Sports Outside the Beltway

Cincy A Bunch of Winning Moral Reprobates

That’s the gist of this ESPN article in the Cincinnati Bengals:

On Sept. 20, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had visited the Bengals and spoken about the responsibility of being professional football players. Five days later, just hours after Cincinnati improved to 3-0 with a 28-20 win in Pittsburgh, the team’s leading tackler last season, linebacker Odell Thurman, was arrested by Cincinnati police for DUI. This was Thurman’s third violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy and it would result in a yearlong suspension. As if that weren’t bad enough, Bengals wideout Chris Henry had been seen vomiting out the side window of Thurman’s SUV. Henry, meanwhile, was just two weeks removed from pleading guilty to a gun charge in Florida. In January 2006, while in Orlando, police there say, he stepped from a limo wearing his own black-and-orange Bengals replica jersey and pointed a 9mm Luger into a crowd.

Yet when asked that cold and rainy September day how these off-field issues might be affecting the Bengals’ performance, Lewis threw up his hands in frustration and began to stomp away. At the door of his team’s locker room, he stopped and pointed inside. “It has not made one bit of difference to them,” Lewis said. “To the guys in there, the coverage is almost comical. The most important thing to me when you say the word character is the locker room. The problem is, there’s no way for the outside world to evaluate the kind of character that’s important to players.”

Take Henry, for example. Outside Paul Brown Stadium, he has been nothing short of a basket case since Cincy drafted him out of West Virginia in the third round of the 2005 draft. In addition to the gun charge, he has also pleaded guilty to — and was benched one game in December 2005 for — marijuana possession, was arrested again in June for allegedly providing alcohol to three underage females in a hotel room (the trial is in January) and served a two-game suspension this season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy.

But inside the Bengals’ locker room, Henry is regarded as a model teammate. And therein lies the difference between the kind of character that matters to teams and that which matters to fans. Henry’s coaches and teammates say he shows up on time, pays attention in meetings and goes about his football business as quietly as a mouse. When he does speak, Henry addresses coaches with barely audible “Yes, sirs” and “No, sirs.” He works hard in practice, has played through injuries and has quickly developed into the Bengals’ No. 3 receiver, with 29 catches for 451 yards (15.6 ypc) and 7 TDs, the same number as Chad Johnson. “These guys couldn’t have been better,” says Henry of his teammates’ support. “They are all good at taking a young guy under their wing to help him learn.”

Wow. This makes any dramas with TO seem like child’s play.

Now in my book, good play hardly excuses Henry’s off field behavior. This sort of reminds me of the “but he was such a quiet kid!” defense you hear from the friends of someone who just did something awful, like kill their family.

This does bring up an interesting point though: as long as you are a good teammate, you will succeed in today’s NFL. Gone are the days when being in trouble like this would immediately disqualify you from respect in the locker room.

If anything, “poor character” has actually helped Cincy. When Lewis took over in 2003, the Bengals had gone 12 straight seasons without a winning record. Three years later, they were AFC North champs. Lewis got them there in part by drafting and signing explosive, eye-popping, first-round-caliber talent for bargain-basement prices.

Well, that is one way to rebuild a team, and it explains a lot about the Bengals. Also, the article makes the point that Lewis has to go on the record as one of the most lenient coaches in NFL history – better than any reputed player’s coach.

At 8-5 heading into Monday night’s game against the Colts, the Bengals are poised for a second straight postseason appearance. They’re also threatening to obliterate what was thought to be a fundamental NFL truth: that moral fiber, at least as defined in conventional terms, relates to on-field success, and that there is no difference between the kind of character that matters to teams and the kind that matters to their fans.

That is the long and the short of it on this one. We may say we want character, but in the end, what fans really want is for their team to win football games – whatever it takes. Sure, we’d prefer the straight shooters, but if we are winning with those who are doing less than savory things, we’ll take it.

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