The Sports Then and Now Vintage Athlete of the Month was one of the most accurate passers of his era an arguably among the most glaring omissions to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
An unheralded third round draft pick out of Augustana College in Illinois, Ken Anderson arrived at a crucial time for the Cincinnati Bengals and their coaching staff that included legendary innovator Paul Brown and up-and-coming genius Bill Walsh.
Just two years earlier, in 1969, the Bengals appeared to have their quarterback of the future in strong-armed Greg Cook. However, injury abruptly ended his career after only 11 starts.
Virgil Carter, a former star at BYU and backup for the Chicago Bears, took the reigns in 1970 and led the Bengals to their first playoff appearance in only their third season in the league. However, he was unable to continue his magic in 1971 and by the end of the season it was generally apparent that Anderson was the quarterback of the future for the Bengals.
Beginning in 1972, Anderson spent the next 13 years guiding the Bengals through a challenging period when their division rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers emerged as perennial champions and Cincinnati made a series of decisions that perhaps cost them a chance at their own extended greatness.
After leading the Bengals to an 8-6 record in 1972, Anderson and his young team started to hit their stride in 1973 as Walsh instituted a precision passing offense that would eventually become known as the “west coast offense.”
The Bengals went 10-4 in 1973 with Anderson completing 54.4% of his passes for 2,428 yards and 18 touchdowns. They claimed the AFC Central title, but lost 34-16 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in their opening playoff game.
Losses in their final three games of the 1974 season dropped the Bengals to a 7-7 record, but Anderson completed 64.9 percent of his passes and led the NFL in passer rating for the first time in his career.
Anderson won his second straight passing title in 1975 as the Bengals rebounded for an 11-3 record and he eclipsed the 3,000 passing yard mark for the first time.
As a wild card playoff team, the Bengals dropped behind the Oakland Raiders 31-14 before Anderson tossed two fourth quarter touchdowns to cut the final deficit to 31-28. The game marked the final contest for Paul Brown as head coach of the Bengals and Bill Walsh as an assistant.
With former assistant Bill Johnson now coaching the team, the 1976 Bengals opened the season with wins in nine of their first 11 games and looked like a Super Bowl contender. However, consecutive losses to the Raiders and Steelers knocked them out of the playoffs and proved to be the start of the downfall for the Bengals.
Cincinnati went 8-6 in 1977 with Anderson’s completion percentage falling to 51.4%. In 1978, he tossed more interceptions (22) than touchdowns (10) for the first time as the Bengals went 4-12. Johnson was fired after starting the season with five straight losses and Homer Rice finished the season as head coach.
The Bengals used their first pick in the 1979 draft on quarterback Jack Thompson, but Anderson actually had a rebound season as he connected on 55.8% of his passes for 2,340 yards with 16 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, another 4-12 season meant the Bengals were back looking for another head coach.
With Hall of Fame player Forrest Gregg as the new coach in 1980, Anderson saw his completion percentage move back above 60%, but he threw only six touchdown passes with 13 interceptions. The Bengals were 5-7 in games started by Anderson and 6-10 overall.
The 1981 campaign proved to be the best of Anderson’s career and the Bengals franchise. He connected on 62.6 percent of his passes for a career-high 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Cincinnati won seven of their final eight games to win the AFC Central for the first time since 1973.
Anderson tossed the winning touchdown to Cris Collingsworth in the opening playoff game against Buffalo to secure the first playoff win in franchise history. Facing the San Diego Chargers in the second coldest game in playoff history, he threw two touchdown passes to lift the Bengals to the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history.
Ironically, the opponent for Anderson and the Bengals in the Super Bowl was the San Francisco 49ers, coached by former Bengals assistant Bill Walsh. The 49ers jumped to a 20-0 lead, but Anderson and the Bengals battled back to make it close in the second half. He passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns as the Bengals ultimately lost 26-21.
After being a first team All-Pro and NFL Player of the Year in 1981, Anderson was again a Pro Bowl player during the strike-shortened 1982 campaign. He completed a career-high 70.6% of his passes while winning his fourth passing title.
The Bengals finished 1982 with a 7-2 record, but lost 44-17 to the New York Jets in what would be the final playoff appearance for Anderson. In that game, Anderson completed 74% of his passes for 354 yards, but had three interceptions as the Jets pulled away.
Anderson again led the NFL in completion percentage in 1983, but the Bengals finished with a 7-9 record. After the season, the Bengals replaced Gregg with Sam Wyche and drafted Boomer Esiason from Maryland in the second round of the NFL Draft.
With Anderson starting, the Bengals lost their first five games of the season. He did lead the team to three wins later in the campaign, but it was clear that there was a changing of the guard at the quarterback position.
He remained with the Bengals through the 1986 season, primarily as a backup to Esiason.
During his 16 year career, Anderson completed 59.3% of his passing attempts for 32,838 yards, 197 career touchdown passes and an 81.9 career passer rating. He ranked 7th in career passing yards at the time of his career and is still 33rd all-time.
Anderson has twice been a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but has yet to earn induction. He spent nearly two decades as an assistant coach for the Bengals, Jaguars and Steelers. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Steelers in SB XLIII.