What if? Cincinnati Bengals replay Super Bowl loss every year

Posted at 6:36 AM, Feb 02, 2014

WCPO originally published this story on Feb. 2, 2014 to mark the 25th anniversary of Super Bowl XXIII. We're republishing it as the team gathers for its 30th anniversary season celebration at Paul Brown Stadium.

 CINCINNATI – With 34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII, Boomer Esiason took a knee on the final snap and kicker Jim Breech leaped into the arms of one of the Bengals’ big offensive linemen on the sideline, raising his right hand in a No. 1 salute.

“I’m going to Disney World,”  Breech shouted into the camera as fireworks exploded above him.

With 34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII, Tim Krumrie, the game’s defensive star - a former 10th-round draft choice who still carried a chip on his shoulder -  ran down the sideline crashing into teammates and high-fiving others, just as he had when he exploded out of the tunnel before the opening kickoff.

With 34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII, Stanley Wilson, who kept his footing on the chewed up field of Joe Robbie Stadium and added an important dimension to the Bengals’ running attack, blew a kiss to his wife and parents, who had stood by him during his years of drug and alcohol addiction.

With 34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII, Sam Wyche wept as he embraced his coaches before joining his players in the celebration on the field. Too emotional, too sensitive to be a football coach, Wyche had just won the NFL’s biggest game, and the football writers and broadcasters who had been calling him  “Wicky-Wacky” were about to crown him as the game’s premier motivator and innovator for his no-huddle offense, and for turning a 4-11 team the previous year into a 15-4 Super Bowl champion.

Not only that, Wyche was about to be offered the head coaching job of the 49ers.

By the time the last 34 seconds of Super Bowl XXIII had ticked away, the Cincinnati Bengals had set a new course that would bring them another Vince Lombardi Trophy the next season and turn them into one of the NFL’s most successful franchises over the next 25 years.

End the dream sequence.

OK, most Bengals fans know what really happened with 34 seconds left in Super Bowl XXIII (if you don’t, watch the two-minute video above), what really happened to Krumrie and Wilson, and what really happened to the franchise since Jan. 22, 1989:

> Fourteen years without a winning season (1991-2004).

> No playoff wins in 26 seasons (1991-2017)

> Not to mention, no Super Bowls since 1989.

But most fans probably don’t know that the 49ers talked to Wyche about taking their coaching job when Bill Walsh retired after beating the Bengals 20-16 in Miami.

RELATED: Official game stats
RELATED: Play by play

At the Oak Hills Sports Stag in January, 2016, Wyche said 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo sent a messenger to him as the Bengals boarded buses outside the locker room after the game.

“The guy told me to walk around the corner. I did and there was Eddie,” Wyche said of their impromptu secret meeting.

“He asked me not to do anything -  the owner did," said Wyche. "Don’t do anything till I had a chance to talk to him. My contract was up with the Bengals. That was my fifth year. I said, ‘Fine, I’ll give it some thought. But I said I’ve got two kids in high school and I don’t know if I’m going to pull them out.’ And I didn’t. Pretty quick we got together in Cincinnati and went our way.”

Wyche re-signed with the Bengals, the Niners promoted defensive coordinator George Seifert, and San Francisco repeated as Super Bowl champ the next season and won again under Seifert in 1995.

By then, the Bengals had fired Wyche and the Lost Decade (55 wins and 137 losses between 1991 and 2002) was well under way under head coach Dave Shula.

But let’s go back to 1989 and ask, “What if?” Wyche and Bengals players from that team always do that at Super Bowl time.

And when they do, they sometimes point a blaming finger at each other.

What if Wilson doesn’t go on a cocaine binge the night before the game?

What if Krumrie doesn’t snap the tibia and fibula in his left leg in the eighth minute of the game - one of the most horrific injuries football fans have ever seen?

What if Lewis Billups doesn’t drop an interception in the end zone at the start of the fourth quarter?

Do the Bengals win?

