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What if Bill Walsh coached the Bengals...



From the next SI....

BILL WALSH: Coach, Cincinnati Bengals

ROAD NOT TAKEN After the legendary Paul Brown retired from coaching at the end of the 1975 season, the Bengals might have promoted the future Hall of Famer who was working as their quarterbacks and receivers coach. Walsh served as the team's de facto offensive coordinator, calling plays from the press box, and already had a reputation as an offensive innovator.

ROAD TAKEN Brown, the team's part-owner, vice president and general manager, did dip into his staff to find his replacement but chose offensive line coach Bill (Tiger) Johnson, who shared Brown's temperament and background: Both were taciturn former servicemen and pro football lifers. At 44 Walsh was five years younger than Johnson and more emotional. "Paul had promised it to Tiger," says Dave Lapham, an offensive guard on that team. "He had turned down other opportunities to be a head coach. He had Paul's word that he would be the guy." Within two weeks, citing a preference for living on the West Coast, Walsh bolted for an assistant's job with the San Diego Chargers. Johnson coached the Bengals for two full seasons and was fired after Cincinnati lost the first five games of his third.

NOW IT CAN BE TOLD According to former Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Tom Callahan's The Bases Were Loaded (and So Was I),the Bengals tried desperately to keep Walsh on their staff. They offered more money and threatened to charge San Diego with tampering. Chargers coach Tommy Prothro invited Walsh to eavesdrop on a bizarre phone call between Brown and Prothro. According to Callahan, "Walsh silently listened to what a backstabber [Walsh] was and what a mistake it would be ever to trust him with the offense or anything else." But Walsh already had made his decision to leave Cincinnati, thereby ensuring that the West Coast offense wasn't renamed the River City offense.

LOST IN THE MIST When Bengals finally did reach the Super Bowl, in 1982 and '89, they ran up against the 49ers. Walsh got the better of his ex-employer both times.