View Full Version : Castoffs giving Bengals a shot at AFC North title

11-14-2009, 06:47 PM
Castoffs giving Bengals a shot at AFC North title
by Alex Marvez
http://msn.foxsports.com/other/story/10 ... orth-title (http://msn.foxsports.com/other/story/10368764/Castoffs-giving-Bengals-a-shot-at-AFC-North-title)

Updated: November 14, 2009, 12:20 PM EST
CINCINNATI - Mike Brown doesn't believe his team has earned its orange-and-black stripes quite yet.

Even with the Bengals off to their best start since 2005, Brown isn't trumpeting Cincinnati's accomplishments. Even with the Bengals set to play Sunday at Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead, Brown still doesn't tout Cincinnati among the conference's elite squads.

As the Bengals owner candidly told FOXSports.com on Friday, "We aren't like Indianapolis that just tears people apart week after week or New England."

"We've put together a pretty good season to this point, but for the most part, it's been very close games," Brown said from inside his office at Paul Brown Stadium. "It's too early for congratulations. We're at the midpoint of this season. Who knows what the second half will bring? We're just fighting and scrapping and we'll see where it goes."

But at least so far, this season couldn't be going much better.

With a 6-2 record, the 2009 Bengals aren't the same sad sacks who had gradually reverted to laughingstock status after a rare playoff appearance four years ago. Three key offensive players quarterback Carson Palmer, running back Cedric Benson and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco are enjoying a career resurgence. An aggressive young defense is actually allowing fewer points per game (16.9) than the vaunted Steelers (17.4).

And for the first time since becoming head coach in 2003, Marvin Lewis has a roster with strong veteran leadership. Players regarded as misfits and castoffs have taken advantage of the opportunity to get their careers back on track. This group also has avoided the off-field trouble that made Cincinnati an NFL embarrassment in 2006.

"People have always said the Bengals have this (negative) aura," said Bengals middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who was cut by two teams in 2007 before signing with Cincinnati that season. "Internally, we have tried to change that perception because we know what kind of people we are. We know that talent is overrated. What's underrated is heart, motivation, drive and pride."

En route to his second season as Cincinnati's leading tackler, Jones is just one of many Bengals given a fresh start. Brown who is regarded as the NFL's version of Father Flanagan isn't exaggerating when saying that roughly half of Cincinnati's starters have "come off the scrapheap somewhere or at least had to overcome something that was difficult."

Benson is the most prominent Bengal to fit the bill on both accounts. The No. 4 overall pick by Chicago in the 2005 draft, Benson was earmarked a bust when cut in the 2008 offseason. Because of his baggage a poor attitude, mediocre production and two alcohol-related arrests no other NFL team was willing to give him another shot until Cincinnati finally called four games into last season.

Now the NFL's second-leading rusher with 837 yards, Benson has given Cincinnati a power running attack sorely lacking since the team's last postseason appearance. Benson's 189-yard effort in last month's 45-10 rout of Chicago also was an example of a Bengals player using previous hardship as motivation.

"We feed off that a lot," said free safety Chris Crocker, who also joined the Bengals last season after being dumped by Miami. "You may face a team where you've played before and they may think you're the same person and still no good.

"It burns. You never forget those things. It does drive you."

As much as Benson is helping to power Cincinnati's offensive train, Lewis refers to Palmer as the "conductor" and Ochocinco as "the steam that drives the locomotive." The Bengals didn't leave the station much in last year's 4-11-1 campaign. Palmer missed 12 games with a sore elbow and Ochocinco went into the tank because of injury and a poor attitude.

Palmer has led three fourth-quarter comebacks this season, including a 23-20 home win over Pittsburgh in Week 3. His statistics (61.5 completion percentage, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions) are solid. And while running isn't his strong suit, Palmer is exhibiting his best mobility since suffering a major knee injury against the Steelers during the 2005 playoffs.

"When he's right, he's a very good quarterback who ranks with the top in the league," said Brown, who made Palmer the top overall pick in the 2003 draft. "He makes us go."

