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Sam Wyche, the overlooked NFL innovator

Whether it’s in looking at today’s offenses around the league, or the most successful in his own era, Sam Wyche was the architect of a trailblazing NFL system.

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As the New Year turned to 2020, some somber news hit the Cincinnati Bengals community. Longtime coach and figurehead, Sam Wyche, passed away Thursday, just days shy of his 75th birthday.

Our readers and listeners engaged us upon the news, with many of them wanting us to reminisce about the man. While he never won a Super Bowl with the Bengals, he came oh-so-close, using his bravado and innovative style of play, thus cementing his legacy as a Queen City deity.

Many in NFL circles rushed to send condolences, harkening back to memories of his on-field success, genius-level football mind, epic soundbites and his affable southern charm. The league lost an iconic figure when Wyche finally succumbed to the numerous health issues he had been facing in recent years.

Oddly enough, it seems as if the former two qualities of Wyche go criminally overlooked. Maybe it’s because his Super Bowl run was over three decades ago, or due to the Bengals’ lack of overall NFL success. It could also be that his tenure as a coach in the league was vastly overshadowed by his contemporary and resident upon the NFL’s Mount Rushmore in Bill Walsh.

Regardless of the reasoning, it shouldn’t be that way.

Wyche was the architect of one of the most innovative offenses the league had ever seen. For we nerds of football history, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that Paul Brown was instrumental with the ushering in of many modern football mainstays and Wyche being a Brown disciple as both a player and coach.

When Wyche took over the head coaching job from Forrest Gregg in 1984, it was an irony of sorts, given that Walsh was passed over for the gig about a half-decade earlier and Wyche worked under him in San Francisco after playing in Cincinnati. Regardless of that fortuitous set of events, Wyche used a similar coaching formula that both he and Walsh concocted with the 49ers from 1979-1983 and made it his own.

In the 1970s and 1980s, NFL offenses largely relied upon an effective rushing attack with the occasional big passing play. The Pittsburgh Steelers mastered this approach with Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw and the duo of big-play wideouts in Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

What Wyche and Walsh created was the heavy institution of play-action passing, which ultimately became the West Coast offense. But, the two wunderkinds expanded upon those concepts with versatile running backs who were also gigantic staples in each teams’ passing attacks.

Roger Craig of San Francisco became the first 1,000-yard rusher and receiver in league history back in 1985 and revolutionized the position. Wyche found his own version in James Brooks, whom he traded for in his inaugural offseason as Bengals head coach.

Brooks was one of the most feared backs from 1984-1990, racking up three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, close to 9,500 scrimmage yards in eight Bengals seasons and 92 total touchdowns (65 rushing, 27 receiving). These numbers ultimately led to three Pro Bowl berths for Brooks.

He wasn’t alone, though. To kick off that magical 1988 campaign, Wyche drafted Ickey Woods in the second round of the draft. While he used a two-headed rushing attack that year (Woods and Brooks combined for 1,997 rushing yards in 1988), his quarterback and system were the league’s envy. After all, it was Boomer Esiason, not Joe Montana, who was the league MVP 32 years ago.

Esiason was a master of the play-action pass, often faking out both defenses and TV cameramen on a weekly basis. Wyche would utilize Esiason’s strength in said manner, then called the numbers of his own crew of big-play receivers in Tim McGee, Eddie Brown, Cris Collinsworth, as well as Brooks and tight end Rodney Holman.

Another staple of the system was the “no huddle”. Teams weren’t accustomed to this fast-paced style of play, wherein the Bengals scored points at a furious pace. In fact, Bengals fans booed the Buffalo Bills in the ‘88 AFC Championship game because it appeared Marv Levy’s defense was feigning injuries to slow things down.

Wyche was able to run this system because of the most talented collective group of offensive linemen in the league at the time. Anchored by Anthony Munoz and Max Montoya, the group also consisted of Bruce Kozerski at center, Joe Walter at right tackle and Bruce Reimers at left guard. Munoz and Montoya made a collective 11 Pro Bowls in the Wyche era (eight by Munoz and three by Montoya from 1984-1991).

Of course, the opportunistic defense led by defensive lineman Tim Krumrie, linebacker Reggie Williams and the “S.W.A.T. Team secondary” was a major facet to the team’s success, as well. They set Wyche’s offense up on numerous occasions and often go overlooked themselves because of the immense talent on offense.

A culmination of all these facets can be seen in the below video, courtesy of NFL Films.

But, sadly, up until his death, “overlooked” is a bit of an operative word when it comes to Wyche. Because his mentor got the best of him in Super Bowl XXIII, Wyche was never able to break away from Walsh’s shadow—at least not from many casual fans outside of Bengals circles.

We also can’t mention Wyche without his clashes with the other iconic coaches of the old AFC Central. Chuck Noll, Marty Schottenheimer and Jerry Glanville all provided unforgettable games and subsequent press conferences at the time.

Wyche and Glanville’s Houston Oilers had a particularly acrimonious relationship. As Sam put it: “Jerry and I got into a situation where it became, really, a hatred at some point.”

In 1989, Wyche’s Bengals destroyed Glanville’s Oilers 61-7. In the game, he opted for a Jim Breech field goal with just seconds remaining and also called a successful onside kick late in the contest.

Glanville had the last laugh though, as Houston made the postseason and the Bengals did not. The Oilers’ coach sent Cincinnati players and coaches tickets to their playoff game as a jab.

This was Bengals football under Sam Wyche. It was an exciting, in-your-face, inspiring brand of ball where Wyche’s offensive wizardry was on display. To say he’ll be missed is a massive understatement.

All that needs to be said, really:

RIP, Coach. You’re sorely missed.

Also on this week’s episode on this week’s Orange and Black Insider:

  • The Bengals are set to coach one of the teams in the Senior Bowl and it’s a big deal.
  • What are the specific reasons for Bengals optimism in 2020 and how valid are said aspects?
  • Should the Bengals experience any turnover on their staff this offseason? Was the late-season uptick in performance enough to warrant it being kept intact?
  • John and Anthony also kick off the 2019 Bengals season awards.

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