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Bengals' 'Character Issues' Include Navigating a Tough Schedule

By Bill Peterson · July 26th, 2006 · Sports
Jerry Dowling

From all the controversy surrounding the Bengals and their recent character issues, one wouldn't know if they're convening in Georgetown Saturday for training camp or prison camp. Maybe the Bengals can't stand prosperity after all.

We jest, but crime talk is not the optimal way to build on the first Bengals playoff berth in 15 years. Not when the Bengals need to be into serious business from beginning to end this year if they wish to avoid the bad fall the NFL has cooked up for them.

For all those years when the Bengals went to training camp off terrible seasons, the heart reached for optimism. Now that the heart's been warmed by 11 victories, the Bengals' first ever AFC North championship and a playoff appearance, the mind looks for the catch, grateful to no longer talk itself into phony descriptions of a compelling future.

In the old days, it made no sense to think what might go wrong, because the Bengals already were all wrong. Now they're all right. Until the season begins.

Everything is different all of a sudden. Marvin Lewis isn't going to catch anyone giggling in disbelief when the Bengals win. He's not going to catch anyone napping, either.

The Bengals are preparing for a first-place schedule, which means they get four division champions, seven games against 2005 playoff teams and eight against teams that won 10 or more games. The Bengals must be better to be just as good.

Not to keep throwing acid on all the high hopes, but we remember also that the Bengals finished poorly last year, losing their last two meetings of the regular season before departing the playoffs in the first round.

And we don't know if Carson Palmer will be ready for the regular season or how much he'll play or how effective he'll be when he does play.

We also don't know if the Bengals can stop the run. They won't be able to play their difference-making young linebacker, Odell Thurman, for the first four games, which include contests against Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New England. When Thurman returns from a drug suspension, the Bengals will play Carolina, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Baltimore and San Diego in their next five games. The Bengals' first six opponents from outside the NFC North played last year to a 59-37 record.

The division foes were only 23-25, but that's not to say the Bengals can breathe easily through those games. The Steelers are defending champs, Baltimore has added Steve McNair at quarterback and Cleveland can expect improvement during the second year of Romeo Crennel's program.

The schedule doesn't suddenly turn easy at the end, when the Bengals play Indianapolis, Denver and Pittsburgh in their final three games. They combined last year for 38-10.

Put simply, the Bengals will have to establish that they are a championship team this year early and often. About the news-making character issues, let the following be said: If players have committed such awful crimes, the Bengals don't have anything to say about it because those guys are going to prison. As to the more laughable crimes, go ahead and laugh.

Chris Henry is a bottom feeder if he really is trying to ply under-aged girls with alcohol. Matthias Askew has a screw loose, turning a parking ticket into the lead news story by trying to show up the cops with their Taser guns.

In these cases, ridicule trumps indignation as an appropriate response. Chances are Askew, a defensive lineman, won't make the team anyway and Henry, a wide receiver, is in a thick fight to stick past August even if he wins his legal battles. The Bengals are going to camp with 10 receivers, only six of whom will be in Kansas City for the opener Sept. 10.

A separate category is composed of likely substance abusers. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks, a Butkus Award candidate as a junior at Virginia, found himself kicked off the university football team this spring after he failed a drug test -- hence his availability in the supplemental draft earlier this month. Marijuana use was widely rumored. Thurman, a similar animal, already has lost to the NFL urine tester, though it's unclear if his substance is recreational in nature.

In this corner, though, there will be no recriminations against players who merely smoke a little pot, since half the people reading this either are stoned or wish they were and we don't want to make them paranoid.

This year's spring draft turned up more difficult cases. Rookie defensive end Frostee Rucker, the third round pick, faces charges of vandalism and spousal battery. Rookie linebacker A.J. Nicholson, the fifth round pick, faces charges of grand theft and vandalism. If such charges are proven true, then the Bengals are dealing in violent criminals with victims in their wake. And they're bound to be trouble.

Add it up, and we've got six guys with "character issues" but only two of whom might be regarded as menaces to society. If they have a debt to society, they should pay it. And if the legal system should be satisfied with the outcome, favorable though it is to those with money, the players shouldn't be prohibited from making a living. But that doesn't mean the Bengals should abandon caution.

Again, size, speed and strength are just a few of the requirements for playing football. If we're living in the real world, we also recognize that a will to inflict violence doesn't magically descend on every player's personality at game time. Stories of off-field violence have characterized football teams for decades -- it's just business as usual in the NFL. If you want to watch football at a high level, you deal with it. Let the legal system bring charges and prosecute them.

The character issue of football importance concerns a team being called upon to prove its first playoff appearance in 15 years wasn't a fluke.

If the Bengals accomplish that much, it'll go a long way toward clearing your conscience as a football fan.



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