It’s not an exaggeration to state that every football fan, local reporter, blogger and radio talk show host in Greater Cincinnati and its surrounding cities, has voiced their opinion on the Bengals Top 50, a list of the 50 greatest retired players in franchise history as voted upon by the fans and local media to commemorate the team’s 50th season in professional football. Like every discussion involving a list such as this, the invariable debate surrounding the Bengals Top 50 amongst both fans and the media has been all about who was left off, who didn’t deserve a spot and whether someone was ranked too high or too low after all the votes were counted. It has been a fascinating look at who the fans and the media who have covered the team determined what players were the franchise’s greatest in their first 49 years.
My book, Legends of the Jungle: Introducing the Initial Candidates for a Potential Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Fame, attempts to do something similar to the Top 50 by creating a list of former Bengal players who deserve induction into a yet to be constructed Hall of Fame or Ring of Honor. After extensively researching the team’s history and the players who contributed to the Bengals legacy, I took a deep, personal interest in the final reveal of the Top 50. Now that I’ve had a chance to examine the final list, I, just like every other fan, reporter, blogger or talk show host who either is a fan or follows the Bengals for a living, have my own opinion on what the media and the fans got right and what they got wrong.
My analysis and thoughts regarding the Bengals Top 50 will come in two parts. Part One will focus on the full list of players who made the final 50, specifically making the case for why seven players who made the list need replacing. In Part Two, I will name the seven players who should have made the list and reveal my personal Bengals Top 50. But before I go headfirst into revising the Top 50, here are a few observations regarding the official list once all the votes were counted.
BENGALS TOP 50 OBSERVATIONS
According to the Bengals, the Top 50 were the 50 players, regardless of their position, who received the most votes and was determined by a combined fan and media vote. Over 160,000 fan votes accounted for 50 percent of the results with the other 50 percent coming from the votes of 24 media members who have covered or currently cover the team since they entered the AFL in 1968. On the surface, the methodology used to decide the final rankings seemed fair and equitable. Unfortunately, the Bengals Top 50 lacks the transparency necessary to make the final results authentic, on the level and to, most importantly, legitimize the list meant to honor the greatest retired players in team history. At no point have the Bengals publicly disclosed who the 24 media members were that voted, leaving unanswered the question of whether or not the panel of 24 was balanced enough to insure that all 49 years of the franchise’s history were equally represented. Additionally, the team has yet to release separately the final results of the fan vote and the verdict achieved by the media, a misstep that has created a justifiable speculation that the Top 50 is simply a list of the most popular players in Bengals history rather than a compilation of those individuals who had a substantial impact on the success of the franchise. Revealing these two votes separately might help explain why some players, who either provided a great moment or had one or two excellent seasons, made the final cut over several players who exhibited a much longer and sustained career in a Bengals uniform.
There’s no question that from 1991-2002, the Cincinnati Bengals played, by most standards, some of the worst football in the history of the NFL. Labeled by most fans and followers of the Bengals as “The Dark Ages”, the franchise sported a 55-137 won-loss record during those 12 years, the starting point of 14 seasons in which they failed to either reach the playoffs or have a winning season. But despite finishing those 12 seasons with a combined .286 winning percentage, several Bengals, such as James Francis, tony McGee, Darnay Scott and Jeff Blake distinguished themselves with their stellar play on the field in an otherwise forgettable era of Cincinnati football. Sadly, either the fans or the media who voted in the Top 50 chose to ignore these performances. leaving them off their lists, it seems, because they played on teams everyone would rather soon forget. In the end, only three players from that era (Corey Dillon, Takeo Spikes and Carl Pickens) made the Top 50, an unfair and frankly inaccurate assessment of the quality of players who wore the Bengals uniform during what was a very trying time for both the fans and the franchise alike.
While promoting my book Legends of the Jungle, I’ve been asked by several reporters, radio talk show hosts and podcast moderators, what was my biggest surprise while researching the history of the Bengals as well as what players clearly established themselves as one of the team’s all-time greats. Without hesitation, my answer has been the large number of outstanding and impactful offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers who have played for the Bengals in the team’s first 49 years. Of the 45 players who qualified as my initial candidates for a Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Fame, 14 were offensive linemen, seven were linebackers and four were defensive linemen. After reviewing the Top 50, the fans and the media members who voted validated my research, naming eight offensive linemen, six linebackers and five defensive linemen to the franchise’s list of its all-time greatest retired players. Some may feel that having the same of number of offensive linemen as wide receivers, linebackers as running backs and defensive linemen as tight ends and quarterbacks combined as the Bengals Top 50 does, isn’t befitting of a list of a team’s all-time greats. In today’s fantasy football fueled NFL, some feel it doesn’t fit the definition of a successful franchise. Here’s a newsflash to those who believe touchdowns scored and points per reception is the benchmark for recognizing a team’s best players–nothing could be further from the truth. As the history of the Bengals clearly shows, playing at what is known as a “non-skill” position at a high standard for a sustainable period of time is just as impactful on the success of the team as those who catch passes and put points on the scoreboard.
