Former Cleveland Browns owner and Hall of Fame head coach Paul Brown has the urge to get back into football, but isn’t sure what an appropriate site would be. His son, Mike, does a study on pro football expansion and recommends Cincinnati as a potential site. On December 14, Brown meets with Governor James Rhodes and the two discuss a possible franchise before Cincinnati business and civic leaders.
Fearful the Reds’ baseball team will leave town, and feeling pressure from local businessmen pushing for a pro football franchise, Cincinnati’s City Council approves the construction of Riverfront Stadium, December 15. The stadium is granted a 48-acre downtown site, bounded by Second Street and the Ohio River.
Paul Brown’s group is awarded an AFL expansion franchise, September 27. “I feel as if I’m breathing again,” Brown says. Brown hires Al LoCasale as director of player personnel. Brown calls the team the Bengals, the name of the 1937 Cincinnati AFL franchise. The Bengals acquire their first player, trading two draft choices to Miami for quarterback John Stofa, December 26.
The Bengals select 40 veteran players in an allocation draft. Paul Brown’s AFL rivals are not particularly generous. As UPI reports: “The owners made that Brown doesn’t start another dynasty too soon (referring to Brown’s success with the Cleveland Browns in the All-American Football Conference and then the NFL).” Nevertheless, Brown selects several older veterans, who still have a few good years left—tackle Ernie Wright, linebacker Sherrill Headrick, and defensive back Bobby Hunt—and several talented, but relatively untested youngsters. With additional choices in each round of the college draft, the Bengals fare well.
The club’s first selection is All-America center Bob Johnson of Tennessee. Other quality draftees include running backs Paul Robinson and Warren McVea, defensive backs Jess Phillips and Essex Johnson (each of whom later is moved to running back), linebacker Al Beauchamp, tackle Howard Fest, and, on the twelfth round, tight end Bob Trumpy. The Bengals open their first training camp at Wilmington (Ohio) College on July 5. Cincinnati loses its first preseason game, 38-14, to Kansas City before 21,682 at Nippert Stadium. The Bengals go the entire first half without a first down.
Three weeks later, the new team records its first victory by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers, 19-3, in a preseason game at Morgantown, West Virginia. The Bengals lose their regular-season opener, 29-13, to San Diego. They bounce back to win their first two home games, 24-10, over Denver and 34-23 over Buffalo. Injuries to top quarterbacks John Stofa and DeWey Warren sends the Bengals into a seven-game losing streak in midseason, and a 3-11 final record. The brightest light for the team is the play of Robinson, who wins the AFL rushing title with 1,023 yards and is named AFL rookie of the year. Trumpy leads the team with 37 receptions for 639 yards.
Paul Brown selects quarterback Greg Cook of the University of Cincinnati in the first round of the draft, January 28. The same draft produces middle linebacker Bill Bergey and cornerback Ken Riley. Other AFL teams stop referring to them as “the Baby Bengals” when they beat Miami, 27-21, in the opener, September 14. It is Brown’s three-hundredth coaching victory and an impressive debut for Cook, who throws two touchdown passes. The following week, Cook passes for three touchdowns and runs for another as Cincinnati surprises San Diego, 34-20.
Then the Bengals defeat Kansas City, 24-19, to stretch their record to 3-0. However, Cook suffers a serious arm injury when he is hit by linebacker Willie Lanier and sits out the next four games. The Bengals lose all four games. Cook returns to spark a 31-17 win over Oakland and a 31-31 tie with Houston. Against the Oilers, Cook passes for four touchdowns. Brown is named AFL coach of the year. Bergey is honored as AFL defensive rookie of the year. Cook leads the league in passing, throwing for 1,854 yards and 15 touchdowns and 9.41 yards per attempt, the highest figure ever for a rookie quarterback.