Bengals' Anderson, the passing machine

Quarterback Ken Anderson, the 6 ft., 3 in. ignition key the Cincinnati Bengals hope will turn them on against San Francisco in Sunday's Super Bowl, is the kind of pro athlete you wouldn't mind having in for dinner with your family.

You wouldn't have to tell Anderson which is the salad fork and which is the dessert fork. You could discuss world affairs or how to compute the density of an object and probably discover that your guest is smarter than you are. Or you could simply ask what date in February Ken is scheduled to take his bar exam to practice law in Ohio.

Anderson, who got his start as a quarterback at tiny Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., may be the best argument going that you don't have to go to a factory-type school to make it big in the National Football League.

People who watched Anderson complete 22 of 24 passes against the Pittsburgh Steelers (in 1974, with the Steelers going on to the Super Bowl) still can't believe what they saw.

Yet despite numerous unforgettable moments like this, Ken is still a low-profile, high-performance athlete who is perhaps the most precise passing machine in pro football.

During the regular season he threw for 3,754 yards and 29 touchdowns. In fact , he finished with the highest completion percentage (62.6) in the American Conference and the lowest interception rate (2.1 percent) among all QBs.

Yet Anderson didn't start the current season (his 11th in the NFL) as if it was going to be his best. He got benched by head coach Forrest Gregg in the Bengals' season opener against the Seattle Seahawks after only one period. Ken completed seven passes - two to the wrong team.

Additional clouds appeared on the horizon when Turk Schonert, the quarterback who replaced Anderson, helped engineer a come-from-behind win against Seattle.

''You go back and look at films of how well the new man played and you begin to wonder if it isn't time to make a change,'' Gregg told reporters. ''But in the end I decided to stay with Anderson on the theory that you don't give up on anyone who has been so consistent for so many years merely on the basis of one bad game.''

One thing you hear often about Anderson is how well he is able to follow - and follow through on - a game plan. In a way, Ken is very much like Bengals general manager Paul Brown - unspectacular, but capable of coping quickly with any situation.

It is ironic that San Francisco's Bill Walsh, the head coach of Cincinnati's Super Bowl opponent, was tutoring the Bengal quarterbacks during Ken's first five years as a pro. Each knows the other's thinking well.

Anderson, of course, is not all vanilla ice cream. Under that quiet exterior is a man who knows he is one of the best; who will scramble to get a pass off when there isn't any other way; and who doesn't allow anyone to interfere with the business he conducts in his huddle.

Cincinnati has eight players who caught at least 13 passes during the regular season and who seem to have an exceptional working relationship with Anderson. The three the opposition has to watch closest are tight end Dan Ross, rookie wide receiver Cris Collinsworth, and fullback Pete Johnson, who also gained 1, 077 yards running. Ross caught 71 passes; Collinsworth, 67; and Johnson 31.

The Bengals last met San Francisco in Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium on Dec. 6. The 49ers won easily, 21-3, forcing six turnovers. Under severe pressure from San Francisco's defensive line, Anderson never did get anything started.

How much the memory of that defeat will affect Cincinnati is anybody's guess. But usually when two teams this talented get together a second time in the same season, past performances count very little. We'll find out when the teams take the field in Pontiac, Mich., this Sunday.

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