Art of Games

NFL changed rules on Bengals just hours before their last AFC Championship game appearance in January 1989

NFL changed rules on Bengals just hours before their last AFC Championship game appearance in January 1989
Written by Noah Roy

After 33 years, the Cincinnati Bengals are finally back in the AFC Championship, and there’s a good chance their preliminary match on Sunday will be a lot smoother than it was in January 1989.

On the Bengals’ final journey to the AFC title game, they got there by managing an innovative, non-collective attack that no other team in the NFL was managing at the time. Some teams were using it during their two-minute training, but no one was doing what the Bengals were doing: they were using it in every game for the full 60 minutes.

For 17 games that season — 16 regular season games and one playoff game — that’s how it went. However, in the run-up to their AFC Championship game with the Bills, the NFL threw a curve ball at the Bengals by blocking their attack with RULE CHANGE less than two hours before kick-off.

If the NFL changed the rules of the game just two hours before kick-off in 2022, the internet would probably explode and the controversy would likely have been talked about for decades, but in 1989, there was no internet to explode, so the story kind of died out with the passing of the time.

So what exactly happened?

With only 1 hour and 50 minutes left before the game begins, NFL Commissioner Pete Rosell and Superintendent Art McNally stepped in to make a pretty big announcement of two game rules change (via Los Angeles Times Story from the game):

1. Neither team will pretend to be injured.

2. Offensive play that occurs before the two-minute period of each half will be nullified and restarted if the game officials consider that the offense has gained an unreasonable and unfair advantage through a quick shot of the ball.

The first rule change seems very obvious. The NFL doesn’t want players to fake injuries to slow down the game. They didn’t want it then and still don’t want it now. In January 1989, the Seahawks had done so during their playoff loss in the Bengals game and the league was embarrassed by it. According to a game account from Orlando Sun Sentinel Covering Cincinnati’s 21-13 win over Seattle, the Seahawks were injured in seven different third-place games, allowing them to easily replace their nickel package each time.

“The referees knew it, but they were helpless,” Chris Collinsworth, a Bengals recipient, said at the time. “They couldn’t do anything about it and these guys knew it. They just came down, and then they got up and got off the field. What bothered me was that we all knew it was an acting job.”

The NFL didn’t want the injury billing fraud in the AFC title game, so they banned the procedure just two hours before the game (it’s now against the rules, but obviously the problem with any injury rule is that it’s impossible for an official to figure out what if the player is fake).

The league had to explain the injury rule to everyone because Bills coach Marv Levy has been hinting all week that his players could get injured if it helps his team.

“I won’t bleed injuries, but someone might,” Levy said in a 1989 Sports Illustrated story by Rick Riley.

The second change to the pre-game rule was the big one: they were to cancel all games not played before the start of the game two minutes before the warning.

By banning the snapshots, the NFL was essentially telling the Bengals that they couldn’t manage the offense they’d been making all season. Imagine if the NFL dropped a rule on Sunday morning that said tight ends were only allowed to block and not allowed to catch the ball in an AFC title game. If that happens, it will leave the bosses scrambling and you can bet Andy Reed would be pissed off about Travis Kelsey being left out of the game plan.

The NFL may have done that with the Bengals. The Bengals coach at the time, Sam Wyche, was just as furious.

“We had an upsetting time,” Wyche said via SI. “We found out 1:50 before kick-off that we wouldn’t be allowed to play the style… which got us into this championship game.”

Not only did they crack the thing that made the Bengals’ attack so special, but the league actually insisted that rule changes were only happening because both teams agreed to them (Levi apparently agreed that his players wouldn’t feign injuries if the Bengals were too. They wouldn’t allow for quick take).

That agreement came as news for Wyche, who McNally told him literally the week before the match that there was nothing illegal about the Bengals offense.

“I called Art McNally and say, ‘Sam, the snapshot is perfectly legal,'” Wyche said via SI.

Wyche’s biggest problem was that if the NFL was going to change the rule, why not do it six days before the game instead of the two hours before the game, which left the Bengals in an impossible spot.

“If they are going to announce it, do it on Monday, before [we] “They trained on it all week,” Wyche said. “It was like they went to Buffalo and said, ‘You can’t give the ball to Rob Redick down the line.'” “

In the lead-up to the game, the league also said it would never “interfer” with what the Bengals were doing.

“We will never get involved in this game as far as a new interpretation is involved,” assistant superintendent of NFL officials Tony Vitri explained at the time, via The New York Times.

Basically, the Bengals had every reason to believe they would be allowed to run their loose attack in the AFC title game, but then the NFL made it illegal just two hours before kick-off.

In the end, the Bengals finally laughed. They ended up billing the bills for 175 yards to the ground in a 21-10 win that catapulted them to Super Bowl XXIII. We likely won’t see any rule changes on Sunday morning, but let’s not rule it out completely, as the Bengals weren’t expecting a rule change on them when they woke up to play in the AFC title match again on January 3. 8, 1989.

And of course, the Bengals’ no-dodge offense led to at least one major rule change.

One of the rules the Bengals exploited that the NFL would later change was the number of players allowed on the field. During the 1988 season, the Bengals were allowed to have more than 11 players on the field while they prepared for their next play as long as there were only 11 players on the field when the ball was cut.

“When there is no group gathering, it is OK to have more than 11 players on the field as long as they are far away before the ball breaks or the clock runs out,” Vettery said.

This rule has now been changed, and if the offender makes a substitution in a game without fans – or any game – the defense also gets a chance for the substitution.

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Noah Roy

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