Ochocinco seemingly did everything he could to leave Cincinnati in 2008. But an organization known for its steadfastness and frugality wasn't going to let a disruptive Ochocinco write his own ticket out of town, especially after he signed a six-year, $35.5 million contract extension in 2006.

"He went a year and a half where he wasn't challenging the DBs in practice," Lewis said. "Now, he's talking every play again. That's good because it helps those young guys get better and helps him get going so he doesn't get bored. He's been in the same (offensive) system for nine years so he gets bored. We challenge him with new things all the time."

Ochocinco's approach both physically and psychologically was much better entering training camp and it shows. Ochocinco is on pace for a 1,278-yard, 10-touchdown season. And as always, Ochocinco is doing it his way even if his flamboyant antics and incessant Twitter posts don't always sit well with Lewis or the NFL.

The league fined Ochocinco $20,000 on Friday for jokingly trying to "bribe" an official with a $1 bill during last Sunday's win over Baltimore. Lewis also scuttled Ochocinco's plans to have mustard delivered this week to Steelers players. In a Tweet, Ochocinco said he wanted to send the condiments because "they'll never ketchup when we play Sunday."

"He still does Chad things on times between games," Brown said. "But when the games come, he plays and is very special."

The same can be said of the chemistry built in Cincinnati's locker room. With just one winning season since 1990, losing was so ingrained that Lewis admits being worried last year that players had tuned out his message.

But a core of veterans both Bengals draft picks and reclamation projects began taking more accountability. For example, Lewis points to no longer having to personally police the locker room for profanity-laced music playing over the sound system.

"Everybody has been in line and that's the way it ought to be," Lewis said. "I felt we would be or I wouldn't have agreed to Hard Knocks."

That preseason HBO show gave a raw glimpse into how the Bengals operate, including the publicity-reticent Brown. The son of NFL coaching legend Paul Brown, Mike Brown has taken a public beating because of the franchise's own hard knocks since his father's death in August 1991.

Brown has received criticism for not removing himself as general manager, sticking too long with some of his previous head coaches, taking too many chances on players with troubled pasts, keeping a small scouting staff and putting financial prosperity ahead of winning even though NFL financial data has shown he's not as tight-fisted as perceived. The 72-year-old Brown also comes across to some as callous because he isn't outgoing in trying to bond with his players like some other NFL owners/general managers.

Jones and a slew of other Bengals players say that image is inaccurate.

"One of the misconceptions is that people don't think he cares," Jones said. "He cares a lot about what goes on with the players and the success of the team."

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Brown won't take credit for Cincinnati's current success even though Lewis praises him for bolstering the roster through offseason acquisitions and a rookie class that has taken 14 of 53 roster spots. Brown is still concerned about his team's depth. On Friday, starting strong safety Roy Williams (forearm) joined such productive veterans as defensive end Antwan Odom (Achilles' tendon) and wide receiver Chris Henry (forearm) on injured reserve. Outside linebacker Keith Rivers (calf) and left guard Evan Mathis (ankle) are listed as doubtful for the Steelers game.

"We aren't kidding ourselves," Brown said. "We know for us every week is a challenge."

Pittsburgh (6-2) is Cincinnati's toughest challenge to date. The defending Super Bowl champions have won five consecutive games and are eager to avenge their early-season Bengals loss. Cincinnati enters as a 7-point underdog.

But even if the oddsmakers are proven right, all is not lost for the Bengals. Only two of Cincinnati's final seven opponents (Minnesota and San Diego) currently have winning records.

An 11-5 or 10-6 mark will probably secure a playoff berth. That would dash the lingering perception of both Brown and his Bengals as perennial bunglers much like last year's Super Bowl run did for the once-downtrodden Arizona Cardinals.

"I hope there are still some doubters because I like proving people wrong," Bengals right guard Bobbie Williams said. "By the end of the year, let's see what the naysayers have to say."

And Brown, too.