The Cincinnati Bengals have been using jail and court appearances as a feeder system for their professional football team, as opposed to a red flag or warning to stay away. In recent years, my beloved Bengals have done anything but shy away from drafting and signing players whose pasts are littered with legal problems; it has become their calling card. Committing crimes and getting arrested is basically a job interview for Cincinnati’s hiring process. It certainly seems ludicrous. But then again, maybe it’s not.
There are three possible explanations for why the Bengals have become so enchanted with employing players that have had run-ins with the law. The first possible explanation is that Owner and General Manager Mike Brown is a dim-witted, cheap bastard. The second is that the Bengals organization has realized that young professional athletes are often given too much, too fast, and that it sometimes takes a second chance for them to come to their senses and quit acting like brainless hooligans. The third possible explanation is that the team is planning to make a real-life documentary of The Longest Yard.
Unless the team signs Burt Reynolds to a contract anytime soon, the Bengals affection for miscreants is some combination of possibilities one and two. Yes, Mike Brown is a dim-witted, cheap bastard; there is no questioning this. The man owns and runs an organization that hasn’t won a playoff game in 20 years, and yet he doesn’t deem it necessary to hire a real general manager. Plus, he knows that he can get high-quality players much cheaper than usual, as long as he waits for them to spend some time behind bars. It’s tough to get big-name, superstar athletes to play in Cincinnati when the owner is unwilling to shell out the big bucks. But by signing and drafting society’s degenerates, the Bengals are often a troubled player’s last option. They aren’t really in a place to hold out for more money or make demands. They really just need a job.
However, Mike Brown’s frugality is not the sole reason for the team’s interest in these types of players. As I mentioned before, it appears the Bengals' organization has come to realize that sometimes, a second chance goes a long way. Ask any true sports fan, and they will undoubtedly tell you that a sizeable portion of professional athletes are immature morons, especially early in their careers. How could we expect them not to be? Think about it: in the major sports, players enter the league as 19 to 22 year olds, and are immediately given tons of money, tons of fame, and a boatload of entitlement.
Media and fans often put these kids on pedestals, giving them a sense of superiority and special treatment. Mix that with the freedom offered in the millions of dollars they earn, and it really isn’t shocking that a number of them would get into trouble. They have more money than they know what to do with, women constantly throwing themselves at them, the vast majority of people telling them how great they are, and most can’t even rent a car yet. I’d probably be a jackass too. Getting a DUI or assault or drug charge is almost inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more acceptable, but it certainly isn’t shocking.
For a lot of these athletes, it often takes a couple screw-ups for a person to realize how stupid they are. And by that point, for an NFL player, there aren’t many teams willing to trust these guys with million dollar investments. And when these athletes finally reach the point where they don’t have organizations clamoring for them like teenage boys slobber over Megan Fox, it’s a pretty big wake up call. By offering another chance, the Bengals aren’t enablers as much as they are redeemers. These players soon realize that Cincinnati might be the last chance they get to play football for a living.
Take Cedric Benson for example. Benson was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. In his first three seasons with the Chicago Bears, Benson was arrested twice and had numerous chemistry issues with the team. He was released by the Bears after the ’07 season, and basically treated like a cancer by other organizations throughout the league. The Bengals felt otherwise. They saw a talented young running back with a few dumb mistakes, and a guy who desperately wanted to change his image. They gave him a chance, and he quickly became the team’s starter and earned a contract extension. In his first full season with the team, he rushed for 1,251 yards, six touchdowns, and had six games with over 100 yards rushing. On top of that, he has been nothing but a model teammate, quickly becoming a fan-favorite for his tough, hard-nosed approach to the game. All he needed was another chance.
Benson is only one player in a long-line of guys that the Bengals have taken chances on. Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, Matt Jones, Frostee Rucker, Larry Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Antonio Bryant and Rey Mauluga…the list goes on and on. For the most part, they’ve all worked out. But the Bengals have also made sure to surround these guys with the right teammates and coaches to keep them on the straight and narrow. Head coach Marvin Lewis is a great leader with the ability to coach and mentor these kinds of players. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a no-nonsense hard-ass that doesn’t put up with punks or thugs. Carson Palmer, Bobbie Williams, Andrew Whitworth, Dhani Jones, Roy Williams, and even Chad Ochocinco are all great locker room leaders that won’t allow their teammates to get out of line. When you mix such a strong foundation with guys that want nothing more than to move on from the past, it generally works out. The Bengals are starting to prove it.
Sure, the team has struggled over the past two decades. But anyone familiar with the organization would tell you that things are changing. The team is coming off a 2009 Division Championship, their second in five seasons. The program is no longer the bottom feeder that it once was, and it appears as if things will continue to get better. The Cincinnati Bengals owe a great deal of that credit to the fact that they have changed the culture of the team, buying in to certain stocks that no one else would even glance at.
Yeah, it was risky. But no risk, no reward. And sometimes, to the spoils go the victories.
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