The Cincinnati Bengals have spent the majority of their history in the bottom half of the league standings. The team hasn’t always been bad though as they have appeared in two Super Bowl games, though they lost both to the San Francisco 49ers. It is interesting to note that although the Bengals are known of late as a team that has not had consistency at the position of quarterback, for a period of 21 years (from 1972 to 1992) the team had only two starting quarterbacks, Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason. In fact, looking at the Bengals team history through the history of the quarterback position is quite interesting as well.
The Bengals played their first two seasons of professional football in the AFL, having entered the league two years before the AFL-NFL merger of 1970. The initial head coach of the Bengals would be football legend Paul Brown who was also the owner of the team. On the roster in the position of quarterback that first year was a man that would go on to coach team years later, Sam Wyche. Wyche was primarily a backup quarterback during his career though and ahead of him on the depth chart was Dewey Warren and then starting quarterback John Stofa. Stofa had been a backup for the Miami Dolphins in 1966 and 1967, and following that first season with the Bengals in 1968 he would return to finish his career in 1969 and 1970 as a backup quarterback for the Dolphins. 1969 would see highly drafted rookie Greg Cook take over at quarterback, but due to an undetected rotator cuff injury, that would be his only season as a starting quarterback in the NFL. He attempted a comeback in the early 1970s, but by then it had been too late.
The first sign of stability at the quarterback position for the Bengals would show up at the beginning of the new decade as the primary starting quarterback for both the 1970 and 1971 teams was former Chicago Bears backup quarterback Virgil Carter. 1970 would be Sam Wyche’s last year riding the bench for the Bengals and a new rookie quarterback was added to the team in 1971, Ken Anderson. In 1972, the offense would be turned over to Anderson who would remain in the starting quarterback position for the Bengals for the rest of the 1970s and beyond. The benefits of Anderson at the helm would show up almost immediately as he would lead the league in passing yards and quarterback rating in 1974 and 1975. Anderson was also amazingly durable, missing very few games during this time. The Bengals would put up three ten-win seasons in four years in the mid 1970s before their successes on the field became more rare near the end of the decade. During the 1970s, many quarterbacks would see time as the backup quarterback behind Ken Anderson including Virgil Carter, Greg Cook, Wayne Clark, John Reaves, and Jack Thompson.
To combat the sliding win-loss record, a new head coach with a history of playing on winning teams was brought in. Former Green Bay Packers offensive lineman Forrest Gregg was the new head coach of the team in 1980, though the club record of 6-10 was not much of an improvement. The next year however, Ken Anderson would throw for the most yards (3,754) and touchdowns (29) of his career as the Bengals would make it all the way to the Super Bowl, losing to the 49ers by the score of 26-21. Jack Thompson remained the backup behind Anderson during this time, though longtime Bengals backup quarterback Turk Schonert would also appear on the roster in 1981. Gregg would remain the coach for the next two seasons though the team would not remain at the top of the league during that time. 1984 would see many changes come to Cincinnati. First, former backup quarterback Sam Wyche would sign on as the new head coach. Second, this would be the last season that Ken Anderson would be the primary starting quarterback for the team. And third, the main reason for that was the addition of University of Maryland rookie quarterback Boomer Esiason. In 1985, his second season with the team, Esiason would take over as the starting quarterback and in just 14 games throw for 3,443 yards and 27 touchdowns. Ken Anderson would stay with the team through the 1986 season, serving as a valuable experienced backup quarterback for Esiason to rely on. The Bengals would make another Super Bowl appearance following the 1988 season, again losing to the 49ers, this time by the score of 20-16. Esiason would remain one of the statistically better quarterbacks during the rest of the 1980s and some of his backup quarterbacks during this time were Ken Anderson, Turk Schonert, Doug Gaynor, Dave Walter, Adrian Breen, Ben Bennett, and Erik Wilhelm.
The 1990s would start with Esiason still at quarterback and with Schonert retired, Wilhelm would now take over as the primary backup for the Bengals. The 1990 season would also see the Bengals return to the playoffs, beating the Houston Oilers in the wildcard round before falling to the Los Angeles Raiders in the second round. No one knew it at the time, but the Bengals wouldn’t make a return trip to the playoffs for 15 years. 1991 marked Sam Wyche’s last season with the team. Esiason’s production began to slip and after two sub-par seasons he would move on to the New York Jets. The backup quarterbacks during Esiason’s final years with the team were Erik Wilhelm, Todd Philcox, Donald Hollas, and David Klingler. The starting quarterback duties in 1993 were turned over to David Klingler and Jay Schroeder was brought in as a veteran backup. After struggling, Klingler began to share starting quarterback duties with Jeff Blake in 1994 and by 1995 had replaced Hollas as the primary backup behind Blake. The starting quarterback duties would belong to Jeff Blake through much of the late 1990s, even with former Bengals great Boomer Esiason coming back to play one final season with the team in 1997. After a somewhat successful career with the Pittsburgh Steelers and then two seasons with the Jets, Neil O’Donnell came in and was the starting quarterback for most of the 1998 season, before the job was turned back over to Jeff Blake in 1999. Paul Justin and Scott Covington would see time at backup quarterback during this time, along with highly drafted prospect Akili Smith.
The new millennium would start out with a mid-season coaching change with the firing of Bruce Coslet and the hiring of Dick LeBeau. The 2000 season would see Akili Smith get the bulk of the starts although backup Scott Mitchell would also see significant time. 2001 would see both of them in the backup quarterback role as former Seattle Seahawks quarterback Jon Kitna was brought in as the starter. Kitna would put up some of the best quarterback numbers for a Bengals quarterback since Boomer Esiason and would remain as the primary starter for three seasons. During this time, Gus Frerotte would also make an appearance as a Bengals backup quarterback. 2004 would see highly touted Carson Palmer be drafted by the Bengals and immediately see time as the starter, moving Kitna into the role of backup. Kitna would remain in the backup role through 2005 before moving on to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions the next season. 2006 would see Palmer remain as the starter, backed up this time by Anthony Wright. Palmer would remain the primary starter through the rest of the decade, though 2008 would see him miss most of the season due to a season ending injury and the team’s offense would be turned over to Ryan Fitzpatrick who had been a backup quarterback with the St. Louis Rams before coming to the Bengals in 2007. Carson Palmer came back to lead the Bengals for two more seasons but 2011 would see a big change when young Andy Dalton came in as the team’s new rookie quarterback, helping them to playoff appearances in his first four seasons with the team. In 2013, Dalton would even break Carson Palmer’s Bengals team record for most passing yards when he threw for a total of 4,293.
The Cincinnati Bengals have had an up and down history as a team in the NFL. They have put together some of the best seasons as well as the worst seasons of any team in the league. Other than their two long stints with Ken Anderson and then Boomer Esiason as starting quarterbacks, the quarterback position in Cincinnati has been very inconsistently manned. Like most teams, the most successful times in Bengals history have been when their has been stability at the starting quarterback position. It remains to be seen if that can be achieved when Carson Palmer recovers from this latest injury. True fans of the Cincinnati Bengals are most likely hoping so.