Ken Riley, Forgotten Great

A few years ago I was given one of those giant NFL Record & Facts Books as a Christmas present.

As you might expect, with a gig at Pro Football Focus, I like a stat as much as the next man, and coupled with a history degree, I was soon poring over past players and career stats and generally teaching myself a bit about some players that I didn’t know much about, but judging from the numbers they put up, probably should.

It was in the middle of this process that I came across Ken Riley.  This was a guy who played fifteen seasons in the NFL, picked off 65 passes, retired 4th on the NFL’s all-time interception list, set a franchise record for the Bengals with 9 in a season, and went to Super Bowl XVI.  Despite all this not many people know much about him, and I had barely heard the name. He’s become a forgotten man, and repeatedly ignored by the Hall of Fame selectors.

I looked into his career a little more, trying to find out some more about a guy who was before my time and eventually tracked down the man himself and interviewed him about his career, the game today and a few other thoughts.  This was probably my first real journalistic act, and it’s somewhat fitting that it all surrounded football.

Riley is and was a quiet guy, and I think that goes a long way to explaining his absence from the spotlight.  The league rewards flash.  The biggest stars tend to be those that court the spotlight, but those that just quietly get on with their job get ignored.

Riley was overshadowed on his own team by a flashier player in Lemar Parrish.  When he set the Bengals single-season franchise record for interceptions with nine, it was Parrish instead who went to the Pro-Bowl, with only two interceptions himself, and half the season spent out injured. Bizarrely, Riley didn’t make the Pro-Bowl once in his fifteen seasons of play, despite some seasons that were clearly at that level. He doesn’t understand it.

That’s something I don’t understand, a lot of people ask, but ask some of the players I played against and they’d tell you who the best players were. I never was real flashy, I just played the game. I hear that question a lot, and I just don’t know.

Riley still sits 5th on the all-time interceptions list, and the four guys in front of him are all in the Hall of Fame. The next player after him is Ronnie Lott, also in the Hall.  He was overlooked during his career, and he’s being overlooked now – when was the last time you heard his case for Canton discussed?  People railed about Art Monk for years, but where is Riley’s web campaign? When I spoke to Riley he seemed morose about the lack of recognition, and felt that his play spoke for itself, deserving more credit than he ever got:

65 all-time interceptions.  That’s a lot of picks, you’ve gotta be doing something right.

He was a complete football player, not like some of today’s corners for whom playing the run is an optional extra.

When I was playing if you couldn’t tackle, you couldn’t play. You were the last line of defense, you had to get the guy on the ground.  When I was playing you didn’t come out for turf toe.

I’ve taken a lot of heat recently for suggesting that Curtis Martin wouldn’t be in my Hall of Fame.  I can see the argument for him, and two of the biggest plus points in Martin’s column are durability and leadership.  Well Riley played for 15 seasons, and was a team captain for 8 of those.  Late on he made it to a Super Bowl and was part of the reason that Joe Montana could only complete 14 passes for 176 yards.  Paul Brown himself once said of Riley:

“He is a model football player and a real gentleman.  Youngsters would do well to pattern themselves after him.”

Maybe none of this would matter if the Bengals had been able to come away from that Super Bowl with a ring.  Players will tell you they would trade anything for that championship, the ring, and the right to call themselves champion for the rest of their days, the right to look down at that ring any time they want and be instantly transported back to the moment when they were the best there was.  Riley’s Bengals may have been the best team in the NFL that season, but they couldn’t get past the 49ers, who took them down twice that season including the Super Bowl.  After coming up short, so close to the dream, Riley doesn’t have that moment to put everything else in perspective.

We had the team to have won it all and to lose it…I don’t like watching Super Bowls even now.

When it was all over he took up coaching, returning to his alma mater, Florida A&M, and earned two Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference titled and two coach of the year awards.  Playing for Paul Brown gave him a pretty good role model when it came to life after the game.

He was a classy old man. When you play for Paul Brown you’re gonna know what you’re doing

In the end Riley knew what he was doing, and his play spoke for itself.  Maybe he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves, but Ken Riley was a great player, and remains a great man.  When I had the good fortune to stumble across his name in a book, I taught myself a little something about the game’s history, but when I spoke to Riley on the phone I was lucky to speak to one of the game’s greats.

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