GEORGETOWN, Ky. – The Cincinnati Bengals' starting halfback took a handoff from Carson Palmer(notes) and slipped between the center and left guard, a basic play in a mundane drill amid the typical training camp grind. What happened next appeared equally unremarkable, but it revealed everything you need to know about the rehabilitation of Cedric Benson(notes).
A pair of defenders closed in and prepared to deliver the glorified love taps that would serve as imaginary tackles in this light-contact exercise, but Benson had his guard up nonetheless. Bracing for a more violent impact, he lowered his shoulder and burst hard into the secondary, pulling up only after he had cleared the last defender.
"Oh, I don't even give 'em a chance to hit me anymore," Benson would later explain. "I'm full speed, all the time. [Expletive]."
Benson, 26, has his reasons for swearing. The Bengals' reborn runner is, depending upon your perspective, either paranoid or acutely aware of the pitfalls of premature glory. The hits he took as a high-profile Chicago Bears draft bust, literal and figurative, still scar him and impact his behavior. His full-speed-in-practice policy was instituted three summers ago after he suffered a shoulder injury upon absorbing a hit from then-Bears teammate Brian Urlacher(notes) in a routine drill.
At the time, Benson had been elevated to first on the depth chart ahead of returning starter Thomas Jones(notes), and he had the distinct impression that many of his teammates weren't thrilled with the switch. Whether Urlacher was taking out some of his frustration on Benson – "Trust me, I've thought about that before, because once I went down Thomas was starting again," he said Friday – it was just one of many incidents that convinced the fourth overall pick in the 2005 draft he was persona non grata.
When his career collapsed amid a pair of alcohol-related arrests in the spring of '08 and the Bengals, after he was exonerated in both cases, gave him a chance to salvage it last September, Benson showed up in Cincinnati as a changed man. Jaded? Certainly. Guarded? Absolutely. Humbled? Most definitely.
"I kind of had my tail between my legs," Benson recalled Friday after the first of two practices at Georgetown College. "I lost all my [expletive], and I wanted to get it back. I was out of the league, forgotten. My Nike deal was gone. I don't give a [expletive] what anybody says – if you say you're not in this business to make money, you're a liar. I wanted my life back."
Quietly, in one of the more uplifting surprises of the '08 season, Benson made it happen. A strong finish helped convince the Bengals to commit to the fifth-year player as their feature back, and in early March he signed a two-year, $7 million deal with the team, a transaction that was highly popular in the locker room.
"Ced has been the ultimate teammate," says Palmer, the team's star quarterback and unquestioned leader. "He's fun to play with, studies hard, wants to win, helps young guys and is a leader – what's not to love? It makes me mad when I think about what I heard out of Chicago, because now I know the guy and have spent a lot of time with him, and he's a model teammate."
Palmer's brother, Jordan, competing with J.T. O'Sullivan(notes) to be the team's backup quarterback, calls Benson "a beast, not to mention great guy in the locker room – and if you tried to find somebody around here who disagreed, you'd be out of luck."
Just as the Bengals consider themselves fortunate to have acquired a better version of Benson than the one who washed out in Chicago, he's thrilled that they provided the life raft. He wasn't sure such a rescue was forthcoming a year ago as he sat home brooding in Austin, Texas, wondering how such a promising pro future could have turned so sour.
Benson believes the trouble began during the 36-day contract dispute that caused him to miss all of training camp as a rookie. The former Texas star ultimately signed a five-year, $35 million deal but heard rumblings that many of his new teammates were partial to Jones, who ended up seizing the starting job.
If some Bears players viewed Benson as entitled, he felt they were breaking an unwritten code by criticizing a teammate for his financial issues with management. Or, to put it in colloquial terms, he felt they were playa-hating.
"That's exactly what it was," he says. "I think it's so shady for NFL players to cop out like that. There was a lot of talk that because I held out people were down on me, and I thought it was the most ridiculous thing ever. As a young player you're hoping for some support, and it's not like any player ever came up to me and said, 'Hey, don't worry about that stuff you're hearing. It's not the case. We've got your back.' It was a bad situation and it got worse."
While Jones produced standout seasons in '05 and '06, Benson struggled with the transition to the pro game, undone by injury and indecisiveness. He started just one game during that span, and even after Jones was traded to the Jets following the Bears' Super Bowl XLI defeat to the Colts, Benson failed to shine as the team's featured back. He had just one 100-yard effort and 674 yards overall (with a 3.4-yard-per-carry average) in 11 games before suffering a season-ending ankle ailment.
