It’s a good time to be Ken Anderson. Last fall, Anderson was part of the Cincinnati Bengals’ inaugural Ring of Honor class. He then watched his former team embark on a memorable run to the Super Bowl. While he awaits the start of Cincinnati’s upcoming season, Anderson was recently named as one of a dozen senior candidates — and only quarterback — whofor induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Anderson spent his entire 16-year career with the Bengals. He was part of a highly successful era in Cincinnati that includes being a key member of the Bengals’ first Super Bowl team in 1981. Anderson made individual history that year by becoming the first Bengals player to be named league MVP. A highly efficient passer, Anderson led the NFL in completion percentage three times and in passing yards on two occasions.
Anderson recently discussed a bevy of topics with CBS Sports that include being a senior finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Joe Burrow and the modern-day Bengals, playing for NFL legends Paul Brown, Bill Walsh and Forrest Gregg, and playing against the formidable “Steel Curtain” defense. Anderson also touched on his foundation, which is dedicated to making a positive impact on adults with disabilities.
How does it feel to be a senior finalist for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
“I’m honored to even be considered for it. I really appreciate that. You look at the list of guys and all of them are worthy and have Hall of Fame credentials. Even the 25 that they narrowed down the 12 from, you could make cases that all of them deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Just to be considered is quite an honor.”
Your former teammate, Ken Riley, is also a finalist. How cool is it that both of you are finalists?
“I’m really pulling for Kenny. Unfortunately, he passed away a few years ago. His family was there when we were inducted into the Ring of Honor. Such a gracious person, such a great player. He was there for all of my career in Cincinnati. Not a finer cornerback in the league when he was playing. When you talk about 65 interceptions, which is still the fifth most all time, it’s quite an accomplishment.”
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What would it mean for you to receive induction into the Hall of Fame?
“It would be tremendous. When you grow up in Batavia, Illinois, and you go to Augustana College, it was a stretch to dream about playing in the NFL, let alone thinking about someday thinking about being in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It would be quite an honor. You don’t want to look ahead too far, but I’m very humbled to even be in consideration.”
What do you think stood out from your career that led to the selection committee choosing you as a finalist?
“I don’t know. It’s tough to look back and compare players from other eras. When I came into the league, if you threw for 2,100 yards in a year, you probably led the league in passing yards. If you threw 12 to 14 touchdowns, you probably led the league. Completion percentages were about 50 percent. You didn’t throw as much because the offensive line couldn’t extend their arms in pass protection. We only played 14 games, so you didn’t have the number of games.
“When you look at statistics, I don’t know how you make decisions on those things. But I know one thing, I’m very proud that I got to play 16 years in Cincinnati, was honored to play for Paul Brown, one of the greatest coaches of all time. I got to be associated my first five years in the league with Bill Walsh. They call it the West Coast Offense, but I think it was kind of developed in Cincinnati where our practice field was.”
You played for three legendary figures in Brown, Walsh and Forrest Gregg. What was it like to play for them and how did they impact your career?
“Paul and Bill were so different. When we started, we were the days of nine weeks of training camp. You didn’t have an offseason program because everybody went to work after the season to make some money to get by for the next season. So our offseason program was nine weeks of training camp and six preseason games.
“Paul, I wish I would have played for him earlier in his career. He was well into his sixties when I got to Cincinnati and he wasn’t as actively involved in the game planning and the play-calling as he was in Cleveland. Bill Walsh kind of filled that role.
“I remember when I went to training camp, Bill coached the wide receivers, the tight ends and the quarterbacks. We all had to kind of split our time with him. … He was just a mastermind, one of the first guys that really timed up the depth of the routes with the quarterback’s drops. We had a progression that we went through. We were going to try to throw high completions and not throw interceptions. We were going to not only stretch the field vertically, but we were going to make you cover horizontally as well. We just didn’t want to give up on a play, so that was a lot of fun.
“When Forrest came in 1980, we were a team that was awful in 1979. Forrest was the tough guy that came in and we had a lot of hitting in training camp and a lot of hitting in practices during the week during regular season. His offensive coordinator, Lindy Infante, kind of got me back on track. We spent a lot of time together, looked at a lot of old film. I had gotten into some bad habits and he came in with a very unique offense. We were running a lot of option routes, which were kind of new at that point in time. We did a lot of quarterback naked’s and bootlegs, so I was out on the edges running a lot. I owe a lot of my career to him as well.”
Where you disappointed when Walsh left after not succeeding Brown as head coach?
“You’re disappointed because Bill and I had worked so closely together and had actually become very good friends. But we had a very veteran coaching staff. Our line coach, Bill ‘Tiger’ Johnson, was a great coach and a great player as a center for the 49ers, made the All-Decade Team as a center. He was a great coach, and I remember thinking at that point in time that Bill Johnson was more ready to be a head coach than Bill Walsh was.
