Archdeacon: A common bond between Bengals’ Super Bowl teams

Vonn Bell put it best.

“When one guy is getting the shine, everybody will get the shine, especially when you’re winning,” the Cincinnati Bengals veteran safety said.

This Bengals team has taken on the ultimate shine with its berth in Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams next Sunday at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., just southwest of L.A.

The last Bengals team to glow so brightly – a team led by players like Boomer Esiason, Ickey Woods, Eddie Brown, Anthony Munoz and coach Sam Wyche – played in Super Bowl XXIII against San Francisco on Jan. 22, 1989 in Miami.

Although that’s a 33-year span between NFL title game appearances, the two teams have at least a couple of things in common.

Both were coming off dismal four-win seasons the year prior.

And players from both teams credit a special chemistry that was built and then facilitated their amazing turnaround.

“It’s something I think we worked really hard at – to create relationships in the locker room, " said Joe Burrow, the celebrated second-year quarterback of this team.

Similar work – much of it facilitated by a preseason social shake-up by Wyche and initially met with resistance by some players – brought about the transformation of the Super Bowl XXIII team, too

When the Bengals finished the disheartening 1987 season with a 4-11 record – the campaign was cut one game short due to a players’ strike – there was a lot of finger pointing, back biting and players huddling together in closed-flank cliques.

“At the end of the season, we weren’t just a team with differences,” Esiason told me before Super Bowl XXIII. “We had big gaps between us.

“When you lose, a lot of people jump off the ship and you say things and point fingers.”

That’s when Wyche stepped in with plan to change that culture.

He reshuffled room assignments for the 1988 training camp and the preseason and paired black players and white players in rooms together.

“When guys have been in the league awhile, they have their own friendships established and that formulates the way they do things, who they associate with and who they come to when they’ve got something on their mind,’” Bengals linebacker Leo Barker – who is black and grew up in Panama – told me before that Miami Super Bowl.

“Sam’s way crisscrossed all that and put people together who never would have gotten together before. But instead of breaking down bonds, it just made so many more.

“And that’s a good idea. After all, the guys you’re going to live with are the guys you count on to make your team successful.”

Esiason admitted he did a complete about-face on the change: “That’s why I had to apologize to Sam. Because when he first came up with the idea, I was dead set against it. I was wrong. It worked.”

Esiason’s new roommate was running back Stanford Jennings.

“When you get to know each other, you try harder for one another,” Jennings said back then. “And that helps you solve your problems as a group that much quicker.”

Barker agreed: “I ended up rooming with Anthony Munoz and both of us are pretty private people. But we found out we had some things in common. And because of all that, I really respect him. When you feel like that about each other, you can achieve so much more.”

Hanging out together, off the field

Something similar happened with this Bengals team.

Earlier this season, veteran guard Quinton Spain – who joined the team mid-season last year after four years with Tennessee and a season and a half with Buffalo – said he was surprised to learn the Bengals lineman didn’t hang out with each other once they left Paul Brown Stadium:

“I’m like, ‘How am I supposed to trust you and we can’t even hang outside of football? I understand it’s work, but what we do outside of work, it’s a bond.’”

Even though COVID restricted some of that, he said he thought: “At least we could go to each other’s homes for a dinner or something.”

He brought the idea up to center Trey Hopkins, who liked it.

Soon, a routine was born.

“Basically, during the season, the offensive line grabs dinner once a week,” said tackle Isaiah Prince. “We take turns (with) one person paying each week. We’ve had it scheduled from the oldest (player) down to the youngest. Every week (before a game) we pick a steak house, whether we’re away or in town.”

The wide receivers do something similar thanks to rookie standout Ja’Marr Chase.

“Every time we travel, Ja’Marr gets us all food from a steak house,” said Trent Taylor, who spent the previous four seasons with San Francisco. “Wherever we’re at, whatever city we’re in – he’ll buy some steak house food for all of us.

“Even after some home games, we’ll all go to a steak house like Jeff Ruby’s together.

“And it’s all on Ja’Marr Chase. He takes care of all of us. And having those times with everyone like that, that goes a long way.”

Credit: Frank Franklin II

Credit: Frank Franklin II

‘Culture’ change

Several of the players said this is the “culture” head coach Zac Taylor was trying to implement since he took over the team three years ago.

There were real bumps early on, including just six total wins in the first two years, but everything took root this season and the Bengals are now 13-7 and one game away from their first Super Bowl crown.

“No power in sports exists quite like playing for and being accountable to the person next to you and that mattering,” Taylor sad.

Bell said Taylor treats the players like professionals and has let them work out many of the issues themselves.

And throughout the team, that’s just what many of them have done.

When cornerback Mike Hilton came over from the Pittsburgh Steelers, he brought along the concept of the “loaf chart.”

Defensive backs now meet among themselves and grade each other’s efforts and note if anyone is loafing or has things they need to improve on. They keep track of them on the chart and, as a group they impose fines.

It’s not meant to belittle someone. It just holds everyone accountable and lifts the unit as a whole.

At the end of the season, they’ll have a night of fun with the money they’ve collected.

That attitude has rippled through the team and that’s why it’s common to see wide receivers sprinting down the field to block for another receiver or a running back who’s broken free.

Credit: Jeff Dean

Credit: Jeff Dean

After running back Joe Mixon scored a touchdown in a romp over Pittsburgh in late November, he quickly summoned his massive offensive linemen to join him in the end zone for a group dance that resembled the snazzy, two steps of The Temptations.

“In the locker room, guys come to work every day and we really like each other,” said nose tackle D.J. Reader, who played four seasons in Houston before becoming a Bengal last year. “Everyone works for each other. As a team, the egos are pretty much checked at the door.”

Running back Samaje Perine agreed: “From the top down, starting with the coaches, everyone acts like a big family. There’s no hierarchy. Everyone acts like peers.”

With that kind of framework, he said it’s easier to hold each other accountable: “That’s the biggest thing that helped guide this team to get this far.”

Burrow said: “There’s not one guy on this team that I don’t feel comfortable hanging out with.

“And I think that, one – it’s a rare thing.

“And two – I think really that’s one of the top reasons we’re in this positon.”

Bell was thinking about that a few days ago after the team finished one of its final practices before heading to Los Angeles on Tuesday:

“A lot of cameras are going to be out there and they’re coming to see all of us, not just one person.

We all know that.

“We want to do something that’s not been done before.”

They want this Bengals team to shine like no other ever has.

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