CEDRIC BENSONdidn't pack any extra clothes for his trip to Cincinnati last Sept. 30. He hadlittle reason to think he would need them. The No. 4 pick in 2005 out of Texas,Benson had been cut 3½ months earlier by the Bears, one Chicago columnistlabeling him the "biggest draft bust in Bears history"; he had beenarrested twice (and exonerated twice) within the previous five months foralcohol-related incidents; and now he was one of six running backs whom theBengals had called in on that September morning to compete for a single rosterspot. "I didn't have too many expectations," Benson recalls. "If ithappened, it happened. But I wanted to hit the ground running." Less thanan hour after the tryout, coach Marvin Lewis called Benson into his office."Cedric," Lewis said, "we need you to play on Sunday."
Benson did playthat Sunday; he gained 30 yards on 10 carries in a loss to the Cowboys. Twoweeks later Lewis named him the starting tailback. And two months after thatBenson led Cincinnati on a season-ending three-game winning streak, duringwhich he averaged 118.3 yards rushing. "I heard a lot of negative thingsabout him—who knows what was really going on?—but since he's been here, he'sbeen nothing but a great teammate," says quarterback Carson Palmer. "Ienjoy playing with him because he's fun to watch. So quick, so explosive, getsto full speed so fast."
This year'sBengals will undoubtedly benefit from the returns of cornerback JohnathanJoseph (foot and ankle injuries in 2008), outside linebacker Keith Rivers(fractured jaw) and highly paid defensive end Antwan Odom (foot, shoulderinjuries). They will also have Palmer, who, after playing in only four gameslast season, was one day away from Tommy John surgery in December before afinal MRI showed that the partially torn ligament in his right elbow hadhealed.
But if the Bengalsare to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005, they'll needsignificant contributions from players they acquired, in the words of Lewis,"off the junk heap." Benson, 26, is one of five probable starters—theothers are fullback Jeremi Johnson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and bothsafeties, Chris Crocker and Roy Williams—who within the past two years foundthemselves on the NFL waiver list and thus available to any team.
Those retreads arechanging the ethos in Cincinnati. "A lot of guys in the NFL believe thatthey walk on water, because they've made it," says defensive coordinatorMike Zimmer. "Then when they get cut and the phone doesn't ring for awhile, they realize what it was that really made them NFL football players.They know that they're one step away from being out on the street again, andthis time, who knows if anyone will want any of them? We've got something toprove. We're like Eastside High in Lean on Me."
Adds Palmer,"The guys who have been around have noticed that there's a different feelto this team—more business, more professional, more guys dedicated to theirtrade."
Lewis—at sevenyears the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league—and the Bengals have spentthree seasons trying in vain to match the success of 2005, when they went 11--5and made their first postseason appearance in 15 years. But on the opening playof Cincinnati's first series, the helmet of Steelers defensive tackle Kimo vonOelhoffen tore the ACL and MCL of Palmer's left knee, ensuring a one-and-done.Since then the roster has been overhauled: Just five starters remain from theAFC North champs. Says one of them, receiver Chad Ochocinco, "It can't getany worse than it's gotten since '05. We're looking forward and getting readyto climb out of this hole."
In order toaccomplish that, the Bengals will rely on a core of players familiar withdesperation. And if they fail to deliver? The junk heap awaits—for them, andfor their coach.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
46-49-1 in NFL, seventh season with Bengals
With TEs ReggieKelly (ruptured Achilles) and Ben Utecht (concussion) gone for the year, Coatsgets the nod over rookie Chase Coffman.
Kevin HUBER (R)
Bednarik Awardwinner Rey Maualuga, a second-round pick who led USC with 79 tackles, will seetime at OLB.
(R) Rookie:College statistics
TTD: Total touchdowns
Get the latest and best Bengals stories, statistics and fan blogs from acrossthe Web, handpicked by the editors of SI.
2008 RECORD 4-11-1
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 29 > 30 > 32
DEFENSE 21 > 15 > 12
20 at Green Bay
4 at Cleveland
11 at Baltimore
15 at Pittsburgh
22 at Oakland
13 at Minnesota
20 at San Diego
27 KANSAS CITY
3 at N.Y. Jets
NFL Rank: 22
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .465
Games against playoff teams: 6
Even with a three-game winning streak at the end of '08 and a healthy CarsonPalmer this year, Cincy has no prime-time games. Marvin Lewis doesn't need thedistraction: Though the overall schedule is light, the Bengals face challengingout-of-division trips to Green Bay, Minnesota, San Diego and then to theMeadowlands for the last regular-season game ever at Giants Stadium.
Chris Henry, Wide receiver
BECAUSE OF Henry's build (6'4", 200), speed andknack for coming down with jump balls, Carson Palmer has taken to calling himRandy Moss Jr. Over his first four seasons, however, Henry has had fewerreceptions (107) than Moss once had in a single year, and for that he has onlyhimself to blame. His career has been repeatedly interrupted by a string ofoff-the-field incidents, including four arrests during a six-month period in2005 and '06. He has been suspended for parts of each of the last threeseasons, missing a total of 14 games. Henry went unsigned for four months lastyear and feared that his NFL days might be over.
The Bengals gave him a last chance, and now Henry, 26and the father of three young children, vows that he's reformed. "I'm veryclose to him, and I've seen it firsthand," says Palmer. "I think he washumbled when football was taken away from him. He's not only a better father,but a better guy all around." As for Palmer's comparison to Moss? "It'sbig hearing that from him," Henry says. "Randy's a great player—I'vebeen looking up to that guy since high school. I feel I can be better thanhim."
Perhaps Henry hasn't been humbled in all ways; but ifhubris proves to be his most significant transgression in 2009, Cincy'spatience will have been rewarded.
JOHN SOMMERS II/ICON SMI
SCRAP HEAP TO HERO Named the starter in Week 3, Benson led Cincy to three straight season-ending wins.
JOHN SOMMERS II/ICON SMI