The 1989 Cincinnati Bengals came into the season looking to finish the job, after losing the previous year’s Super Bowl in the final minute to the San Francisco 49ers. Instead, the Bengals went through and up-and-down year that ended up just short of the playoffs.
Boomer Esiason was coming off his MVP season of 1988 and while he didn’t match that career year, Boomer was still pretty good in 1989. His 28-11 TD/INT ratio was solid by the standards of the time and he earned another Pro Bowl appearance.
The running game was potent—even though celebrated 1988 rookie Ickey Woods only played two games and was on his way out of the league and into a 21st-century future doing Geico commercials, the Bengals still had an outstanding offensive line.
Anthony Munoz was a future Hall of Famer at left tackle and still playing at a Pro Bowl level at age 31. Max Montoya gave Cincy another Pro Bowler at right guard. James Brooks ran behind this offensive line to the tune of a 1,200-yard season and averaged better than five yards a pop.
Esiason had no shortage of targets—tight end Rodney Holman was a Pro Bowler. Tim McGee could stretch the field and averaged better than 18 yards-per-catch. Eddie Brown caught over 50 balls and was a steady threat all year. Cincinnati’s offense was orchestrated by head coach Sam Wyche, a product of the Bill Walsh coaching tree and coordinator Bruce Coslet, a future head coach himself. And they finished fourth in the league in scoring.
So if the offense was still playing at a high level, the defense must have been the cause of the team’s fall, right? Wrong. They may have had only one Pro Bowler—strong safety David Fulcher who picked off eight passes—but they were coordinated by the great Dick LeBeau and finished seventh in scoring defense. Yet in spite of this well-balanced team, the final record did not match the composite sum of the parts.
WINDY CITY WAR
The season kicked off in Chicago’s Soldier Field with a highly anticipated game in the early afternoon TV window. The Bears had reached the playoffs each of the last five years under Mike Ditka, including an NFC Championship Game appearance in 1988. The Week 1 game was seen as a possible Super Bowl preview and it played out just like that.
Defenses were both tough and the Bengals held a 14-10 lead into the fourth quarter. But they couldn’t contain Chicago running back Neal Anderson, who rolled for 146 yards. Eventually, the Bears got a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mike Tomczak, a veteran product of Ohio State, and Cincinnati lost 17-14.
The Bears’ season would follow a similar trajectory to that of the Bengals—high expectations, a nice start, but then faltering down the stretch. Actually, that’s a bit unfair to Cincy, as Chicago completely collapsed in the second half. But in the moment, a close Week 1 loss on the road in the Windy City was no reason for alarm.
Cincinnati immediately asserted itself against divisional competition. The next four weeks included three games against AFC Central rivals—a division that at the time included Pittsburgh, Cleveland and the Houston Oilers (the organizational forerunner of the Tennessee Titans). There was also a game with Kansas City, who had an old rival in charge—Marty Schottenheimer had been chased out of Cleveland following the 1988 season and would rebuild the Chiefs into a playoff contender for this season.
The Bengals won all four games. A 113-yard performance from Brooks keyed a big rushing advantage over Pittsburgh in an easy 41-10 win. The running game dominated again on the Monday Night stage in Cleveland—Brooks and Eric Thomas shared the load, the Bengals outrushed the Browns 187-92 and won the football game 21-14.
A narrow escape followed in Kansas City—after trailing 17-7, the Cincinnati comeback was keyed by a 22-yard fumble return by linebacker Leon White and the Bengals won 21-17. The win streak closed with another big game by Brooks against the Steelers. The running back ran for 127 yards in a 26-16 win.
With a 4-1 record, the Bengals were atop the AFC Central and had picked up where they left off. But they would not win consecutive games the rest of the season.
STUMBLING FOR SEVEN WEEKS
It wasn’t that the schedule over the next seven weeks was particularly brutal. In what proved to be a very balanced AFC, it was no cakewalk—Miami and Indianapolis, who each came to Riverfront Stadium, contended for the playoffs to the final week of the season. So did the Raiders, whom Cincinnati visited in what was then the Silver-n-Black’s home at Los Angeles Coliseum. Road games against Buffalo and Houston were against teams that did make the postseason.
On the flip side…the very balance of the AFC meant that none of those teams finished better than 9-7. But the Bengals lost all five games. Only a couple games against NFC also-rans in Detroit and Tampa Bay saved this stretch of the season from being a complete washout.
Cincinnati was better than a touchdown favorite at home against Miami in mid-October and led 13-3 at the half. They couldn’t stop Dolphin wide receiver Mark Duper though and lost 20-13. The run defense failed them the following week against the Colts, with future Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson going for 152 yards and the Bengals again letting a second half lead slip, this time losing 23-12.
A third straight home game, this one against the Buccaneers, provided some relief. Esiason unleashed, throwing five touchdown passes, while Brooks ran for 131 yards. A 56-23 rout temporarily restored some order. But it didn’t last—against the Raiders, the Cincy defense allowed two huge plays to Bo Jackson—an 92-yard TD run and 84-yard catch and run for a score. With Esiason out for this game, backup Erik Wilhelm couldn’t generate any offense in the 28-7 loss.
