Remember the 2010 Cincinnati Bengals? Fresh off of a disastrous handling of the signing of free agent wide receiver Antonio Bryant, the team was desperate to give quarterback Carson Palmer another reliable weapon opposite Chad Ochocinco. Enter Terrell Owens and the "Batman and Robin" show.
We all got our popcorn ready and watched the team plod to a miserable 4-12 finish that year. Palmer publicly said that he didn't know about his future with this team at the end of the year, and head coach Marvin Lewis almost seemed relieved that Ochocinco and Owens were out of the lineup with injuries by the end of the season because of their poor attitudes. Mind you, this was the season where the Bengals also brought in then-troubled cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones, and attempted to lure quarterback Michael Vick to the Queen City after his jail stint for involvement in a dog fighting ring.
What a difference three short years make.
Only Jones remains of the bunch, and though he has had his brushes with the law in his time here, he is not the person he once was and has played solid football for this team. In the off-season and early part of the 2011 season, the Bengals replaced/traded away two of their "offensive team leaders" in Palmer and Ochocinco, and replaced them with Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. I think most fans have been pretty pleased with how that trade-off has gone thus far.
Though offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth was looked at as a leader back in 2010, he has become an even bigger figure on this young Bengals team. On the other side of the ball, Geno Atkins, Leon Hall, and James Harrison are all looked at as the stars and leaders of their unit.
Thanks to HBO's amazing documentary "Hard Knocks", NFL fans everywhere have received an inside look at this year's Bengals team. And, if you watched the series back when the 2009 team was on display, this is a much different team--in the best possible way. Football, camaraderie, and hard work.
Dalton is the most talkative of all of the above-mentioned players, but not in any kind of an obnoxious way. His Texan "aw shucks" mentality has endeared him to fans and he stays true to his religious roots, as evidenced by the third episode that aired on Tuesday. The guys seem to genuinely like him and he's a far cry from the laid-back Palmer and his sarcastic sense of humor.
Atkins, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham haven't said much of anything during the first three episodes. In fact, Joe Reedy with The Cincinnati Enquirer mentioned on Twitter that the first episode featuring Gresham in the "Oklahoma Drill", was the most he had heard him talk in his three previous seasons in Cincinnati. This is a guy who has made two straight Pro Bowls (via being an alternate) and just puts his head down and works.
Furthermore, Green is the "anti-Chad". He shies away from the media and gives short answers on the questions that are shot his way. He doesn't perform any crazy end zone celebrations, he doesn't provoke upcoming opponents through the media and he doesn't send them "care packages" about how he's going to burn them on Sunday. Heck, I don't even know if I've heard him swear in his three years in Cincinnati. And this is arguably the best draft pick that the team has made since Mike Brown took over the team from the great Paul Brown back in 1991.
Lastly, there is Atkins. As Brown said in the first season of "Hard Knocks", "One wouldn't pick him out of a lineup to be a prototypical NFL defensive tackle. Yet, we think he's the best one there is". Atkins may be the best defensive tackle that there is, but he isn't a camera hog. Maybe it's because he isn't that great of a swimmer?
All kidding aside, these are the types of leaders that make up a successful team. Hard work, not self-promotion. Accumulating wins, not racking up stats and Pro Bowls. Letting their on-field play do the talking, not jawing to the cameras. Bengals fans hope that these very different leaders from 2010 will bring the team a Super Bowl Championship in 2013. How often have fans realistically had that thought over the years with this team?
What a difference three short years make.