NFL innovations we owe to the Cincinnati Bengals

by Sean Tyler @seantyleruk

Picture if you will: having just failed to make the full 10 yards (other websites are available), the hurry-up offence goes straight back into formation. The ball is snapped and the quarterback takes three steps back before making a short pass to his tight end. Meanwhile, the defence tries a zone blitz, sending linebackers forward to hunt down the QB while a defensive lineman drops back to cover the throw.

Boomer Esiason #7, Quarterback for the Cincinnati Bengals hands off the ball to #21 Running Back James Brooks during the American Football Conference Divisional Playoff game against the Los Angeles Raiders on 13 January 1991 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Los Angeles, California, United States.Raiders won the game 20 – 10 . (Photo by Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images)

This play features three well-known elements of the game: the short-pass focus of the West Coast offense popularised by the 49ers, the no-huddle offence that took the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls and the zone blitz, a foundation of the successful Pittsburgh teams of the 1990s.

But did you know that they all owe their existence to the Cincinnati Bengals?


If you know your US geography, you’ll be aware that Ohio isn’t on the west coast, or anywhere near it. The scheme is so named because it came to prominence when Bill Walsh was the Head Coach at San Francisco – about as far west as you can go without getting your feet wet – in the 1980s. He made the system famous in red and gold, for sure, but it all started when Walsh was the Bengals’ offensive coordinator under HC Paul Brown (more of him later).

The West Coast offence is a high-percentage passing game. The system uses swing passes, slants, crossing routes and flat passes, close to the line of scrimmage, to spread a defence, before occasionally letting rip with longer passes into the gaps created by the defensive shifts. With the QB dropping back three or five steps and using his running backs and tight ends as additional receivers for short throws, it offers less chance of a “take it to the house” play but, on the other hand, completion percentages are higher and turnovers lower.

So how did Walsh come up with the idea? Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention and the Bengals needed a solution when rookie QB Greg Cook injured his shoulder in Week 3 of 1969, having thrown five TDs in his first two games. In response, Walsh completely redesigned his offence to compensate for Cook’s limited arm movement. The approach also suited his successor, Virgil Carter, a more mobile and accurate QB who led the league in passing percentage in 1971. Then his replacement, the legendary Ken Anderson, faired even better, steering the Bengals to a division title in his first year.

AP Photo

Alas, in 1975, when Paul Brown retired, Walsh was passed over for the HC job so he headed west, to Stanford University and the San Diego Chargers, before his legendary 10-year stint with the Niners. This is where he turned the “Cincinnati offence”, as he dubbed it, into an institution. The West Coast offence turned Joe Montana into one of the game’s GOATs and helped the 49ers to win three Super Bowls. That trio of victories included two over the Bengals in 1981 and 1988. Oh, the irony!


Midway through his debut campaign as HC of the Bengals in 1984, Sam Wyche had a “Eureka!” moment with his team facing a third down and long. Why should the opposing defence be able to switch personnel to cover the throw that was bound to be coming their way?

At this time, “hurry-up” offences were commonly used when the game clock was running down but Wyche, along with offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet, started using it regardless of how much time was left. Wyche began by boiling the huddle time down to about five seconds, despite being allowed 45 seconds between plays. He called this his “sugar huddle” because it was short and sweet.

George Rose / Getty Images

The concept involved having 12 or more players huddled up near the line of scrimmage, then those not involved skidaddled at the last second so as to not give their intended line-up away. If the defence then tried to switch personnel, the Bengals would quickly snap the ball and their opponents would be flagged for having too many players on the field. It also stopped the defence from regrouping for tactical purposes or for a breather. (As a result, the NFL changed in the rules, allowing defences to match an offence’s personnel changes before the snap.)

This soon evolved into the no-huddle offence and became the standard for the Bengals’ fast-paced play for several years. With QB Boomer Esiason at the epicentre, Wyche had three winning seasons, then bombed in ’87, but was given one more chance by (then owner) Paul Brown. It paid off: he led the Bengals to a 12-4 record and a run to the Super Bowl, where they only lost to (Bill Walsh’s) Niners in the final minute.