There was real urgency as Cincinnati returned to Monday Night Football in a visit to Houston. After a scoreless first quarter, Brooks ripped off a 58-yard touchdown run. The Bengals led 14-7 at half, but giving up a defensive touchdown kept the game closer than it needed to be.
Houston began moving the ball in the second half, but the Cincinnati defense repeatedly forced field goals, so they trailed only 16-14. Esiason then hit Holman on a 73-yard touchdown pass. Oiler quarterback Warren Moon countered with a TD throw of his own. The teams traded field goals. Houston finally got the last word, with a 28-yard field goal that won the game 26-24.
Cincinnati had played well—Brooks ran for 141 yards, Esiason finished 11/19 for 209 and defensive back Eric Thomas sacked Moon twice. But giving away the free touchdown in the first half kept the downward spiral going.
The visit from the lowly Lions lifted everyone’s spirits—Boomer was razor-sharp, going 30/39 for 399 yards, with McGee and his eleven catches for nearly 200 yards doing the bulk of the damage. The result was an easy 42-7 win. But a visit to Buffalo—whom Cincinnati had defeated in the previous year’s AFC Championship Game—brought the team back down to earth.
While Brooks ran well, gaining 105 yards, the Bengal defense did not stop the run. A tag-team of Thurman Thomas and Larry Kinnebrew led the way for Buffalo to win 24-7.
The loss dropped Cincinnati to 6-6, but there was still hope. Cleveland led the AFC Central at 7-4-1 and there was still a head-to-head game ahead. The Bengals would also play the Oilers, who were in one of the two wild-card spots, at 7-5. In fact, no wild-card hopeful had a record better than 7-5. Cincinnati still controlled its own fate.
BIG DIVISION WINS
The games with the Browns and Oilers were on December 3 and December 17 respectively, and the Bengals were ready. With the winds gusting in Cleveland and no one really able to play well, Cincinnati found a way. Esiason threw third-quarter touchdown passes from 38 yards to McGee, nine yards to Holman and the Bengals broke open a close game, winning 21-0.
In a must-win game at home against Houston, to say Cincinnati was ready understates the case—Esiason hit Brown for touchdown passes of 22 yards and 35 yards in the first quarter and the Bengals were quickly on top 21-0. It was 31-zip by half. The Oilers didn’t score until the scoreboard read 52-0 and the final was a shocking 61-7.
Those two wins ensured that Cincinnati would control its playoff fate when they played the final Monday Night game of the season in Minnesota on Christmas Night. But in between the two divisional rivals was a bad letdown loss—the Seattle Seahawks had a mediocre team in 1989. In spite of the Bengals being a (-10) home favorite and getting a Pick-6 from Eric Thomas, they lost 24-17.
The result of the loss was that Cincinnati was out of the division title picture—that would be won by Cleveland in a Saturday night prime-time game in Houston on December 23. And it also meant the Bengals had to get one more win against an opponent that was just as desperate.
In the days before the final game of the season was a flexed game on Sunday Night chosen just prior to the last week, you had to hope for the best with the MNF finale. ABC couldn’t have scripted this one any better—Cincinnati and Minnesota were both playing win-or-go-home games. Pittsburgh and Green Bay were each tuned in, with their own playoff fates in the balance. Both the Bengals and Vikings had opened the season with Super Bowl expectations and now had to play for their lives in a de facto playoff game.
Cincinnati got off to a horrible start. They dug themselves a 19-0 hole by halftime, with the only consolation being that Minnesota had settled four times for field goals, two of them from in close. Esiason threw a 34-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Brown to make it a game. The Vikings drove again and again settled for a short field goal. Esiason answered with a 65-yard strike to Holman and the lead was cut to 22-14 going into the fourth quarter.
Boomer kept coming—though he would throw three interceptions on this night, he also went 31/54 for 367 yards. And he threw his third TD pass from 18 yards out to Craig Taylor. The two-point conversion was still several years into the future though, so Cincinnati could only kick the extra point and make it 22-21.
The decisive play came when Minnesota faced fourth-and-goal from the one late in the game. Viking coach Jerry Burns, tired of settling for field goals, rolled the dice to try and clinch the game. A play-action toss to the tight end, Brent Novoselsky, scored the touchdown that sealed the 29-21 final and sealed the Bengals’ fate.
Sam Wyche’s time in Cincinnati wasn’t done—he and Esiason would get the team back to the playoffs in 1990 and advance to the divisional round. But that was it. Wyche was fired following a collapse in 1991 and Esiason was traded to the Jets two years later. The franchise would not reach the postseason until Marvin Lewis came to town in 2005 and still has not won a playoff game since 1990. It’s fair to say the Cincinnati Bengals have never really recovered from the midseason fade in 1989.