Photo Credit: Associated Press

By Zane Miller

After being taken with the 67th overall pick of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, quarterback Ken Anderson would take over the starting job from the team’s original NFL starter in Virgil Carter before the start of the 1972 season. After turning the Bengals around from a lackluster 4-10 finish to a winning record in 1972, Anderson would take it even further in 1973, leading the team to their second playoff appearance in franchise history, though they would be quickly disposed of 34-16 in the first round by the eventual Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins.

In the next three seasons, Anderson and the Bengals would build one of the top offenses throughout that span, finishing in the top-10 in points scored in all three years. However, this only resulted in one playoff appearance coming in 1975, which again saw the Bengals take a first-round exit, this time to the Oakland (now Las Vegas) Raiders 31-28, despite mounting an impressive comeback effort late in the game. As the legendary Paul Brown’s reign as head coach came to an end, Anderson and company struggled throughout much of the late 1970’s, with the offense barely staying around midpack. After an uninspired 1980 campaign saw the Bengals finish at a 6-10 record with the wheels completely falling off for the offense as they were second-to-last in the NFL, it would take a miracle for a massive turnaround for Cincinnati in 1981. However, this is exactly what they would get.

Anderson’s best game of the 1981 regular season occurred on November 29th on the road against the Cleveland Browns, dominating for four touchdowns and 235 passing yards as the Bengals won handily 41-21, with two of the touchdown passes going to rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth. The win improved Cincinnati to a 10-3 record on the season, as Anderson would steer the team to their first postseason berth in six years with a final record of 12-4 to win the AFC Central. Anderson had easily the best season of his career in 1981, bouncing back from a miserable 1980 which saw him throw just six touchdowns to finish third in the league in that stat with 29, just one behind runner-up Steve Bartkowski of the Atlanta Falcons. He would also finish fifth in passing yards with 3,754, again coming up just short to Bartkowski by 75 yards. However, Anderson would have the last laugh as he captured both the league MVP and Offensive Player of the Year awards, becoming the first quarterback since Bert Jones in 1976 to sweep both awards. He was named as a first-team All-Pro for the season as well.

On January 3rd, 1982, with their AFC Central title allowing them a first-round bye, the Bengals would remain in the Queen City to face the Buffalo Bills in the divisional round. The first quarter would be all Cincinnati, as a successful scoring drive and an interception by veteran cornerback Ken Riley set up a pair of short touchdown runs to put the Bengals ahead 14-0 early on. However, the Bills would fight back in the second quarter with a short touchdown scamper of their own, with a promising drive for the Bengals ending in a blocked field goal to make it a 14-7 advantage at halftime. Cincinnati would get perhaps their biggest scare of the game in the third quarter, with Bills running back Joe Cribbs running it in from 44 yards out to tie the game back up. Not to be outdone, Bengals running back Charles Alexander found paydirt with a 20-yard run to restore the seven-point advantage.

Early in the fourth quarter, Buffalo made it clear that they would not be going down easy, as the opening play of the frame saw quarterback Joe Ferguson connect with wide receiver Jerry Butler to tie the game up again at 21 apiece. However, on the ensuing drive, Anderson would get his only touchdown pass of the afternoon, finding Collinsworth for a 16-yard strike, retaking the lead a second time with just over 10 minutes remaining. Although it was anything but a safe lead, the Bengals defense held serve, getting a crucial turnover on downs with three minutes to go in regulation. Following a Cincinnati punt, the Bills would have one more chance to force overtime. Unfortunately for the Bills though, Ferguson would be unable to complete a single pass on the drive with the Bengals forcing another turnover on downs to seal a 28-21 victory. Anderson claimed one touchdown pass and 192 yards, albeit with an underwhelming offensive line performance as he was sacked four times on the day. Meanwhile, Ferguson had similar stats with one touchdown pass for 202 yards, despite this also coming along with two interceptions.

For the AFC Championship matchup against the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Chargers on January 10th, you may have heard of this one already. As extremely cold weather rolled into Riverfront Stadium, the game would be played in temperatures around negative nine degrees Fahrenheit, leading the contest to be nicknamed as the “Freezer Bowl”. Undaunted, the Bengals rocketed out of the gate with a 10-0 lead after the first quarter, though the Chargers briefly threatened in the second quarter after getting the longest play of the afternoon on a 33-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dan Fouts to tight end Kellen Winslow. Nonetheless, Cincinnati responded on the next series thanks to solid field position on the kick return, with fullback Pete Johnson punching it in for what would be a 17-7 advantage at halftime.

