He was known among his teammates, simply, as "Freddy Franchise." The owner, who is the oldest son of the man who founded the franchise, called him the most important player in Cincinnati Bengals history. On a team that has only one player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he remains their most deserving candidate to be inducted.
Especially because there aren't many quarterbacks already in the Hall of Fame who have better numbers than Ken Anderson.
"In our book, he's already in the Hall of Fame," Bengals owner Mike Brown said. "He always will be."
It has been 23 years since Anderson put up some of the NFL's most remarkable passing numbers with the Bengals, the team that drafted him on the third round in 1971 -- a year after Terry Bradshaw -- from tiny Augustana College in Illinois. And it has been three years since he joined the Steelers as their quarterbacks coach, the man who works most closely with Ben Roethlisberger.
But, to the people in Cincinnati, it's almost unfathomable that Anderson would return to the city in which he played 16 years wearing the black-and-gold of the Steelers. To them, it is the equivalent of Bradshaw coming back as the quarterbacks coach of the Oakland Raiders, Mario Lemieux returning as an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Flyers.
Anderson returns to face his former team today when the Steelers (1-1) play the Bengals (1-1) at 4:15 p.m. in the stadium named for Paul Brown, the man who drafted him 38 years ago.
To many, it still seems strange.
"When I look at all the rivalry games we had, the game when he went 20 of 22 against them, getting his facemask ripped off [by former defensive end Keith Gary], all those games we played against the Steel Curtain, it was so strange to see him come back to Cincinnati wearing the Steelers garb," said former Bengals guard Dave Lapham, Anderson's friend and former roommate. "And this year he comes back wearing a Super Bowl ring, which is even more of a twist of irony."
Anderson never won a Super Bowl with the Bengals, but he guided them to Super Bowl XVI during the 1981 season, where they lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 26-21. In that game, Anderson set a Super Bowl record with 25 completions and a 73.5 completion percentage -- numbers that have since been eclipsed.
He was so good that he is the only player in NFL history to lead the league in passing in back-to-back years in two different decades (1974-75 and 1981-82). When he was done playing for the Bengals, Anderson began his coaching career with them in 1993 and spent 10 years as the team's quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator.
"That's a long time to be in one place," Anderson said. "Sometimes it's tough for people to distinguish a playing career from a coaching career. As a player, I'll always be associated with Cincinnati. I wouldn't want it any other way.
"But you look at every coach in this building and every coach in this league, they've been other places. I happen to be in another place at this point of my career and I'm just happier than anything to be here in Pittsburgh. It would have been different if I played 15 years in Cincinnati and played my last two years in Pittsburgh."
Anderson's records never seem to go away. A couple of weeks ago, New England's Tom Brady completed 39 of 53 passes against the Buffalo Bills in the season opener of Monday Night Football. He missed -- by one -- tying the MNF record of 40 completions, set by Anderson in a 1982 game in San Diego, won by the Chargers, 50-34.
Anderson remembers the game.
"Our offensive coordinator was Lindy Infante and San Diego was 'Air Coryell' then, so Lindy said, 'We'll show them,' and I think we threw the first 20 times we had the ball," Anderson said.
Those were just some of the impressive numbers -- Hall of Fame-like numbers -- Anderson posted from 1971 to 1986 with the Bengals.
• He threw 197 career touchdowns, more than 14 of the 25 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.
• His career passer rating is 81.4, surpassed by only eight quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame.
• He had the most accurate season in NFL history, completing 70.55 percent of his passes in 1982 -- the same season he was named the league's Most Valuable Player.
• On Nov. 10, 1974, he completed 20 of 22 passes in a 17-10 victory against the Steelers, setting a league completion-percentage record that stood for nearly 20 years.
"He had that command of the offense," said Steelers secondary coach Ray Horton, who was a cornerback with the Bengals for Anderson's last four seasons as a player. "You very seldom saw him make a bad read. He put the ball where he wanted to. It was just phenomenal going against him in practice. The ball was always where it was supposed to be."
But Anderson was more than just one of the most accurate passers of all time. He also finished with 2,220 yards rushing -- including 20 rushing touchdowns -- in his career. In 1981, he was the Bengals' second-leading rusher with 320 yards.
"We put in these naked bootlegs and I ended up running a lot of those," Anderson said. "I was fairly mobile. Everyone thinks I was a dink-and-dunk passer, but I think my average completion is the same as Dan Marino's."
At 7.3 yards per attempt, it was.
And that's why Mike Brown called him the most important player in Bengals history.
"He was a key player for all those years for us," Brown said the other day over the phone, agreeing to a rare interview because the subject was Anderson. "He was our quarterback and he was a very good player, extremely accurate. Everything revolved around him. We could move the ball when he was here."
His teammates called him "Freddy Franchise," a tag placed on him by former tight end Bob Trumpy.
"It was the importance he had to the franchise," Lapham said. "The Bengals had another quarterback prior to Kenny, Greg Cook, who was big and strong and could really throw the ball, a Terry Bradshaw-type. He had everything going to be a star in this league for a long time.
"But he tore his rotator cuff and back then your career was over. Then they had Virgil Carter, and then they draft Ken Anderson, and he basically said, 'I'm going to bring this franchise back.' And he did. I believe that's why Mike Brown thought he was our most important player."
Roethlisberger said he is too young to remember much about the playing days of his position coach, other than he knew he was a good two-sport athlete and "one of the Hall of Fame snubs everyone talks about." Anderson grew up in Batavia, Ill., and played basketball with his neighbor, former basketball star Dan Issel.
Anderson is the second quarterbacks coach Roethlisberger has had in his six NFL seasons. He was hired when Mike Tomlin became head coach in 2007, replacing Mark Whipple. Anderson spent the previous four seasons as quarterbacks coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"If I ask him something, if I have questions like, why is this happening, why is the ball going low, he knows the game because he played it," Roethlisberger said. "That's what's great about him. He's there when I need him. He's not pushed me."
Roethlisberger had already posted a perfect season (13-0 in 2004), set an NFL rookie record for completion percentage (66.4) and passer rating (98.1) in a season, been to two AFC Championship games (2004, 2005) and won a Super Bowl when Anderson arrived.
But, in Anderson's first season, Roethlisberger set a club record for passer rating (104.1) and touchdowns (32).
"He does so many things on the field I wish I could coach," Anderson said. "He has such tremendous vision seeing the field. He can create plays from the pocket. It's been a pleasure to be associated with a quarterback of that caliber."
Then Anderson added something he remembered from his days with the Bengals.
"This is an old Paul Brown-ism: The game is not too big for him. He can go out when times are difficult and he can execute, he can perform and he wins football games. Some guys can, some guys can't, and this kid can."
So could Freddy Franchise.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at email@example.com . First Published September 27, 2009 4:00 AM