The next spring it all unraveled. After Benson was arrested twice within five weeks, the first time on a boat while hosting a party on a lake near his Austin home and the second while driving home from a restaurant in that city, the Bears didn't wait around to see if he'd be convicted (ultimately, no charges were filed), releasing him in June.
Depressed and fearful that he'd squandered his chance at a productive career, Benson sat home and reflected on his mistakes and misfortunes. He set up a charitable foundation, launched winter-coat drives at several Austin elementary schools and hoped he'd get another opportunity.
"I had a chance to look myself in the mirror and think about my career," Benson says. "I learned how important football was to me. I learned how uncertain the business was – you're here today, gone tomorrow. I learned there are always other legs out there … and so many other things."
When the Bengals, looking for a backup to then-starter Chris Perry(notes) after a season-ending injury to DeDe Dorsey(notes), invited Benson to a tryout in late September, he was determined to make a positive impression.
"We saw a guy that was very hungry," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis recalls. "We had six guys in that day, and hands down he was the hardest-working and most intense. He didn't work out like a guy who was picked fourth in the draft and thought he got a bad deal.
"We talked to him, and he was very humble about being left at home and said it was an eye-opening experience. We called the people in Chicago, and they were very candid about his time there, that he was a guy who was a little ahead of himself and made some poor choices and paid a price for it. When we signed him [to a one-year, $520,000 deal], he realized he might not get another chance."
As the Bengals struggled through a 4-11-1 season, Benson kept his head down and rebuilt his reputation. Palmer, who missed most of the season with an elbow injury, offered to teach him the intricacies of the Cincy offense, and Benson embraced the additional film study, attacking his new role with a vengeance.
In Benson's first start, an Oct. 19 defeat to the Steelers, he ran over All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu(notes), who suffered a concussion on the play. Two weeks later Benson gained 104 yards in an upset victory over the Jaguars, and his final three games were especially impressive: 161 total yards (including a 79-yard run off a screen pass, the Bengals' longest play since Chad Ochocinco's(notes) 82-yard reception against the Ravens in 2003) against the Redskins; 171 rushing yards against the Browns; 111 rushing yards against the Chiefs.
Lewis believes Benson can be even better in '09. With Palmer's return to health, the Bengals will likely face eight-man fronts far less frequently, and, says Lewis, "there are still things I think he can do to improve. He runs with his shoulders back and is always looking for contact – he tries to run over people. We're trying to convince him to cut more, because I think he's the type of back who could execute those cuts and make people miss."
Benson isn't the only Bengal trying to rehabilitate his image. The long-struggling organization, as Palmer says, "is very forgiving and realizes guys deserve second chances."
Adds veteran linebacker Dhani Jones(notes), who signed with the Bengals in '07 after being released by the Eagles and Saints: "It's the same with Cedric as it is with a lot of people here – me, Tank Johnson(notes), [defensive coordinator] Mike Zimmer, Roy Williams. You can go down the line with people who have come here with an opportunity to reinvent themselves, and if they take advantage of it, the team benefits."
When Benson showed up for his Cincy tryout, he had a conversation with wideout Chris Henry, who'd been released by the team after a string of legal troubles but was given another opportunity by owner Mike Brown(notes).
"We sat down and talked about some stuff, what each of us had been through," Henry recalls. "We said, 'It's time to put all the b.s. aside and stay focused and show the world what we're really about.' "
It's not lost on Benson that the Bengals were a perfect match. "It's a great place for me," he says. "They don't get any respect [as an organization], and I don't get any respect, either."
Still, Benson remains wounded by his past. He's not especially trustful, noting that two of the teammates to whom he has opened up, running backs Kenny Watson(notes) and J.D. Runnels(notes) (who played for the Bears when Benson was in Chicago), were released by Cincinnati on Monday.
"There isn't really much to like about a team, other than the opportunity [it provides]," Benson says. "You could be here today, gone tomorrow, so there's no point getting attached. I'm just glad to be in a place where they want me, and where I'm able to go out and kick some ass. I've got big dreams, man, big plans, but you never know. You never want to set yourself up for the letdown, so you just put your head down and push ahead."
In Benson's case, full speed, all the time – before someone can knock him down.
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