What if Wyche calls more running plays and fewer passes, as running backs Ickey Woods and James Brooks say he should have, instead of splitting the plays almost evenly with Boomer Esiason passes?

Do the Bengals win?

“Sam wanted to make Boomer the star of the Super Bowl,” Woods told WCPO in an interview for this article.

What if the Bengals don’t play a “soft” prevent defense, as Wyche called it, on the Niners’ final drive?

Do the Bengals win?

“The worst thing we did was going to the prevent defense,” Woods said. “We let Joe Montana pick us apart.”

Never mind Wilson, Krumrie and Billups, said safety Solomon Wilcots.

“I can live with all those moments, but I can’t live with second-and-20,”  Wilcots said, referring to defense’s failure to stop the long pass to Jerry Rice that set up Montana’s game-winning TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left.

“We practiced that for two weeks and we ended up with three defensive backs colliding with each other.”

Bengals Still Feel Pain Of Almost, Not Quite

Thirty years haven’t taken away the pain of a Super Bowl loss.

“It will never go away,” said Brooks.

“I try not to think about it,” said Wilcots.

“I think about it every year at Super Bowl time, and I don’t think about it the rest of the year,” said center Bruce Kozerski.

It’s harder to forget because Wyche and Bengals players are convinced they would have beaten the Niners in 1989 with Wilson and Krumrie.

“Would Stanley and Timmy have made 34 seconds’ difference? I think everybody in Cincinnati believes that,” Kozerski said.

The Bengals had the NFL’s No. 1 rushing attack that year led by Woods, Brooks and Wilson and had bulled over Seattle and Buffalo in the AFC playoffs.

“I believe in my heart if we had (Wilson) in that ballgame we’d have won that ballgame going away,” Wyche said before speaking to the Oak Hills crowd. “It wouldn’t have been a close game. His running style would have fit.

“Remember, the turf wasn’t watered right. It was coming up in chunks. Ickey Woods, Stanford Jennings and James Brooks were all long-striding, bend-back runners. When they did that, the turf would come loose. But Stanley was a wide-striding kind of Barry Sanders runner and he would have had people missing.”

Wilson had been suspended twice for drug use and missed two full seasons in 1985 and 1987, but Wyche said he was surprised when Wilson missed a team meeting on the night before the game. Running backs coach Jim Anderson found Wilson on the bathroom floor in his hotel room. 

At that point, Wilson’s football career was over. Ten years later, he was convicted of a $130,000 home robbery in California. Wilson is still serving a 22-year prison sentence.

“When I told the team Stanley wasn’t going to play, he’d gotten back into the stuff, I remember them throwing their playbooks on the ground and putting their heads in their hands,” Wyche said. “They knew Stanley was more vulnerable than I did. The guys in the locker room generally know more than the coach does, but they weren’t expecting this, certainly the night before (the game).

"We’d had a walk-through on the game field that morning and he had his wife and his mom and his dad there. He’d flown them in from California. There wasn’t a hint of a problem.”

Woods noted that Wilson was more than just another runner out of the backfield.

“Stanley was an integral part of the team, not just running and blocking and carrying off the play fake, but he was a great morale guy, too,” Woods said. “He would walk up and down the sideline and talk to you and cuss you if he thought you needed it.

“If Stanley’s there and Krumrie doesn’t get hurt, we win big.”

Krumrie had been the anchor of the defense and its most dependable player for years.

“Randy Cross, the 49ers center, was retiring after the game and he couldn’t handle Timmy by himself. They had to double-team him,” Kozerski said. “The guy who came in for Timmy, David Grant, had a good game and even had a sack, but they didn’t need to double-team him.”

Krumrie’s left foot caught in the loose turf as he turned to tackle Niners running back Roger Craig. His left leg shattered and when he landed on the ground, Krumrie was lying on his back, but his left foot was pointed into the ground.

Paul Sparling, now the Bengals head trainer, was an assistant trainer in 1989 and rushed onto the field to aid Krumrie.

“I could see his leg was contorted and I remember hearing a loud ‘ugh’ from the crowd watching the replay. It was a gruesome injury,” Sparling said.

