Bengals finally join the Fellowship of the Ring

The Dallas Cowboys Ring of Honor at Cowboys Stadium dates back to 1975. The Ravens’ Ring of Honor, started in 2000, circles the field at M&T Bank Stadium, the Raymond James Stadium features the names of 14 legendary Buccaneers added in 2009, while the upper deck of FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland has listed the Browns’ greats for a decade.

In fact, I think I’m right in saying that the Cincinnati Bengals is one of only two teams in the National Football League that does not have a Ring of Honor to commemorate the great and the good from its past, the Las Vegas Raiders being the other. The Bengals do have an online Hall of Fame, but that’s not enough.

The change of heart

Football players don’t live forever and the legends from yesteryear deserve recognition while they’re still around to see it. But it’s not just those in contention to be honoured in such a way who think this. Long-suffering Cincy fans have become increasingly frustrated with their team for not giving due recognition to those who gave their all in stripes. Supporters have long been asking team owner and president Mike Brown to properly commemorate the best players and coaches in the team’s history.

Then, last Thursday, after more than 50 years as an NFL franchise, the organisation finally announced that it will be doing just that. The Cincinnati Bengals Ring of Honor will be displayed on a façade at Paul Brown Stadium, and promoted through a range of other communication channels.

The names

Cincy are starting with an inaugural class of four names, two of which were selected by the organisation. Paul Brown, the Bengals’ founder and first head coach and general manager, was a shoe-in. Cincinnati’s stadium is named after him, and his son Mike is the current president. Brown is also responsible for many key developments in the game, as I outlined in another article a while back.

The other inductee, Anthony Muñoz, is considered by many to be the NFL’s greatest-ever left tackle and is probably the best Bengals player of all time. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998 following 13 seasons in the Queen City, during which he was an 11-time Pro Bowler and featured in both the team’s Super Bowl appearances.

According to Muñoz, “It is really exciting. It’s an honor. The organisation has had some amazing players over the 50-plus years of existence. I think this is great because now we get to celebrate all the guys and that’s what it’s all about.” 

Two more Ring of Honor members will be selected by season-ticket holders and suite owners via a ballot next month, and all four will be inducted during a half-time ceremony at a home game next season.

Among Bengals supporters, the debate around who the other honourees should be is hotting up. There are many worthy of consideration: flamboyant wide receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, the reason many fans chose Cincinnati as their team; fellow wideouts Cris Collinsworth (now on ABC’s NBC Sunday Night Football) and Isaac Curtis; offensive tackle Willie Anderson; running back Corey Dillon; Boomer Esiason, who was quarterback in the ‘88 the Super Bowl; and his Head Coach at the time, Sam Wyche. No doubt their time will come but if I had a vote, I’d plump for Ken Anderson and Ken Riley.

Malcolm Emmons – USA TODAY Sports

Anderson played QB for the Bengals for his entire 16-year career (1971–1986), was named the league’s MVP in 1981 and led Cincy to its first-ever Super Bowl appearance that year. Arguably the franchise’s greatest-ever signal-caller, Anderson finished his career with more than 32,000 passing yards and 197 touchdown passes.

As for Riley, he played defensive back for 15 years (1969–1983) and again, spent all of them with the Bengals. He logged 65 interceptions, which leaves him equal fifth in NFL history.

The timing

This issue has been a bone of contention for many years, and one that’s compounded by the lack of attention – and dare I say respect – for one of the league’s perennially less-successful outfits, to put it kindly. Muñoz is the only Cincinnati player represented in the NFL’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, which seems harsh, given the names mentioned above (in contrast, the Chicago Bears have 35). Cincy just doesn’t register on the national scale, it seems. Yet the well-rehearsed counter argument has been “Well, if you don’t honour your own, how can you expect the league to do so?” A fair point. So at long last, the organisation is going to right that wrong.

But why now?

One of the catalysts for the change of heart seems to revolve around the aforementioned Ken Riley, who died last June aged 72. He never understood why he hadn’t made the Hall of Fame and, even when a Centennial Class to celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary was announced in 2020, Riley still didn’t get the nod. Now it’s too late, for Ken at least.

Then the NFL failed to include him in its In Memoriam list. This latest oversight might well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, as the omission was quickly and pointedly highlighted by official channels.

The driving force

The other impetus for the launch of a Ring of Honor seems to be the franchise’s new-found desire to engage with fans, as they (hopefully) return to the stands next season. What with that and the imminent launch of new uniforms, it’s an important time to be building rapport with the Bengals community.

Elizabeth Blackburn, strategy and engagement director, appears to be the catalyst here. The 28-year-old has only been in post for a year or so but as part of the family dynasty (she’s Mike Brown’s granddaughter), she’s making her mark already, and her lifelong fandom shines through in everything she does. She’s behind the exponential improvement in online interaction and it appears that her time spent on social media inspired the Ring of Honor. Reading endless posts from supporters saying that her grandfather didn’t care about his players clearly irked Blackburn, so she made it her mission to do something about it.

This long-overdue move is something that should, at last, appease fans and former Bengals legends alike. “It’s going to be a great addition to the stadium,” Blackburn said at the launch on Zoom last week. “I think it’s a great way to continue to keep those stories and moments alive in everyone’s memories.” And I, for one, couldn’t agree more.

So over to you, Raiders…

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