Even though the Top 50 consists of the players who received the most votes regardless of their position, it’s interesting to note that it closely resembles an actual NFL 53-man roster. If you exclude the long-snapper and two defensive backs from the Bengals 2016 53-man roster, not only are the Top 50 and the team roster very similar, but it also provides some insight into the mindset of the fans and the media who voted.
SEVEN PLAYERS WHO SHOULD BE REMOVED FROM THE BENGALS TOP 50
Before I name and give the reasons why seven players on the Bengals Top 50 should be replaced, it is important to note that in no way am I dismissing the contributions made by the players I am removing. I am also not saying they are not worthy of the recognition they received from being named on the list. I am simply making the case for seven other players who I feel made a bigger and longer impact on the history and the success of the Bengals in the team’s first 49 years of professional football. Consequently, if I believe there are seven more deserving players, then to maintain the integrity of the Top 50 concept, seven players currently on the list have to go.
#50–STANFORD JENNINGS, RUNNING BACK
Stanford Jennings played for seven seasons in Cincinnati, serving primarily as a back-up running back and a full-time kickoff returner. In the 107 games he played, only 16 of which he started at running back, Jennings rushed 1,225 yards on 308 carries and nine touchdowns while catching 107 passes for 1,027 yards and nine touchdowns receptions. He also returned 136 kickoffs for 2,752 yards, average of 20.2 yards per return and one touchdown. Jennings’ main claim to fame in a Bengals uniform, however, came in the 1988 post-season when he returned a kick-off 93 yards for a touchdown against San Francisco in Super Bowl XXIII, accounting for the only touchdown the Bengals scored in their heart-breaking 20-16 loss to Joe Montana and the 49ers. Jennings electrifying return on the game’s biggest stage is, without question, one of the greatest moments in Bengals history. Be that as it may, making team’s Top 50 should be, and is, about the entirety of a player’s career as a Bengal and the fact is Jennings’ time in Cincinnati doesn’t stack up to some others who did not make the list.
#46–GREG COOK, QUARTERBACK
Forever known as “The Greatest Bengal That Never Was”, University of Cincinnati graduate Greg Cook debuted as the team’s starting quarterback in 1969, finishing the year with a promising 106 completions on 197 pass attempts for 1,854 yards and 15 touchdowns in 12 games. Cook started 11 games in 1969, leading the Bengals to a 4-6-1 record in those 11 starts, a performance good enough for him to earn the 1969 AFL Rookie of the Year award. More importantly, Cook showed the promise that the Bengals had found their quarterback of the future. Sadly, Cook would attempt only three more passes in his NFL career. Ubeknownst to Cook and the team’s medical staff, he tore his rotator cuff in 1969 and after the season underwent surgery to repair it. During the surgery, doctors discovered that Cook also had a partially detached biceps muscle. Three surgeries later, Cook attempted a comeback in 1973 but it failed, forcing him to retire at the end of the season. Given his brief career, a total of 12 games played, Cook’s inclusion on this list frankly doesn’t make sense. Had the Bengals asked their fans and the select media to vote on the Top 50 individual seasons in team history, then Cook’s 1969 campaign certainly would find a place as one of the best. The Top 50, however, was meant to honor the best careers in Bengals history and one, like Cook’s that lasted only 12 games, shouldn’t merit serious consideration.
#45–ERIC THOMAS, CORNERBACK
A member of the starting defensive backfield for the Bengals in their run to Super Bowl XXIII in 1988, Eric Thomas played six seasons in Cincinnati, starting in 68 of the 80 games he played at the right cornerback position. A regular starter for four of his six years in Cincinnati, Thomas intercepted 15 passes, recovered two fumbles, recorded three sacks, made 239 tackles and returned one interception for a touchdown. Thomas continued to make an impact in the post-season, intercepting two passes and recovering one fumble in five playoff games the Bengals played in 1988 and 1990. Overall, Thomas has a solid career in Cincinnati yet he failed to earn any accolades from the national media or receive any all-conference or all-league selections, recognition that some others who did not make the Top 50 did receive. It’s the lack of any All-AFC, All-Pro or Pro Bowl selections that is the reason why there are other former Bengals besides Thomas who are a better choice for the team’s Top 50.
#44–DOUG PELFREY, PLACEKICKER
A native of Fort Thomas, Kentucky who played his college football at the University of Kentucky, Doug Pelfrey was the Bengals placekicker for seven seasons from 1993-1999. Pelfrey was a solid and dependable kicker in his time in Cincinnati, converting on 77.3% of his field goals (153-198) and setting the record for consecutive extra points made (101) by a Bengals kicker. His two best seasons were 1994 and 1995, finishing both years in the top 10 in the NFL in points scored (1994: 10th with 108 points; 1995: 9th with 121 points) and field goals made (1994: 4th with 28; 1995: 6th with 29) and sixth in field goal made percentage (84.848%) in 1994. But like Eric Thomas, Pelfrey was never named to an All-Pro or Pro Bowl team in his tenure, putting him at a disadvantage compared to several other former Bengals who failed to make the Top 50. Besides, with all due respect to the position Pelfrey played, a team of this sort only needs one placekicker. And with Jim Breech firmly ensconced on the list thanks in large part to him being the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. having Pelfrey on the Top 50 as well is excessive. Pelfrey’s Bengals legacy of “the local kid makes good” is a fan and popular narrative. It isn’t, however, strong enough for him to be one of the 50 greatest Bengals in team history.
