September 6, 2011

1981: Schonert Comes Off Bench to Lead Bengals to Win Over Seahawks

The Cincinnati Bengals had endured three straight losing seasons from 1978 to ’80 and, while the team had a new look with their tiger-striped uniforms being worn for the first time in regular season play, things did not look promising after one quarter of action in the 1981 season-opening game on September 6 against the Seattle Seahawks. Already, many of the 41,177 fans in attendance at Riverfront Stadium were booing the home team.

Ken Anderson, a talented quarterback who had suffered along with the rest of the club during the down period and had lost his job briefly in 1980, had a dreadful opening period. He completed just 5 of 15 passes for 39 yards, and two of his passes had been intercepted. The first led directly to a score when FS John Harris returned it 29 yards for a touchdown. Benefiting from the inept play of the Bengals offense, Seattle scored on a 36-yard pass play from QB Jim Zorn to WR Steve Largent and a one-yard rush by FB Jim Jodat to lead by 21-0 at the end of the first quarter.

With the fans voicing their frustration, second-year Head Coach Forrest Gregg pulled Anderson for Turk Schonert (pictured above), the third-string quarterback and second-year player out of Stanford, who was appearing in his first regular season game. The regular backup, Jack Thompson, aka “the Throwin’ Samoan”, was unavailable due to injury.

Things started inauspiciously when Schonert fumbled the ball away on his first snap, but the game completely turned around from that point on. Cincinnati’s defense shut down the Seahawks for the remaining three quarters while the young backup directed the offense on five scoring drives.

In the second quarter, Jim Breech got the Bengals on the board with a 25-yard field goal. Shortly before the end of the half, FB Pete Johnson bulled over from three yards out to cut Seattle’s lead to 21-10 at the intermission.

Following another Breech field goal of 40 yards in the third quarter, the Seahawks missed an opportunity to extend their lead when Efren Herrera failed on a 37-yard field goal attempt. Cincinnati capitalized, driving 80 yards to a three-yard touchdown carry by RB Archie Griffin. It was the former two-time Heisman Trophy winner’s first rushing TD since his rookie year in 1976 and, with the successful PAT, put the Bengals behind by just a point with three minutes remaining in the period.

Cincinnati’s game-winning drive came in the fourth quarter and covered 84 yards, capped by Johnson’s two-yard touchdown with just over five minutes to play. With the Seahawks unable to respond, the Bengals came away with a 27-21 come-from-behind victory.

Cincinnati ended up outgaining the Seahawks (375 yards to 290) and had more first downs (24 to 17). But while the visitors had more passing yards (230 to 169), they gained just 60 yards on 23 rushing attempts, to Cincinnati’s 210. Both teams turned the ball over four times.

Turk Schonert completed 9 of 18 passes for 130 yards, and while he threw for no touchdowns, he also gave up no interceptions and ran for 41 yards on 7 carries. Pete Johnson led the running attack with 84 yards on 20 attempts and two touchdowns. Rookie WR Cris Collinsworth caught 4 passes for 65 yards.

For the Seahawks, Jim Zorn was successful on 21 of 41 passes for 230 yards with a TD and an interception. Steve Largent caught 8 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown. But Jim Jodat was the leading rusher with just 21 yards on 8 attempts and the short TD.

“When you hear fans booing, it gets you charged up,” said Pete Johnson (pictured at left). “We showed that we can come back, but I hope we don't have to do it that way again.”

While Coach Gregg considered starting Schonert or Thompson the following week, he stayed with Anderson. The Bengals came from behind once again, this time with the veteran quarterback going the distance, to beat the Jets. Cincinnati went on to win the AFC Central with a 12-4 record, including seven victories in the last eight games, and advanced to the Super Bowl before succumbing to another upstart team, the San Francisco 49ers. Anderson recovered from the humiliating start to put together an MVP season, leading the league in passing while throwing for 3754 yards with 29 touchdowns against 10 interceptions – just eight in the 15 games following the abysmal first quarter against Seattle.

The rookie Cris Collinsworth, who led the Bengals in receiving in the opener, went on to be a key component of the offense as he caught 67 passes for 1009 yards and eight TDs. Pete Johnson continued to lead the running attack, gaining 1077 yards on 274 carries (3.9 avg.) while scoring 12 touchdowns.

For the Seahawks, coached by Jack Patera, the failure to hold the lead in Cincinnati not only resulted in the sixth straight opening-game loss for the franchise, but proved to be a portent of things to come. They lost five of their next six games and ended up with a 6-10 record that put them in last place in the AFC West. The acquisition of RB Theotis Brown from the Cardinals during the season helped bolster the running game, a weak area as evidenced in the opening loss.

Turk Schonert returned to the bench and threw just one more pass in 1981. He remained a backup with the Bengals for eight of his nine seasons and saw his most significant action in 1983 and ’84, when injuries put him back in the starting lineup for three games apiece (he had his most starts – five – in his one year with Atlanta in 1986). The opening-day win in 1981 remained the most memorable performance of his career.