In a season of second chances, there's no bigger surprise than the onetime Bears washout who's seizing his opportunity in Cincinnati and running with it
It was late September 2008, and Cedric Benson was one of a half-dozen running backs at an in-season tryout held by the Bengals—the jobless hoping to earn a roster spot with the winless. The No. 4 pick in the 2005 draft, Benson had been released by the Bears three months earlier after a pair of arrests, and on this early-autumn day at the Cincinnati practice facility, he was just another guy looking for a place to stick.
"We needed a runner," says Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team started 0--4 last year and had lost DeDe Dorsey to a hamstring injury, "so we brought in five guys to work out who had been on and off NFL rosters, and Cedric."
The competition—Noah Herron, Keon Lattimore, Vernand Morency, LaBrandon Toefield, Dwayne Wright—hardly matched Benson's pedigree. And by the end of the workout the former All-America from Texas had done enough to convince Lewis he still had some football life left in him. While the players showered, Lewis called Benson's former coach, Lovie Smith, to ask why the running back had fallen out of favor in Chicago.
"Lovie was very candid," says Lewis. "He felt like Ced had come into a situation that maybe he wasn't ready for. There were mixed emotions [in Chicago] on whether he should have been there. On Ced's part he probably didn't handle it correctly, and he did things that didn't endear him."
Lewis invited Benson upstairs to his office, where the two sat at a large wooden table in the middle of the room. There Benson opened up, recounting moments he could have handled better on and off the field. According to Lewis, "He said, 'I made a lot of mistakes. I thought I was above things. I was aloof. I made poor decisions. And I sat on my couch and watched NFL football for four weeks, and my phone didn't ring.'"
Says Benson, looking back now, "I had tasted the bottom."
The Bengals signed him on Sept. 30, and after two games he had earned the starting job. By the end of the 2008 season he'd rediscovered the power-running form that had made him one of the most accomplished backs in college football history—over the last three games for Cincy, Benson rushed for 355 yards. The resurgence has carried over to 2009. In Week 5 he became the first back in 40 games to run for more than 100 yards against the Ravens, pounding out 120 yards on 27 carries in a 17--14 win at Baltimore. And ultimate redemption came two Sundays ago at Paul Brown Stadium, when he gouged Chicago for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown in a 45--10 romp that improved Cincinnati's record to 5--2 and certified the Bengals as a playoff contender. More surprising even than that is one of the names near the top of the list of NFL rushing leaders: Cedric Benson.
"I knew who I was; I knew the type of player I was," says Benson, 26. "I knew when the opportunity came, I would shut all [the detractors] up."
Throughout the NFL, players like Benson are trying to make the most of new opportunities, shaping the story line of the 2009 season in ways large and small. In his first season in Minnesota, Brett Favre has so far proved to be dynamic at age 40, while Michael Vick's maiden year in Philadelphia has yielded only cameo appearances. Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton swapped Denver and Chicago addresses, respectively, in an off-season trade, and in October receiver Braylon Edwards was shipped by a floundering Browns franchise to a Jets team in the playoff hunt. Quarterback Alex Smith, picked three spots ahead of Benson in the '05 draft, is getting a second shot at a career in San Francisco after the 49ers all but gave up on him two years ago.
But it has been Benson's rise from the scrap heap that has grabbed special attention around the league. "A rebirth," says Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who was part of the Ravens' defense that held Benson to 17 yards on 10 carries in Week 13 last season. "They'd just picked him up, and you could see he was still figuring things out. Now he's figured it out. Sometimes it takes a young player around that fourth year to realize, 'If I don't get it together, I'm going to be out of the league.' You get labeled a bust, that's a wrap. Ain't a lot of homes for former first-rounders."
Benson's presence has provided Cincinnati's attack with some desperately needed punch. After having the worst offense in the league in 2008, the Bengals ranked eighth in rushing and 14th in total offense through their first seven games. Benson is first in the NFL with 102.9 yards per game, and his 720 total yards already surpasses his single-season high in Chicago. His physical style is ideal for the rough-and-tumble AFC North—at 5'11", 225 pounds, he can both accelerate through a defense and punish tacklers. Says running backs coach Jim Anderson, "You want to be slow to and fast through [the hole], and that's what he has, plus that finish up the field." Adds guard Bobbie Williams, "Every play you know you're going to get a guy who's going to give his all. He has an O-lineman's fight."
Benson isn't alone in making the best of a new life in Cincinnati. The team has been built in part with detritus from other rosters. Linebacker Dhani Jones, in his third Bengals season after being cut by the Eagles and the Saints, leads the team with 46 tackles. Receiver Laveranues Coles, a Jet last year, has three touchdowns. Safety Chris Crocker, cut by Miami at midseason of '08, has two interceptions. Two former Cowboys headliners, safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, add to the veteran presence.
