Cincinnati Bengals Still Haunted by Ghost of Bill Walsh, Presence of Dick LeBeau
First Back-to-Back Playoff Berths in 30 Years Within Reach
by Robb Hoff
December 20, 2012
When Cincinnati Bengals founder and owner Paul Brown brought his legendary football vision to the Ohio River some 45 years ago, the horizon of pro football in Cincinnati undoubtedly looked wide and bright.
In the decades of the 1970s and 80's, Brown fielded a winning franchise with a winning record over 20 years and all but a Super Bowl win to the Bengals credit after losing twice in Super Bowl appearances to the San Francisco 49ers coached by Bill Walsh.
But no one in Cincinnati could have possibly envisioned just how badly the wheels would come off of the franchise in the 1990s with the death of Paul Brown and the passing of the family business torch to Brown's son, Mike Brown, who thoroughly demonstrated just how overwhelmed he was by the challenge of fielding a competitive football team in a new era of player free agency with staff and player personnel that were ultimately helpless to overcome the ineptness of the younger Brown.
The result of the latter Brown's control of the team transformed a strengthening franchise into a pile of garbage on the field, as the Bengals suffered 14 straight non-winning seasons.
But during the last two years (2003, 2004) of that Bengals descent into the Dark Ages, there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel in Cincinnati. Head coach Marvin Lewis had inherited a 2-14 team his first year but showed he had the wherewithal to at least field a competitive Bengals team once again.
Since the end of the Bengals' losing ways, the team has won two AFC North division titles and advanced to the playoffs three times in the past seven years. In Lewis' 10 years with the team, the Bengals and their fans have suffered through just three losing seasons.
Now, the Bengals have the opportunity to reach the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time in 30 years with a win over division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Such a milestone would mean a great deal for Bengals' fans and the team's owner.
Besides the playoff milestone, a win over the Steelers on Sunday would help the Bengals exorcise one of the faces of the game that haunts the franchise -- Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was fired as the Bengals head coach in 2002 after the 2-14 season that led to the hiring of Marvin Lewis.
The exorcism of LeBeau from the Bengals won't come easily. LeBeau was not only a former head coach for the Bengals, he was also a longtime defensive backs coach and coordinator for the team -- including the Bengals two Super Bowl seasons.
LeBeau has had nothing but success since he left the Bengals for the last time with his firing in 2002. His Steelers defense has been a dominant force in the game, playing an instrumental role in catapulting the team to two Super Bowl wins in the past seven years.
To make his haunting even more complete, LeBeau delivered the deathblow to the Bengals 2005 team -- which had the most legitimate chance to contend for a Super Bowl -- when former Bengals player Kimo Von Oelhoffen shredded the knee of Bengals QB Carson Palmer at the outset of the playoff game that ultimately ended the Bengals season and sparked the rise of the Steelers to their first Super Bowl win in 26 years.
The Bengals' hope for throttling the haunt of LeBeau resides with a young offense spearheaded by QB Andy Dalton and heavily dependent upon WR A.J. Green, THE Jermaine Gresham, and RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis. As promising and talented as these young players are, they are the core of what is ultimately a middle-of-the-pack offense. Until they can collectively prove otherwise, there's no reasonable expectation that this Bengals offense will be able to purge the franchise of the haunting presence of Dick LeBeau.
But the Bengals will have an unlikely spirit available to them in their huddle come Sunday against the Dick LeBeau Steelers defense. Through the quirks of fate, the vestige of one of the greatest innovators of NFL football could filter through the playcalling like a wrinkle in time. You could say that the innovator would be Paul Brown himself and not be wrong, but the real innovator at work in the huddle now would be Bill Walsh, who invented the West Coach Offense while an offensive coach for the Bengals and Paul Brown in the first decade of the Bengals' history.
Walsh was in line to replace Paul Brown as the Bengals head coach when Brown himself decided to step down from that position in 1975, but Brown instead passed over Walsh and conjured some kind of curse that led to Walsh standing on the 49ers sideline as the 49ers twice defeated the Bengals in the Super Bowl.
The influence of Walsh upon the Bengals offense persevered during the coaching tenure of Sam Wyche but primarily vanished during the Bengals Dark Ages and was nowhere to be seen early during the Marvin Lewis Era with Palmer at quarterback.
The West Coast Offense revival for the Bengals has come with coordinator Jay Gruden, who is now in his second year with the Bengals and whose brother John Gruden was part of the Bill Walsh coaching tree.
Now, the likelihood that Bengals' running back Green-Ellis is going to conjure the spirit of say, West Coast Offense stalwart running backs Roger Craig or Charlie Garner, is unlikely and hasn't been featured so far this season in Green-Ellis' first with the Bengals.
But such a transition for Green-Ellis has been intimated and is exactly the kind of change of pace (or spirit, if you will) that the Bengals will need to catch LeBeau and his defense off guard. If Green-Ellis suddenly shifts into motion, catches eight or nine passes and makes the first tackler miss, you'll know that the change in the wind on the Ohio River is coming from the West -- as in the West Coast Offense -- and the first step the Bengal take in overcoming the haunting presence of Dick LeBeau on the Steelers sideline could be one that will also equip the team to eventually face the biggest haunt of the franchise in Bill Walsh.
So unless the Mayan Doomsday of December 21 holds true, or even worse, the Bengals lose to the Steelers on December 23, I'm sticking to my prediction for Super Bowl XLVII that would effectively put an end to the curse of Bill Walsh on the Cincinnati Bengals:
Bengals 20 49ers 13
But the Bengals will definitely need a ghost in their huddle against the Steelers first and will have to rely on their defense under coordinator Mike Zimmer to hold up their part of the bargain like they have all season.