“Tim was not as upset as he was mad. He was never really injured before. Some players get seriously hurt, they’re crying. Tim had to be in a lot of pain, but he was doing his best to hide it. He was a throwback – a tough, tough guy.”

A San Francisco offensive tackle, Steve Wallace, broke his leg in the first quarter in a similar way.

The Interception That Wasn't

Even without Krumrie and Wilson, the Bengals managed to hold a 13-6 lead going into the fourth quarter. Both teams had kicked two field goals, and the only touchdown was a 93-yard kickoff return by the Bengals’ Stanford Jennings.

Up to that point, the defenses had kept the high-powered offenses in check. Surprising? Maybe not. The Bengals  had only given up 23 points in two playoff games; the Niners 12. But by the end of the third quarter, the 49ers were rolling down the field. Two plays picked up 71 yards and put them at the Bengals’ 14-yard line.

Montana threw behind Rice in the end zone. Billups had the ball in his hands but dropped it.

On the next play, Rice beat Billups again and Montana laid it in for the tying TD.

“If we don’t drop the interception, we win the ballgame,” Wyche said.

Woods, Brooks Take Exception To Play Calling

Elbert “Ickey” Woods, a rookie second-round draft pick, came here from a tough neighborhood in Fresno, Calif., with lots of gold jewelry and a ponytail. But his big smile and hard-running style quickly won over any Bengals fans who might have prejudged him.

Woods’ soft-shoe touchdown dance, the Ickey Shuffle, became a national sensation. He rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns. By the time he got to the Super Bowl, he did the Shuffle with his mother on a national TV commercial and appeared on network TV shows and the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Woods and Brooks combined for more than 2,000 rushing yards and caught 51 passes for 500 receiving yards that season. In the first two playoff games, Woods had more yards rushing (227) than Esiason, the league’s MVP, had passing (202).

But in the Super Bowl, Woods and Brooks felt like kicking tees - underutilized.

“We didn’t run the ball enough,” said Woods.  “We had the No. 1 rushing attack. We were running the ball about 40 times per game up to the Super Bowl and then we split running and passing 50-50 (actually, 26 runs, 25 passes).”

Woods had 20 carries for 79 yards. Brooks had 24 yards on six carries and caught two passes for 32 yards.

It didn’t help that Esiason was keeping a shoulder injury secret from his teammates, Woods said. Esiason completed only 11 of 25 passes for 144 yards and one interception.

“After the game Boomer said his shoulder was hurting. If Boomer’s shoulder is hurting, why are we throwing the ball?” Woods said. “After a series, me and Brooks would come to the sidelines (mad). Finally, Sam called the offense together and said, ‘Guys, we can run the ball and pass the ball.’

“But we couldn’t pass the ball because Boomer’s shoulder was hurting.”

“At the end of the day, they (the SF defense) weren’t even dropping back,” Brooks said. “I thought I had an advantage on their linebackers because they couldn’t cover me.”

Kozerski said the torn-up field made it difficult for the line to get a push on run blocking.

“It was like running on a beach. There was no traction,” Kozerski said. “The middle of the field from the 30 to the 30 had been replaced and it was coming up in clumps. You couldn’t move people. It’s much easier to hold your ground than to gain it. We had to throw.”

Called Into The Breach, Bengals Kicker Comes Through

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bengals were driving toward a go-ahead touchdown. They got to the SF 24, but a false-start penalty against Kozerski set them back to the 29. After a 4-yard run by Woods and an incomplete Esiason pass to Brooks, Wyche ran Jennings on third-and-11.

He got 3 yards.

In came Breech, who wasn’t expected to play a major role in the Super Bowl. He hadn’t even attempted a field goal in the two AFC playoff games and was only 11 of 16 during the regular season.

Dissatisfied with Breech’s short kickoffs,  the Bengals gave the job to punter Lee Johnson. Breech made only one field goal of more than 40 yards in four tries during the season.