In the third quarter’s opening drive, the Chargers appeared poised to cut the deficit to one possession, though a crucial forced fumble by Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams instead set up a field goal which would make it a 20-7 game. San Diego returned to within striking distance on the next possession, but would be done in by a bizarre decision to attempt a 50-yard field goal in the frigid conditions, which unsurprisingly fell harmlessly to the turf about 15 yards short of the goalpost. Throughout the rest of the contest, the Bengals defense would stop the Chargers dead in their tracks to complete the second half shutout, allowing the team to cruise to a 27-7 victory and, most importantly, punching their ticket for their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. Anderson passed for two touchdowns and 161 yards with no interceptions in the win, while Fouts threw for one touchdown and 158 yards with a pair of INTs.

The Bengals would not have to travel far for Super Bowl XVI on January 24th, as they headed to the Pontiac Silverdome near Detroit to face the NFC-winning San Francisco 49ers. Early on, the matchup seemed as though it would be a runaway for the 49ers, as they pitched a 20-0 shutout through the first half thanks to a pair of touchdowns from quarterback Joe Montana, with one on the ground and one through the air. However, the Bengals would get their act together in the third quarter, as the defense held San Francisco to just four yards offensively. This allowed Cincinnati to claim their first points of the game as Anderson ran in for the touchdown, making it 20-7. The team also had a golden opportunity to slice the deficit even more after having a second and goal at the 1-yard line, however the ensuing three plays would go nowhere, prompting a turnover on downs.

Regardless, the Bengals continued their charge into the fourth quarter, as Anderson found tight end Dan Ross for a short touchdown grab, making it a 20-14 game. However, the 49ers would take advantage of an interception by rookie cornerback Eric Wright to run down the clock and kick a pair of field goals to build their lead back to 26-14. Anderson would hit Ross again for another touchdown, though this would be of little consolation with just 16 seconds left on the clock. After the onside kick attempt was scooped up the 49ers, this would officially seal the deal with San Francisco earning its first Super Bowl victory in franchise history 26-21. Although Montana only had one touchdown pass and 157 passing yards compared to Anderson’s two touchdowns and 300 yards, Montana’s statline came with no interceptions as Anderson threw two picks on the afternoon.

In the strike-shortened 1982 season, Anderson had another successful season as he led the NFL in both completions and completion percentage, leading the Bengals to a 7-2 record before suffering a disappointing first round loss to the New York Jets 44-17. In his final season as a full-time starter in 1983, Anderson once again led the league in completion percentage, though the Bengals failed to capitalize as they missed the playoffs. The next three years saw Anderson mostly serve as a backup and mentor for incoming starter Boomer Esiason, who would go on to have a 12-win season of his own with the team, before Anderson retired following the 1986 season with 91 career wins to his record.

After retirement, Anderson became the color commentator for the Bengals’ radio broadcasts from 1987 to 1992, before rejoining the team as quarterbacks coach in 1993. He was then promoted to offensive coordinator in 1996, however, the team got the nickname of the “Bungles” during this era for a reason as the team failed to achieve a single winning record during his time in the role. In 2001, Anderson took on the quarterbacks coach job once again, though the team remained firmly outside playoff contention as Anderson left the organization after the 2002 season. In 2003, he would join a new team for the first time since being drafted, as he was named both the quarterbacks and wide receivers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars would have one of their most successful regular seasons in franchise history in 2005 as they went 12-4 on the year, before falling to the New England Patriots 28-3 in the wild card round. In 2007, Anderson became the quarterbacks coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers of all teams, which must have made for an awkward introductory press conference, but I digress. Regardless, teaming up with the Bengals’ main rival paid off in the end, as Anderson finally won his first Super Bowl ring as the Steelers took home their sixth championship in 2008. After the 2009 season, Anderson announced his retirement from coaching. In 2021, Anderson joined the inaugural class of the Cincinnati Bengals Ring of Honor.