Since the mid-2000s, the Bengals have had this image of being a safe haven for criminals, miscreants and other NFL players who have had legal run-ins. From 2005-2008, the amount of Bengal player arrests was staggering and it led to a number of players being suspended and/or booted from the team. It hindered the franchise's growth, as the club had placed some relatively high hopes in these troubled athletes and it blew up in their faces often.
It's difficult to say with certainty as to who gave these troubled players a chance (sometimes a second or third one), but signs point to owner, Mike Brown. With the case of former Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry, Brown notoriously referred to himself as a "redeemer", cementing the team's reputation as being a sanctuary for players that have a checkered past.
That had seemed to dissipate over the last couple of years, but with the earlier news that rookie free agent Brandon Joiner was sentenced to three years in prison, some are wondering if the team is headed right back to their tumultuous days of seven years ago. NFL analysts are starting to paint that picture as well--but is it warranted?
Let's look over the team's last few years' draft classes. Since 2009, the Bengals have had a small handful of players who had checkered pasts that they've taken fliers on. And since that same year, the Bengals have selected seven players that could be deemed as "problem children", and for those keeping count, only one was drafted in the first round (Andre Smith). Aside from Smith, there's Rey Maualuga, Bernard Scott, Carlos Dunlap, Dezmon Briscoe, Orson Charles and Dan Herron. A case can even be made that Dunlap, Charles, Smith and Herron aren't on the same level as the others because of one-time offenses like DUIs and/or "Tattoo Gate". None have been suspended to this point, though it looks as if Maualuga might be facing one.
Aside from Maualuga, none of these players have had any other run-ins with the law since joining the Bengals. Dunlap has kept his nose clean for three years since being charged with a prior DUI in college. Smith has had his share of on-field issues, but his problems have never been in the legal realm and perhaps the most troubled player of them all was Bernard Scott, and he has been nothing but a model teammate and citizen since joining the club in 2009. Scott also figures to have a pretty prominent role in the 2012 offense. Then there's Briscoe. The Bengals weren't the only other team interested in him, as the Buccaneers swiped him off of Cincinnati's practice squad in 2010. Who else did the Buccaneers bring in in 2010? Oh yes, "Ron Artest, Jr.", AKA LaGarrette Blount. I didn't hear them receiving the same ire that the Bengals have and currently are.
They did bring in two college free agents this year with shady backgrounds in Joiner and Vontaze Burfict. But, unlike years past, the team has really shied away from drafting these types of players. In 2011, there were none drafted that could really be deemed as risky and in 2012 there were only the two minor cases with Herron and Charles. And, really, isn't that what undrafted free agent players are for sometimes? Teams use these as a tryout basis for a player with either a checkered past and/or those viewed as having marginal football skills all the time. Sometimes it works and often times it doesn't.
Joiner and Burfict both have the skills of a player that could have been drafted, if not for their pasts and the undrafted free agent basis is the smart route to take with them. Plus, Joiner convinced the team that he has changed from the person he was who committed the crime nearly five years ago. He has been doing active community service and it's likely that his sentence will be reduced because of it. The only thing I take issue with in this scenario is the Bengals standing by Joiner after his sentencing. At that point, they should have moved on.
Free agency has been a different story for the Bengals, however. In the same time frame (2009-present), the Bengals have brought in a number of players on "one-year prove it contracts", including Tank Johnson, Cedric Benson, Adam Jones, and Larry Johnson. Of these players, only Benson has served a one-game suspension while with the club and all contributed in some fashion. In 2009, Benson put up a near-Pro Bowl season helping to lead the team to the division title. Larry Johnson spelled Benson for a couple of games because he was nursing an injury, and he put up a 100-yard game against the Browns. Tank Johnson also helped the Bengals defense climb to a top-five ranking that year and never had a legal run-in. Furthermore, only Jones remains with the club and has been a model teammate with only one minor run-in with the law.
Furthering the perception that Marvin Lewis has wrestled control of the club's direction from Mike Brown, the team declined to re-sign troubled wide receiver Jerome Simpson after his marijuana charge. There's also evidence in that with the club eschewing to draft obvious troublemakers in Ryan Mallett and Janoris Jenkins, whom many thought would end up in stripes. Thankfully, the Bengals went with the more sensible choices in Andy Dalton and Dre Kirkpatrick for the betterment of the team. Yet, those tidbits aren't mentioned. It's the fact that the team brought in two controversial rookie free agents that everybody seems to focus on.
What's more, the Bengals aren't even recent leaders in arrests. Our own Josh Kirkendall tweeted an interesting bot of information earlier:
Lions (4), 49ers (2), Seahawks (2). Bengals only have one (Simpson).
It's easy to revert to revisionist history and point to the Bengals with the tired "of course their uniforms are orange and black because so are prison jumpsuits!" shtick. The reality is that it really isn't an accurate assessment of today's squad. They've shied away from using recent high draft picks on questionable characters and should be commended for it. The 2005-2008 Bengals were a punchline for arrests and were lumped into the 1986 New York Mets category--and deservedly so. This squad over the past few years isn't even close to having the same type of issues and making them guilty by association is an ignorant act.
Every team in the NFL has malcontents and/or players with a violent and checkered past of some degree. The Baltimore Ravens have added some in the past couple of years with Courtney Upshaw and Jimmy Smith, and those are additions to a roster that has a man (Ray Lewis) who was tried as an accomplice to murder years ago, fortunately for him and the Ravens, he was acquitted of the charge. Yet, nobody seems to classify the Ravens with the Bengals even though they sought out and hung onto these types of players. It seems that there is a double-standard.
Perhaps we should all see the facts and look at this more objectively. We might be better served to view the Bengals in the same way that they viewed some of these troubled players and give them a second chance to redeem their image. They've done a pretty good job of it in the last couple of years.