“I wish it would have worked out that Walsh would have stayed as well, but he made the choice that that was the time for him to leave.”
What was it like to face Walsh’s team in the Super Bowl?
“It was kind of interesting. It was the first northern Super Bowl up in Pontiac, Michigan, in the Silverdome. There was only one place to practice, and that was in the dome. We got to practice in the afternoon, the 49ers practiced in the mornings, so I would see Bill every day as he was going out and I was coming in.
“We had enough problems worrying out their defense then thinking about him on the other side. As disappointed as I was for us losing, I was happy for him that he got a Super Bowl.”
I’ve always thought that the 49ers’ goal line stand in the second half was the key difference in that game, what do you think?
“That was certainly an issue, but we had five turnovers. I had an interception early in the game. We had kicked off, they fumbled and we got the ball in good scoring position. The team that scores first has a good chance to win. We had a third-and-5, and Dwight Hicks picks it off and they end up scoring the first touchdown of the game. And then we had two muffed kickoffs right before halftime that gave them six points.
“You can’t expect to win a big game when you have five turnovers. We didn’t play our best, and they deserved to win.”
There’s the famous scene of you walking off the field after the game with your son. What do you remember from that moment?
“It was a little bit comforting. … We were walking off and there were a lot of people, so he got a little scared and that’s why I’m carrying him off the field. I remember getting into the locker room, and there was no talking after the game. Everybody’s disappointed. I’m sitting there getting undressed after the game, and I said, ‘Well Matt, what did you think?’ And he got a big smile on his face and he said, ‘Dad, it was the best halftime show I’ve ever seen.’ So I guess there were some positives that came out of that game.”
Is the AFC Championship Game win over the Chargers your favorite memory from that season?
“That was the biggest game, at least in my mind, during the season. … Playing in what is now known as the ‘Freezer Bowl’ in Cincinnati. The windchill was -59, and that we could go out under those conditions and execute and win a big football game, it meant a lot to the city of Cincinnati. That was the first year that the stripes were on the helmets, the crowds were big at Riverfront Stadium, banners were everywhere in the stadium. To have it culminate in the first Super Bowl is something I’ll always remember.”
Did you see a similarity in how Bengals fans reacted to the team’s success in 1981 and in 2021?
“No question. I think in every city, you’ll always have a loyal fan base, but it comes out of control when you start to win. Certainly, that was a big year for us. We caught fire in the month of November. We had five games in November that year, all against playoff contending teams, and we didn’t have a close game, we blew them all out. All of a sudden, the orange and black wigs are out, faces are painted black, the ‘Who Dey’ chants starts. It all kind of built to a crescendo.”
What was it like to watch the success the Bengals had last season?
“I was very proud of the team. To see what Zac Taylor has done. The seeds of success, at least for me, when I knew we had a coach going in the right direction, was Zac’s first year when they went to London. I happened to be over there for that game. They hadn’t won many games and it was getting late in the year. They practiced in Cincinnati, got on a plane, flew all night, got to London, went to the hotel, changed into the practice gear, went to practice and it was a cold, drizzly, London day.
“I’ve been with many teams during a situation like that where you just go through the motions. But I’m standing there watching one of the most spirited, well-executed practices I’ve seen. Right there, I said, ‘These guys are buying into what Zac is saying.’ He kept preaching about culture and how we want to get the right guys in the locker room. I think last year, all of a sudden, that really came to fruition.
“You have to have a quarterback to win, and the Bengals are very lucky that they’ve got a guy like Joe Burrow, who is going to be one of the best in the league, if he’s not already there.”
What’s your take on the Bengals’ 2022 team as they try to make it back to the Super Bowl?
“It’s tough to repeat. You go back to 1982, it was a strike-shortened season, but we still were tied for the best record in the league. We have a home playoff game and we get upset by the Jets in the first round of the playoffs. One of the guys who was a factor was Joe Klecko, who is also one of the 12 finalists for the Hall of Fame. A great defensive lineman.
“You look at last year, we know the struggles the Bengals had on the offensive line, but they managed to win anyway. They had great production out of the wide receivers; who would have thought Ja’Marr Chase would have come in and had a year like that. They stayed as injury free as any team in the league. COVID never affected them as much as it did to some teams. We talk about Evan McPherson and how they managed to win a lot of close games.
“To have all those things happen again is tough. They’re better right now after they signed three free agent offensive linemen to bolster that area. I think they’ll be a very good team, but a lot of things have to go your way to get a chance to go back.”
What’s the biggest thing that impresses you about Joe Burrow?
“His leadership. These guys follow him. He’s a hard worker and they hold each other accountable. Besides that, just his poise playing the position. He’s accurate both in the pocket and making plays outside the pocket. He’s only going to get better as he goes on.”