#40–SOLOMON WILCOTS, SAFETY
To most younger Cincinnati fans, Solomon Wilcots is an NFL analyst for CBS Sports who occasionally serves as the analyst for a game involving the Bengals. What they don’t know is that Wilcots was a safety for Cincinnati from 1987-1990. In his four seasons as a Bengal, Wilcots started in 26 of the 60 games he played, compiling two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and one sack. In the end, there is no denying Wilcots contributed to the team’s Super Bowl run in 1988. Nevertheless, his inclusion in the Top 50 retired Bengals of all-time is a bit of a mystery. Apparently, it just goes to show how your career is inflated and magnified when you are a recognizable and national football personality.
#34–COY BACON, DEFENSIVE END
You can make a very compelling argument that over the span of the 1976 and 1977 seasons, the most dominant defensive player in the NFL was the Cincinnati Bengals Coy Bacon. In those two seasons, Bacon terrorized opponents from his right defensive end position. His play is best exemplified by his 22 quarterback sacks in 1976, a mark that remains the Bengals team record for sacks in a season. In 1976, Bacon was named first team All-AFC by the AP, UPI, The Sporting News and Pro Football Weekly and second team All-NFL by Pro Football Weekly and the Newspaper Enterprise Association. Bacon followed up that season the following year by recording 5.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries and 36 total sacks, good enough for him to be selected first team All-AFC by The Sporting News and the UPI. Bacon’s performance in 1976 and 1977 is considered in some circles the two greatest defensive seasons in Bengals history. The problem with including Bacon in the team’s Top 50 retired players, however, is that 1976 and 1977 were the only two seasons he played in Cincinnati. Naming a player to the franchise’s list of all-time greats when he only played two seasons just doesn’t seem appropriate, especially when there are several other candidates, who didn’t make the cut, who played longer and just as well as Bacon did in the 26 games he played as a Bengal.
#24–ICKEY WOODS, RUNNING BACK
One of the most endearing visual memories in Bengals history was from the 1988 season when a young, rookie running back out of UNLV entertained and captivated not only Cincinnati fans but the entire NFL as well with a unique dance following one of his many touchdowns. Nearly 30 years later, Ickey Woods and his “Ickey Shuffle” are forever a part of Bengals and NFL lore and apparently strong enough for the fans and the media who voted to consider Woods in the top half of the greatest players in franchise history. There’s no doubt that Woods had a storybook 1988 season, finishing the year with 1,066 yards on 203 attempts for an average of 5.3 yards per carry, the highest average in all of the NFL in 1988. He did the “Ickey Shuffle” 15 times that season, good enough to finish second in the league for most touchdowns scored. It was a year that ended with a trip to Super Bowl XXIII and earned Woods a spot on the UPI’s second-team All-AFC squad, second team All-Pro honors from the AP and the Newspaper Enterprise Association and a selection to the AFC Pro Bowl team. As it turned out, 1988 was the only significant season Woods had with Cincinnati, effectively snuffing out the “Ickey Shuffle” just as quickly as it had debuted. Woods spent three more years with the Bengals, playing only 21 of a possible 48 games and gaining a total of 459 yards rushing in his final three seasons combined. Undoubtedly, Woods had one of the greatest seasons in team history in 1988 and was a dynamic personality during the Bengals magical run to the Super Bowl. Ultimately, determining the players who make up the 50 greatest players in team history should be primarily based on their entire career. Given his four seasons in Cincinnati, Woods fails to match several other players and their careers who failed to make the Bengals Top 50.
Recognizing the 50 greatest retired players in Bengals team history has been an excellent way to commemorate their 50th season of professional football. While the Top 50 is a fine tribute to all those who have worn the orange and black throughout the years, it’s just one step in filling a void that the franchise has yet and needs to fill. Sadly, once the 2017 season is finished and the hype surrounding the Bengals 50th season is in the rear view mirror, the Top 50 will simply fade away and become a distant memory because the Bengals, unlike the overwhelming majority of the other NFL teams, do not have a permanent place or Hall of Fame to honor the players and coaches who have significantly contributed to the team’s history and success. It is time for that to change, and my book, Legends of the Jungle: Introducing the Initial Candidates for a Possible Cincinnati Bengals Hall of Fame, lays out the eligibility requirements for a candidate and then provides an in-depth case for why those players who qualify deserve a spot in the team’s Ring of Honor or Hall of Fame. You can purchase your copy at the online bookstore at iuniverse.com or online at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. They make great Christmas gifts for the Bengals fan on your list, so order yours today.