Isaac Curtis was one of the best wide receivers in the history of the Cincinnati Bengals. During the course of his career, he recorded 416 catches for 7,101 yards and 53 touchdowns. Until surpassed by A.J. Green in 2016, Isaac ranked No. 2 all time in total yards behind Chad Johnson, and No. 3 in receiving touchdowns behind Johnson and Carl Pickens. For that reason, he still garners praise from Bengals fans and fellow teammates like Dave Lapham, who has nothing but great things to say about his former teammate.
“He was as good as I ever played with. Seriously, he’d be in my top 3 teammates of all time.” Lapham told Mo Egger on ESPN 1530. “The dude was an alternate to the Olympic sprint team. The dude had world class speed and sticky fingers. He was unbelievable to watch.”
By many accounts, Curtis absolutely changed the game for wide receivers. Before he entered the NFL, the NFL allowed contact with receivers as soon as the ball snapped. The only way for defensive backs at the time to contend with him was to tackle him before he got the ball in his hands. So, the NFL literally changed the rules, forbidding defensive backs from making contact with receivers after five yards. Thus, he helped usher in the modern era of big, fast, untouchable wide receivers.
“Isaac was big, but he wasn’t as big as the massive receivers that you have in the NFL today. I don’t think anyone has the speed that Isaac Curtis had. I think he’s unique in that area,” Lapham said. “But, somebody that can take the top off the defense, I think of Julio Jones. The catch Julio Jones made in the Super Bowl, Isaac Curtis makes that catch. He’s not as big as Julio, and Julio’s not as fast as him. But, the impact he could have that type of impact on a game. The guy averaged over 17 yards a catch for his career. Two years in a row, he averaged over 21 yards a catch on the season. This is back in 1974, 1975 when the ball wasn’t being thrown.”
The Bengals have been counting down their top 50 retired players in team history. Curtis made the list, deemed the First 50, although his placement at No. 9 overall is questionable. Was Cris Collinsworth (ranked No. 7) really a better receiver? Curtis recorded more yards, 100-yard games, and yards per reception than the current sportscaster did during his career.
It is hard to argue Curtis’ impact was greater than Chad Johnson, who holds the team’s records in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. Johnson was ranked No. 4, which is completely fair but Curtis’ placement at No. 9, behind Collinsworth at No. 7, seems poorly conceived. Ultimately, he was one of the most well-rounded receivers in Bengals history, a master of all the tricks in the book. Not ranking him higher simply underestimates his greatness.
“He’s not a one-trick pony. He didn’t just go out there and try to beat you with the nine route, he could beat you every way you want to get beaten,” Lapham said. “Back then, there weren’t bubble screens and things like that. His numbers would have been crazy. Because, if you made one guys miss. It’ all over.”
Today, Curtis’ legacy sets a standard for players in the NFL with similar talents. Although not as big as Curtis was, Bengals rookie John Ross brings a lot of similar talents to the table. If he can even come close to utilizing those talents in the way Curtis did, he will have a successful career.
“I hope John Ross translates like Isaac Curtis did, with that speed. He could transition his routes and come underneath you and do some amazing things,” Lapham said. “ He made some one-handed, and back-half of the football catches. Circus catches. The guy has got phenomenal hands.”
Ultimately, Curtis’ impact on the Bengals, and the NFL in general, was much greater than his placement in the this top 50 ranking. That he has not received much buzz as a potential Hall of Fame inductee is maddening enough, but the fans may also be underrating him after his illustrious career. There may never be another wide receiver to change the game like Curtis.