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After 33 years, the Cincinnati Bengals are finally back in the AFC Championship and there’s a good chance their pregame on Sunday is going to go a lot smoother than their pregame went all the way back in January 1989.
In the Bengals’ last trip to the AFC title game, they got there by running an innovative no-huddle offense that no other team in the NFL was running at the time. Some teams had been using it during their two-minute drill, but no one was doing what the Bengals were doing: They were using it for every play for the entire 60 minutes.
For 17 games that season — 16 regular season games and one playoff game — that’s how things worked. However, in the lead-up to their AFC Championship matchup with the Bills, the NFL threw a curve ball at the Bengals by hampering their offense with a RULE CHANGE less than TWO HOURS before kickoff.
If the NFL changed the rules of a game just two hours before kickoff in 2022, the internet would likely explode and the controversy would likely be talked about for decades, but in 1989, there was no internet to explode, so the story kind of died down over time.
So what exactly happened?
With just one hour and 50 minutes to go before the start of the game, then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and supervisor of officials Art McNally stepped in to make a pretty big announcement that two rules were going to change for the game (via the Los Angeles Times story from the game):
1. Neither team will feign injuries.
2. An offensive play that occurs before the 2-minute period of each half will be nullified and replayed if it is deemed by the game officials that the offense gained an unreasonable and unfair advantage by a quick snap of the ball.
The first rule change seems pretty obvious. The NFL doesn’t want players faking injuries to slow down the game. They didn’t want it then and they still don’t want it now. In January 1989, the Seahawks had done it during their divisional playoff loss to the Bengals and the league was embarrassed by it. According to a game account from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that covered Cincinnati’s 21-13 win over Seattle, the Seahawks got “injured” on seven different third down plays, which conveniently allowed them to substitute their nickel package in each time.
“The refs know about it, but were helpless,” Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth said at the time. “They couldn’t do anything about it and those guys knew it. They just went down, then got up and got off the field. What bothered me is we all knew it was an acting job.”
The NFL didn’t want the Bills faking injuries in the AFC title game, so they banned the action just two hours before the game (It’s now against the rules, but obviously, the problem with any rule relating to injuries is that it’s impossible for an official to tell if a player is faking).
The league had to make the injury rule clear to everyone because Bills coach Marv Levy kept hinting all week that his players might end up getting hurt if it helped his team.
“We’re not going to fake injuries,” Levy said, via a 1989 Sports Illustrated story by Rick Reilly, “but somebody might get hurt.”
The second pregame rule change was the big one: THEY WERE GOING TO NULLIFY ALL NO-HUDDLE PLAYS THAT HAPPENED BEFORE THE TWO-MINUTE WARNING.
By banning quick snaps, the NFL basically was telling the Bengals that they couldn’t run the offense that they had been running all season. Imagine if the NFL dropped a rule on Sunday morning that said tight ends are only allowed to block and not allowed to catch the ball in the AFC title game. If that happened, it would leave the Chiefs scrambling and you can bet Andy Reid would be irate about Travis Kelce being eliminated from the game plan.
The NFL might as well have done that to the Bengals. The coach of the Bengals at the time, Sam Wyche, was absolutely irate.
“We had an upsetting time,” Wyche said, via SI. “We found out 1:50 before kickoff that we were not going to be allowed to play the style . . . that got us into this championship game.”
Not only did they eliminate the thing that made the Bengals’ offense so special, but the league actually insisted that rule changes were only happening because both teams agreed to them (Levy apparently agreed that his players wouldn’t fake injuries if the Bengals weren’t allowed to quick snap).
That agreement came as news to Wyche, who had literally been told by McNally in the week leading up to the game that the there was nothing illegal about the Bengals offense.
“I’ve had Art McNally call me and say, ‘Sam, the quick snap is perfectly legal,'” Wyche said, via SI.
Wyche’s biggest problem was that if the NFL was going to make a rule change, why not do it six days before the game instead of two hours before the game, which left the Bengals in an impossible spot.
“If they’re going to announce that, do it Monday, before the [we] practice it all week,” Wyche said. “It would have been the same as if they went to Buffalo and said, ‘You can’t give the ball to Robb Riddick down there by the goal line.'”
In the lead up to the game, the league had also said that it would never “interfere” with what the Bengals were doing.
“We would never, never interfere with this game as far as a new interpretation,” the NFL’s assistant supervisor of officials, Tony Veteri, explained at the time, via the New York Times.
Basically, the Bengals had every reason to believe that they would be allowed to run their no-huddle offense in the AFC title game, but then the NFL made it illegal just two hours before kickoff.
In the end, the Bengals got the last laugh. They ended up steamrolling the Bills for 175 yards on the ground in a 21-10 win that vaulted them to Super Bowl XXIII. We likely won’t see any rule changes this Sunday morning, but let’s not completely rule it out, because the Bengals definitely weren’t expecting the rules to change on them when they woke up to play in the AFC title game back on Jan. 8, 1989.
Of course, the Bengals’ no-huddle offense did end up leading to at least one big rule change.
One rule the Bengals did exploit that the NFL would later change is how many players were allowed on the field. During the 1988 season, the Bengals were allowed to have more than 11 players on the field while they were getting ready for their next play as long as there were only 11 players on the field when the ball was snapped.
“When there’s no huddle, it’s O.K. to have more than 11 players on the field as long as they’re off before the ball is snapped or the clock runs down,” Veteri said.
That rule has now been changed and if the offense makes a substitution on a no-huddle play — or any play — then the defense also get a chance to substitute.
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