In this season of new rules that were designed to promote the passing game, only five National Football League clubs have rushed for the majority of their yardage this season. Lowly (3-11) Cincinnati is among them.
The Bengals wanted to stress ball control this season and now, with the worst defense in pro football, it is imperative they do so. Boyd Dowler, the former Redskin assistant who coaches the Bengal receivers, explained:
"If your defense is having a little trouble -- and I guess it's safe to say ours has without hurting anybody's feelings -- you should run the ball if you can. If you keep the ball away from other people, they can't do as much with it."
And that raises an interesting prospect for Redskins' 1 p.m. Sunday game against the Bengals at RFK Stadium. The Redskins are 9-5 and on the verge of making the playoffs for the first time in three years because of their sometimes-gimmicky rushing defense.
The Redskins could not stop the run against the Green Bay Packers in the first half last week and trailed, 21-7. In losses to Philadelphia, New York and New Orleans, the Redskins were unable to stop the run.
The Bengals can run and score. In the past seven weeks, they are the only team to rush for more than 100 yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They did it twice. They have scored 307 points this season, a figure surpassed in the NFC by only New Orleans and Dallas.
Until he was injured against the Steelers last week, Cincinnati running back Archie Griffin had averaged seven yards per carry in his last five games. He is listed as questionable this week, possibly to be replaced by rookie Charlie Alexander, one of 11 first-round draft choices on the Bengals' roster.
Pete Johnson, the 259-pound fullback who lined up in the same backfield with Griffin at Ohio State, has scored 12 touchdowns rushing this season. He leads the Bengals with 759 yards.
So why are the Bengals 3-11? And why have the oddsmakers shown utmost respect this week for a team that has won only one of its last 16 road games, by making the Redskins mere 6-point favorites when Washington could be looking to roll up the score with the point differential looming as a playoff tie-breaker?
Here are some reasons:
Difficulty of schedule. In 16 games this season, the Bengals will have played only three teams with a losing record. By being in the AFC Central, they meet Pittsburgh (11-3), Houston (10-4) and Cleveland (9-5) twice each and play NFC East contenders Philadelphia (10-4), Washington (9-5) and Dallas (9-5) once each.
Injuries. If the Washington Caps think they have injury problems this season, "they should call Paul Brown, the Bengals' general manager, or Homer Rice, the coach. The defense was supposed to be solid this season but only three starters have stayed at the same position all year.
How clawless are these Bengals?
Bair Bush, their All-Pro candidate at center, went down recently with an injury. In order to have a competent snapper for punts and field goals, the Bengals brought Bob Johnson out of retirement. He had lost 31 pounds from his playing weight and looks more like a 6-foot-5 basketball forward than a football lineman.
And, if injuries aren't enough -- the Bengal defense has yielded 171 of its total 381 points in the past five games since a 37-13 trouncing in Philadelphia -- defensive end Gary Burley's former wife has been trying to get him jailed over alimony payments.
There were many injuries, the most devastating of which resulted in the losses of Ken Riley, a cornerback and a cornerstone of the Bengal defense, and of right linebacker Reggie Williams, who led the team in tackles. Both starting defensive tackles, Wilson Whitley and Eddie Edwards, have been hobbled by bad knees.
Cornerback Louis Breedon, who replaced Lemar Parrish when he was traded to the Redskins, went out early with a shoulder injury and his replacement, Scott Perry, normally a free safety, went down with a hip pointer. That necessitated moving starting strong safety Marvin Cobb to left cornerback.
So, from a strong secondary and outstanding front four that included three No. 1 draft choices, the Bengals have a hobbling front four with only 29 sacks and a makeshift secondary with rookie Jim Browner at strong safety and second-year man Ray Griffin at Riley's position. (Riley is practicing again and is listed as questionable this week.)
The result has been 3,163 net passing yards against the Bengals, with only the New York Jets worse in the NFL. And that is why the Bengals want to run. Time of possession is their leading tackler.
But the bengals can pass, too, with a good quarterback in Ken Anderson and the speedy Isaac Curtis as good a game-breaker as any wide receiver in the NFL. Curtis is only fourth on the team in receptions for the season, with 27, but has played well the past five or six weeks. He also had a bad knee.
In fact, the injury situation caused a change in a Paul Brown tradition last week. When left guard Paul Bujnoch went out with a knee injury last week, the Bengals were left so thin in offensive guards that tight ends had to act as messengers.
Rice, who became head coach last year when the team was 0-5 and took the Bengals to a 4-12 finish, calls this season frustrating because of the injuries and some heartbreaking losses against good teams. For instance, a missed Chris Bahr conversion resulted in a 28-27 loss to Cleveland; San Diego, facing fourth down and 19, made the first down and kicked a field goal with 19 seconds remaining to win, 26-24. Cincinnati lost two other games by three points or less.
But Rice, a Brown disciple, says his job is not in jeopardy. He is looking forward to next year.
"When we're all in good shape, we've played some fine football games and, when we haven't been, we haven't," he said.
And, he said, his players are not merely going through the motions now.
"We're a young team," Rice said, "so I guess they think there's a future. If we keep them intact in the future, we'll be okay.