-dimensional back in James Brooks and a similar scheme that Wyche created from some of Walsh’s ideas. It led them to a large amount of success as the 1980s creeped to the 1990s.
When you look at Walsh and what he did with Montana and what Wyche, his protege, created in Cincinnati, one is inclined to think he could have made Esiason into a quarterback placed on the position’s Mount Rushmore of iconic faces. It’s an easy pill to swallow, especially when looking at what Walsh did with Esiason’s predecessor, Ken Anderson.
When you read Owczarski’s recounting of the saga between Walsh and the Bengals, a theme of obsession with getting back at Paul Brown is apparent. If he had been given the original opportunity with the Bengals, would he have channeled that energy into making Esiason a championship quarterback? It’s definitely possible. After all, Montana was a lukewarm prospect out of Notre Dame in 1979 and Walsh molded him into one of the best quarterbacks of all time.
This isn’t a slight to Wyche, as he deserves a lot of credit for what he did with Esiason. He made the lefty a league MVP and one of the better quarterbacks in his generation, which included guys like Montana, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. Still, one has to wonder if the master would have had an upper hand over the apprentice in this regard.
Would Walsh have made the Bengals champions?
If you think the hypothetical of Esiason becoming a Hall of Fame player under Walsh was hard to fathom, this question is even more difficult to answer. When you look at those three championships in the 1980s, it’s easy to cling to the belief that Walsh would have done the same with the Bengals.
However, as one listener noted on the program, Walsh was given quite a bit of free reign when it came to signing players on the open market, something Walsh may not have been allowed to do with Cincinnati. A Brown family staple when it comes to running an NFL franchise is cautioning on the side of frugality when it comes to free agency signings.
Three championships for Walsh and the Bengals wasn’t likely, but at least one was within reason. Two of those championships Walsh won were against the Bengals, making the conversation even more interesting.
While neither of these questions can be answered with certainty, it does bring about some interesting ideas. What if Paul Brown, a football genius who almost always chose the safe path in regards to critical decisions with his football teams, decided to go with the progressive mind in Walsh instead of Johnson back in 1976? Might the Bengals be viewed in a different light, in terms of NFL lore? Could they have a few Super Bowl victories to their name?
You can download the audio clip of the OBI segment on SoundCloud.
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