Trying to change their stripes

The Baltimore Sun

GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- John Summers has been a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals since their inception 40 years ago and has been a season-ticket holder since 1970, the first year the team made the playoffs.

Last season was one of Summers' low points, and only partly because of the team's disappointing finish that included three straight losses to drop the Bengals to 8-8 and out of playoff contention.

What bothered Summers and other fans was the Bengals' dubious behavior, with 10 players being arrested over a 14-month period, including wide receiver Chris Henry four times.

As embarrassing as it was to the fans, Summers said he believes it was a major distraction to those in the locker room. Henry's teammates had to answer more questions about his criminal record than about quarterback Carson Palmer's reconstructed left knee.

"They had to get tired of it," Summers, a retired railroad inspector from Cold Spring, Ky., said as he watched the Bengals practice last week at their training camp outside Lexington. "They had to wonder, 'Who's going to be next?' "

Veteran defensive end Bryan Robinson was one of those who said he felt worn down from all the off-field problems that filtered into the locker room and made their way onto the field.

"When you sit out a guy who had a DUI and he's a starter, I don't know how that doesn't affect you," Robinson said. "We try to compensate for that, but when you take key players out of your lineup, you tell the next guy he's got to step up, sometimes he's ready and sometimes he's not."

All-Pro wide receiver Chad Johnson disagreed, saying what happened to the Bengals had more to do with successive losses at the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos, and a home overtime defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers to end the season.

"We didn't play ball," said Johnson, who didn't catch a touchdown the last six games. "We didn't play well enough to make the playoffs. Period. That's why we were not there. Not because people got in trouble off the field."

With Henry not allowed to practice while serving an eight-game suspension, and with others who ran afoul of the law no longer a part of the team, the Bengals are trying to get through this year's camp at Georgetown College as quietly as possible.

No arrests.

No major injuries.

But will 2007 be any different on the field?

The message Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has been trying to get across to his players since the end of last season is not much different than what he has said during his first four years.

"The philosophy is finishing off at the end of the season," said Johnson, the AFC's leader in receiving yards for an NFL record four straight years. "We do fine during the season. We just have to finish. Being consistent. No ups and downs."

Even in 2005, the only season the Bengals have made the playoffs under Lewis, they faded down the stretch, losing their last two regular-season games and then a first-round game to Pittsburgh after Palmer was hurt completing his first throw.

"I think our guys collectively, coaches and players, were not happy with the end of our season," Lewis said. "We put ourselves in position to do good things, and we didn't get it done. There's been a different focus here this year. They haven't had to answer questions about stuff that's out of their control."

There has been speculation that Lewis has tightened the reins, but Robinson isn't sure.

"I don't want to say yes or no, but we have done special things inside of our organization and inside our facility to kind of educate the players of what's going on out there when you're away from this facility and you're away from this life," Robinson said.

If anything has changed with the Bengals, it's in the way they have finally heeded what Lewis has been saying about their off-field activities. Quietly, he has implored his veterans to take more ownership in the team.

"It's always encouraged, but you've got to come to a point as a veteran player where you continue to take that responsibility," Lewis said. "At times, people were not willing to do their part. It's something you should always do."

Said Robinson: "What he wants to do is have the older guys step up and make yourself accountable; if you have to call somebody out and tell them they're doing the wrong things, don't be afraid to do it. That might be what that player needs to hear."

Running back Quincy Wilson, whose disorderly conduct charge stemming from a disturbance after a wedding in June was the team's most recent arrest, said having to deal with new NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's behavior code will help the Bengals.

"Stuff that you might have been able to get away with a couple of years ago is not going to happen anymore," Wilson said. "It may be one strike and you're out, which is good."

When the Bengals break camp later this week, they'll have a not-so-distant eye on the season opener, Sept. 10 at home against the Ravens.

"Playing Baltimore will let us know early where we are as a football team," Robinson said. "Definitely you want to go after a team that won the division last year and dethrone them; in essence that's what they did [to Cincinnati last year]."

On the team's depth chart, not much appears to have changed from last season.

"Same cast of characters, hopefully the script will be different," said Madieu Williams, a fourth-year safety out of Maryland.

One that doesn't include headlines and handcuffs.

"You couldn't turn around without us being on TV, and it did affect our focus," Williams said. "This year we have a new resolve. I think because of what we went through last year, a lot of guys are more cognizant and more focused this year, realizing that we have a great opportunity and we need to take advantage of it."

Cincinnati Bengals

Training camp:

Georgetown, Ky.

Last season's record:


Key additions:

Aside from adding veteran center Alex Stepanovich and defensive tackle Michael Myers to provide experience, size and depth to the lines, the Bengals didn't tweak their roster much. Cornerback Leon Hall, the team's first-round draft choice, should help the defense, but his size is an issue.

Key losses:

Veteran left guard Eric Steinbach signed with the Cleveland Browns, but most not with the team this year are viewed as addition by subtraction. The one exception might be wide receiver Chris Henry, who is serving an eight-game suspension after the last of four recent arrests.

When the Bengals play the Ravens:

Sept. 10 (season opener) in Cincinnati; Nov. 11 in Baltimore.

Where they'll finish:

The Bengals have the talent offensively to compete with the Ravens in the AFC North. But defense probably will relegate them to fighting the Pittsburgh Steelers for second place.


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