Bizarrely, because most coaches were convinced it wasn’t the secret behind the Bengals’ success, no one copied it. Well, no one other than Marv Levy, the coach of AFC rivals the Buffalo Bills. He turned the system, which he constantly tried to neutralise, into his own Jim Kelly-led “K-Gun”, going to four consecutive Super Bowls in the early 1990s on the back of it.


As a defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh, Dick LeBeau’s zone blitz system helped the Steelers triumph in Super Bowls XL and XLIII. And as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, LeBeau used it as recently as 2017. But again, it all began in Cincinnati.

LeBeau, the Bengals’ defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator throughout the 1980s, devised a scheme that has become one of the most well-known in the NFL. To be totally fair, its inventor was actually Dolphins defensive coach Bill Arnsparger in 1971 but it didn’t gain traction until Lebeau refined and popularised it in the Eighties.

In essence, the zone blitz employs pass rushes and pass coverage from unexpected personnel. Five or more players are assigned to rush the quarterback, while players initially lined up to rush are dropped back into pass coverage. So for example, two linebackers and three linemen rush forward while a fourth lineman drops back. This misdirection is designed to confuse the offence about who will rush the passer, and from what angle, and who will retreat into the spaces left behind.

Shortly after Wyche became HC, LeBeau was promoted to defensive coordinator. Initially, he struggled against the West Coast offense (as did every other team at the time) but in 1987, he began doodling on a napkin on a flight back from a game. Safeties blitzing? Old hat. But linemen dropping back into pass coverage to nullify the big play if the blitz failed? That was new.

By 1988, the Bengals were using a defence no one had ever seen, as well as running the aforementioned no-huddle offence. The combination took them all the way to Super Bowl XXIII, where they were 36 seconds from glory.

LeBeau left to become the defensive backs coach and later defensive coordinator with Pittsburgh. Sadly for Bengals fans, that’s where he perfected the system and turned the Steelers’ defensive unit into “Blitzburgh” as they stormed to five AFC Central titles from 1992 to 1997.


If you look up Walter Camp, you’ll discover he’s known as the Father of American Football. He was the fella who coined the term “line of scrimmage”, decided on 11 players per team, and came up with the scoring system and the idea of downs. But Paul Brown – who hasn’t coached a football game for almost five decades and died in 1991 – remains the most influential figure in the NFL to this day.

That may sound like hyperbole but I kid you not, almost every facet of the game we know and love was introduced, improved or otherwise shaped by the co-founder and first coach of both Cleveland and Cincinnati. He is honoured in a team name (the Browns), a team’s home field (Cincy’s Paul Brown Stadium) and the NFL Coach of the Year award.

AP Photo

After coaching in high school, college and the military, Brown turned the way pro football teams operate on its head. He introduced such strange concepts as “strategy” and “preparation”. He hired a staff of full-time positional coaches. And he started scouting to improve the drafting process, all ideas that were eventually copied by every other franchise.

Brown is also credited with bringing in game plans, classroom study and testing players on their knowledge of a playbook; analysing game film of opponents; coaches and coordinators calling plays; and radio transmitters inside the quarterback’s helmet. And that’s barely scraping the surface.

The “pocket”, where offensive tackles turn outwards and create a horseshoe shape to buy a quarterback extra time? Brown’s idea.

Practice squads? Brown too.

The helmet facemask? Yep, you got it.

The 40-yard dash for evaluating player speed? Right again.

Despite his many accomplishments, Brown was not universally liked, as his Draconian, controlling ways often led to conflict. Nonetheless, his concepts can be traced like DNA through those who came after him, including Don Shula, Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Jon Gruden and Andy Reid. Not a bad lineage. 

Banner image credit: Mike Powell/Allsport/Getty Images

Latest NFL Articles

Go the Full10Yards with our email newsletter

Join our email list and get our latest news, podcasts, offers and more direct to your email every week.