The Cincinnati Bengals are the defending AFC Champions. Even though they lost Super Bowl LVI, the future is bright for Cincinnati because it has a talented young quarterback in Joe Burrow.
The quarterback is the most important and scrutinized position in team sports. The fanbase of every NFL team has anxiety about its quarterback. Every city has a story of a QB who caused them anguish and pain, who caused them to throw a remote at their TV screen, or who caused them unbridled joy.
Through the 2021 season, the Bengals have had 32 starting QBs since their first game in 1968 in the old American Football League.
The first Cincinnati Bengals quarterback was a man named Madison Dewey Warren, which sounds more like a law firm: “BEEN INJURED THROUGH NO FAULT OF YOUR OWN? HAVE A CLAIM AGAINST YOUR LANDLORD? CALL MADISON, DEWEY & WARREN: THE PROVEN FIGHTERS!” And so on.
How different was football in 1968? “Dewey” Warren played in seven games and only attempted 80 passes for just over 500 yards. He threw exactly one touchdown but found the enemy’s arms four times. They called Warren “The Swamp Rat,” and by all accounts, he actually liked that nickname.
Other quarterbacks who don’t make our list include future head coach Sam Wyche, who started three games for the 1968 Bengals, and 1992 first-round pick David Klingler, who had an uninspiring record of 4-20 for the Bengals. How he won four games, we’ll never know.
Then there’s crewcut-loving Jon Kitna, who assumed the starting job in 2001 and won his first two games — the first new Bengals QB to start a season 2-0 since 1969. Kitna even threw for a then-NFL record 68 passes in one game. He was a wild, back-of-the-envelope play-calling slinger before Johnny Manziel and Baker Mayfield were old enough to order a Coors Lite.
Here are the five best quarterbacks to strap on a tiger-striped helmet for the Bengals.
1. Ken Anderson
If there were a Bengals Mount Rushmore, one thing is certain: Kenny Anderson would have his face on it. The Bengals selected Anderson with the 67th pick in the 1971 NFL Draft. Thus began a marriage that survived losing seasons, numerous head coaches, and ups and downs. Anderson could sling the football. He was twice the passing leader in the NFL and a four-time All-Pro, but he saved his best for his second act in Cincy.
In 1981 at the age of 32, Anderson threw for a career-high 3,754 yards with 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the league in passer rating at 98.4. Revitalized in his 11th NFL season, Anderson guided the Bengals to their first postseason victory in the opening round of the AFC Playoffs. The ensuing conference championship game was held in Cincinnati in January 1982 with the temperature at -9 degrees. Anderson led the Bengals to a win and their first appearance in the Super Bowl.
Anderson and the Bengals lost Super Bowl XVI, but the veteran passer won the Most Valuable Player Award, and he followed it up with another great season, leading the NFL in passer rating in 1982 as well. Anderson played all 15 seasons of his career for Cincinnati, and he’s enshrined in the team’s Ring of Honor. He was 91-81 in 172 starts. Until another Bengals QB has longevity and MVP caliber seasons, they won’t supplant Anderson at No. 1 in franchise history.
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2. Boomer Esiason
The man who replaced Anderson was Norman Esiason, who played 10 seasons for the Bengals. Pre-born Norman was such a tummy-kicker that his mom gave him the nickname “Boomer.” Thank goodness, because Norman Esiason sounds like a third-string QB at best.
Boomer was a seven-time Pro Bowler, and he won the 1988 NFL MVP Award — the same season he led Cincinnati to their second Super Bowl. Sadly, that team did the same thing that the 1981-82 team did: lost to Joe Montana and the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Esiason was 62-61 as a starter in Bengals orange and black.
3. Joe Burrow
Only 26 starts into his career, Burrow is on a trajectory to surpass the men above him on this list. He’s already led the Bengals to their third Super Bowl, and while he didn’t emerge victorious, who’s to argue that “Joey Franchise” won’t get that title eventually? His 100.2 QBR ranks as the highest ever by a Cincinnati signal caller.
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4. Andy Dalton
The “Red Rifle” holds the franchise record for most playoff appearances by a quarterback, with five. Each one came under humorless head coach Marvin Lewis, with dynamic wide receiver A.J. Green in the huddle. But each ended the same way: with a disappointing defeat in the wild card game. That’s destined to be Dalton’s legacy in The Queen City. Depending on your vantage point as a Cincy sports fan, Dalton is either someone to remember or to forget. He ranks first in franchise history with 204 TD passes, and second to Anderson with more than 31,000 yards through the air.
5. Carson Palmer
In the tradition of Dewey Warren, the Law Firm of Carson (&) Palmer led the Bengals’ offense for seven seasons, to mixed reviews. On the positive side, Palmer led the Bengals to their first playoff game in 15 years in 2005 — a loss to the Steelers lowlighted by the fact Palmer suffered a serious knee injury on the Bengals’ second play from scrimmage. The former Heisman Trophy winner led the NFL in TD passes that season with 32, but two seasons later he led the league with 20 interceptions. That was the thing about Palmer: he could look great, then he could torture fans with his inconsistent play. Still, he was twice an All-Pro for the Bengals, and he threw for more than 22,000 yards for the franchise. Unfortunately, his career record for Cincy was 46-51, even with two playoff appearances.
AP Photo/Reed Saxon