In 2021, you were part of the Bengals’ inaugural Ring of Honor class. What does it mean for you and the rest of the Bengals’ alumni that the franchise decided to create a Ring of Honor?
“It was an honor for me to be in the first class, along with Kenny Riley, Anthony Munoz and Paul Brown. I think a lot of the older players really like that they’re making this effort. I really like it because all of a sudden you’re starting to recall guys that played in the sixties and the seventies and what good teams we had.
“When you look back in the seventies, particularly between 1973-76, we were as good as any team in the National Football League. We just unfortunately happened to have one of the great teams of all time in our division with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But we were really a good football team and had a lot of good football players. It’s nice to see those names getting brought up and those guys being remembered as well.”
One of your former teammates, Isaac Curtis, is getting inducted into the Ring of Honor this season. How good was he as a receiver?
“He was as good as anybody in the league. I always say that when he came in as a rookie in ’73, he had the same impact on the league as Jerry Rice had when he came into the league. But again, back in those days, we didn’t throw as much. He’d have 10 touchdowns and averaging 16 yards a reception.
“People forget that he was a football player that had world class speed. In fact, they wanted him to try out for the Olympic relay team, but he didn’t want to give up playing football to do that. A lot of guys are fast but they’re not receivers. Isaac was a receiver that was fast. He could run routes. He had a change of direction. He had great hands. He had an extra gear; you could not overthrow him. You’d throw it out there and for some reason think it is 10 yards overthrown, and he found another gear to go get it.
“One of the classiest guys you will ever meet. I’m glad he’s going into the Ring of Honor, and I hope at some point in time, he gets recognition to go to the Hall of Fame.”
You mentioned the Steelers. What was it like to play against that legendary defense?
“The challenge was great. You got to know those guys. I became good friends with Andy Russell, Jack Ham, Joe Greene, Mike Wagner and some those great players. I remember one year, it was ’79 and we were awful. We were 0-6 and they were 5-1, and they came to Cincinnati and I think we beat them 34-10. I think if you look back during my years as the starting quarterback, we had the best record in the league against the Steelers of any team. We played them tough, but it was one of respect.
“I’ll tell you one quick story. That ’79 season, we went back up to Pittsburgh, and we’re getting killed. It’s in the fourth quarter and Joe Greene sacks me again. He’s laying on top of me and he says, ‘Kenny, why don’t you stop in the locker room for a beer after the game?’ The locker rooms at the old stadium were close together, so I showered and went next door quickly.
“(Terry) Bradshaw sees me, stops his interviews and takes me to the back. They turned off their sauna and had a garbage can full of beer. He clears off a couple spots, have two of three beers and I’m feeling better about life until I go out to catch the buses to go to the airport and they’d left. I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to explain how I got fined and had to buy a plane ticket from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati because I’m in the Steelers’ locker room drinking beer?’
“I’m looking for a cab to go the airport, and there goes the equipment truck. I go running down the street, flag it down and ride out to the airport. For some reason, the plane is late getting in, and we pulled up to the gate, the guy lets me in through the side door and everybody is standing around. At first I’m a little upset; the starting quarterback is not there and they don’t know? Then I started to think, maybe they know and they just don’t care.”
That’s a great story. Back to the Ring of Honor, how awesome are the jackets that each member receives upon their induction?
“It’s a cool-looking sports coat, and then the lining is stripes, so you can actually wear it places. If you get an orange sports coat with the black stripes on it, I’m sure how often you’d want to wear it out (laughs). So this one is pretty functional as well.”
Alternate jerseys has been one of the big stories over the past few weeks. Would you like to see the Bengals bring their original uniforms back out as an alternate jersey?
“I loved those jerseys. In fact, I even liked the old orange helmets just with the ‘Bengals’ on the side. When they came with the stripes, I think (Cris) Collinsworth said, ‘We better play good in these things or they’ll laugh us out of the league.’ But they kind of grow on you over the years.
“I wish that that jersey could be a throwback jersey. You’re only allowed one alternative jersey. … Everything now is marketing to what will sell, and those white helmets with the black stripes, I think, are going to be a big hit in Cincinnati.”
Cincinnati people love chili and Montgomery Inn ribs. If you can only eat one, which one is Ken Anderson going with when he comes to town for a game?
“You can’t go one or the other. Now, you can ask me which chili I’m going to go for, and that’s going to be Skyline. But you can’t ask me to pick between Skyline Chili and Montgomery Inn, because one’s for lunch and one’s for dinner so you can do them both.”
What can you tell us about your foundation?
“We’re trying to make the lives of adults with developmental disabilities better. … Our big plan is that we’ve got 23 acres that we’re going to build a community that will house about 150 adults. I’m really excited about that.”