"That was the whole thing with Fight Back," Lewis says of the team's rallying cry. "Fight back from injury, or from being on the street, or from not fulfilling expectations. Fight back to the top of the division. That's what all those guys who came here told me they wanted to do."
Says Andrew Whitworth, the fourth-year left tackle, "Guys are [at the team's facility] more than I've ever seen them. After practice, after we've already watched film, Dhani and the linebackers are fighting with us for the main media room to watch more film. Guys are here all day. It's been guys who want to prove something. Sometimes that's the most dangerous person there is."
As a high school player, Benson was one of the most celebrated running backs in Texas history, leading Lee High of Midland to three straight state championships. At the University of Texas he continued to build on his legend. In four seasons he rushed for 5,540 yards, second only to Ricky Williams's 6,279 in school history. In the Longhorns' memorable 38--37 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005, Benson hyperextended his left knee on his first carry of the game, missed one snap and returned to play the rest of the game—his last as a collegian. "After the game he was the last one to leave the dressing room," says Texas coach Mack Brown. "I said, 'Are you O.K.?' He said, 'I'm just sad this is over.'"
But the adulation didn't carry over to Chicago, where veteran Thomas Jones was the starter. During his rookie season Benson missed six games with a sprained right MCL, and in his second year he went to the locker room in the midst of a preseason game and was punished for missing a mandatory postgame meeting. He says he was frustrated because of a lack of carries and a sprained shoulder. His teammates were frustrated with his lack of professionalism.
"It didn't get off to a great start," Benson says of his pro career. "Most guys drafted at my level get to play. The team loves them and wants them there. It was different for me. There was another great back there, Thomas, and the team liked what he was doing. I was bitter on the backseat."
Benson says the sparse workload made it hard for him to find a flow. "Every time I went out there, I was just running," he says. His standing in the locker room suffered because of his attitude. Says Johnson, who was a teammate in Chicago, "He's a grown man now. He was an immature s--- back then."
As Benson's performance stagnated—he had only two 100-yard rushing games in three seasons in Chicago—two off-the-field incidents hastened his departure. The first came in May 2008, when he was on his 30-foot boat in Lake Travis near Austin with his mother, Jackie, and a dozen or so other passengers. Police stopped the boat for a random safety inspection. According to their report, Benson was slurring his words, smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes. After an officer told Benson he was going to be arrested and handcuffed, the report says Benson became "hostile," whereupon the officer "administered pepper spray into Benson's face to gain control."
Benson, who says he was not drunk at the time, was charged with boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest. "I was stunned," he says now. "I don't even know how it gets to that point."
A month later Benson was arrested in Austin at 2 a.m. on suspicion of DWI after police said he ran a red light. Benson apologized publicly for "making the poor decision to drink and drive," but Jerry Angelo, the Chicago G.M., had had enough. Two days after the second arrest the Bears released Benson.
"For a small second it was a little emotional, but for the most part I was at ease," says Benson. "I knew I wasn't what they were making me out to be. I couldn't let that overcome my inner positive."
In late September 2008 a pair of Travis County grand juries decided not to indict Benson on either charge. A county attorney cited the lack of a field sobriety test or incriminating video evidence in the first incident; in the second he said a video recording at the time of the arrest showed that Benson appeared "very well." Four days after the grand jury rulings, the Bengals signed him.
"I'm not perfect, and I must assume responsibility because some of it was [a result of] my actions," says Benson, who still takes his boat out to Lake Travis when he's in Austin. "One of the officers comes up to me every time we go out there. He gave me his number and said if there's ever any issue, give him a call."
After Cincinnati's rout of the Bears—some dubbed it the Benson Bowl—the running back received a text message with an Austin area code, as he does after every game. It was from his old coach, Mack Brown, telling him his alma mater was watching and was proud.
"Sometimes everybody expects the star in college to walk into the NFL and be the same player," Brown says. "When some of these teams pick a Number 1 draft choice and it doesn't work out, there's responsibility everywhere. When you're a pro, your struggles are public. Cedric had some problems, and he moved on from them."
In the midst of his big game against Chicago, Benson was seen waving his arms to fire up the crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. Teammate Chad Ochocinco told him he'd see him in Miami—site of the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl this season. If Benson lands in either, his breakthrough will be complete.
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"You get labeled a bust, that's a wrap," Scott says. "Ain't a lot of homes for former first-rounders."
"He's a grown man now," Johnson says of Benson. "He was an immature s--- [in Chicago]."
Photograph by JEFF HANISCH/US PRESSWIRE
CHANGED MAN Benson says he's learned from his mistakes—and it shows in his rushing numbers and his newfound dedication.
JOE ROBBINS/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
MATTHEW EMMONS/US PRESSWIRE
AT A STANDSTILL Benson's Super Bowl XLI stats— two carries, minus-one yard—typified his time in Chicago.
GROWLING Worst in the NFL last year, the Bengals' offense is energized by number 32's play.