But in the Super Bowl, Breech was already 2-for-2 from 34 and 43, and he made it 3-for-3 from 40 yards. Ironically, that made him the first kicker in Super Bowl history to make two from 40 or more. No one even matched his record until 2010.

There was just 3:20 left and when the 49ers drew a penalty on the kickoff return, they had to start from their 8-yard line with 3:10 left. 

On the sidelines, Kozerski, 6-4 and 287 pounds, lifted Breech, 5-6 and 161, off his feet in a big bear hug.

“Jim Breech was 34 seconds away from winning Super Bowl MVP,” Kozerski said.

What About That Prevent Defense?

Every Bengals fan – no, make that every football fan who was at least 10 years old in 1989 remembers what happened after that.

Montana led the 49ers on the greatest drive in Super Bowl history, completing eight of nine passes and throwing a 10-yard TD pass with 34 seconds to spare.

Sitting on the bench, helpless to stop Montana’s march, Woods was almost more disappointed by the Bengals’ defensive strategy than the TD.

“We had pressure on Montana for 57 minutes and he didn’t do much,” Woods said.

The Bengals had five sacks in the game but none in the last drive, when the Bengals stuck to rushing four.

“Then in the last three minutes we go to a prevent and that prevented us from winning the game,” Woods said.

Wyche apparently was helpless, too.

"Dick LeBeau was our defensive coordinator and I let Dick handle anything like that. Dick was the defensive guy," Wyche said.

"I know Joe Montana. I knew the offense over there. I’d been with Bill Walsh his first four years in San Francisco. I’d been with Joe Montana his first four years in the pros and his first Super Bowl win. I knew if you played prevent defense they’re going to move the ball down there. They're smart enough and Joe’s clever enough to do it.

"I thought we ought to bring more people … bring five and they’ll lay the ball off. Come up and make the tackle and it will be second-and-8. But the strategy was good,” Wyche said.

Wilcots, who started at safety but didn't play in the final drive, defended LeBeau and said the Bengals weren't in a "soft" prevent.

He said the play that lost the game for the Bengals happened two plays before the TD pass, on second-and-20, when Rice caught a 27-yarder down the middle to the Bengals 18.

"Dick LeBeau made the perfect call. It was a lack of execution," Wilcots said. "He coached the play. They were supposed to double Rice and allow the safety to come down and jump the pass. It was not soft prevent. It was pressure with zone coverage, but they blew it."

The Bengals had the 49ers right where they wanted them, Wilcots said.

"It's like chess. You give up a pawn, a rook, so you can corner the queen and checkmate. You call all the plays up to that to get to that point," Wilcots said.

"I just know Dick called the right play at the right time. Everything he told us would happen happened. He was on top of his game that day. He's won Super Bowls with that defense (with the Steelers)."

So, don't blame the defense, said Wilcots, an NFL commentator for CBS Sports.

"The 49ers scored 55 on Denver in the Super Bowl the next year. We had the No. 1 offense and we didn't score a single touchdown on offense, while the defense up to that point held that juggernaut of Hall of Famers to 13 points."

Still, when the defense had to stop them, they couldn't. Montana finished with 357 yards passing. Rice caught 11 passes for 215 yards and was named MVP.

After blowing off steam, the Bengals players seemed to agree on one thing.

"It's not anybody's fault. We didn't play our best game and they capitalized on our mistakes," Brooks said. "We left it up to the defense instead of the offense controlling the game like we did all season. I should have done more to help us win. If we had played our game on both sides of the ball, we would have won."

"It's a 100-yard field but it's a game of inches," said Kozerski. "When you get the opportunity, you have to make the play."

While Woods was forthcoming with his disappointment, he said he wanted to be sure to express his gratitude to his teammates and coaches.

"I was fortunate to make it to the Super Bowl my rookie year and play in the ultimate game. Not every player does," he noted.

Woods tore up his knee on the AstroTurf at Riverfront Stadium in the second game of the following season.

Woods struggled to make a comeback for three seasons, but he gained only 459 more yards before his career was over.

"It was a big blow. I didn't expect to get hurt in my second season. But we had a good four-year run," Woods said.

Real tragedy befell Woods in 2010 when his 16-year-old son, Jovante, a Princeton High School football player, died of a severe asthma attack. Woods and his ex-wife Chandra started the Jovante Woods Foundation to raise awareness about asthma and organ donations.

"You gather yourself and move on," Woods said.

Back To The Super Bowl? Why Not?

That could have been the Bengals’ motto for 1989. You miss winning the Vince Lombardi Trophy by 34 seconds, why can’t you be right back in the chase next year?

“I’m sure a lot of people thought that, but I don’t think they understand how slim the margin of victory is,” Wilcots said.

Still, Kozerski and Wilcots said they fully expected to make another Super Bowl run when the next season began. The starting Super Bowl lineup was intact, although Cris Collinsworth had been cut and had retired to TV.

“Sam’s motto was ‘Finish,’ “ Kozerski said.

As in finish what you started.

“I certainly thought it was a doable thing,” Kozerski said. “Even after we lost Ickey, we still had J.B. (Brooks) and that big offensive line. I thought we had some question marks on defense.”

“I was certainly confident we could get back there,” Wilcots said. “But remember, we were 4-11 in ’87, and some of the things that plagued us in ’87 started cropping back up in ’89.”

And Plan B free agency, which took effect in 1989, immediately changed the NFL landscape, especially hurting the Bengals.

No Plan B For Plan B

“When Ickey went down, we didn’t have anyone who could step into his role,” Brooks said.

The Bengals had traded down in the draft and given up their first-round pick.  The top pick, at No. 35, was RB Eric Ball of UCLA. Although Ball remains with the Bengals as director of player relations, he didn’t have much impact as a player, and the 1989 draft was a bust.

Meanwhile, teams started scooping up the Bengals’ backups, Wilcots said.  One of the first to leave was a running back, Marc Logan.

“When Plan B started in the offseason, it was the first time anybody could sign players off another team. We were a Super Bowl team, so we got raided. We lost our backups,” Wilcots said. “When your backups are gone, you can’t sustain injuries.

“We lost a ton of guys and we signed zero. And the new crop of players didn’t come close to the ones they replaced.”

The Bengals finished 8-8 and out of the playoffs.

In the offseason, the Bengals lost their first key player to Plan B, guard Max Montoya, who went to the Raiders.

“That was a big loss,” Wilcots said. “That guy was a great football player.”

The Bengals traded linebacker Joe Kelly for wide receiver Reggie Rembert – a bust.

But Wilcots believed the window of opportunity was still open in 1990.

The Bengals drafted better, getting linebacker James Francis and running back Harold Green.

They started strong again, 4-1, and though they struggled in the second half of the season, their 9-7 record was good enough to make the playoffs.

After crushing Houston 41-14, they went to L.A. for a fateful meeting with Bo Jackson, Montoya and the Raiders.

“I really thought we would beat the Raiders and get to the AFC Championship Game,” Wilcots said.

He noted that Jackson “went out early” with a hip injury from a tackle by linebacker Kevin Walker. That tackle ended Jackson’s NFL career, though he did return to major league baseball.

But the Bengals didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter and managed only 12 first downs in a 20-10 loss.

“I think we had a tired team,” Wilcots said.

Walking off the field, Wilcots decided to go Plan B.

“People asked me why and I said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be that good next year.’ I didn’t see enough fight in the dog.”

Wilcots signed with the Vikings – and just in time.

Just like that, the window had closed.

The Bengals started 0-8 in 1991, finished 3-13, and you know the rest.

Wyche either quit (Mike Brown said) or was fired (Wyche said).

“We could see things changing when Sam wanted more power. I don’t think Mike Brown wanted to pay to maintain what we had,” said Brooks, who hightailed it to Cleveland, of all places, after 1991. “He was willing to let it break down and rebuild. But when you bring in Dave Shula as coach, you know you’ve got problems.

"He was not a head coach.”