In case you didn't know, the National Football League is not comprised of a bunch of choir boys. There are examples on each team of players who have had their legal run-ins and the Bengals are no exception. In fact, the team was often seen as a sanctuary for these types of characters through the mid and late-2000s. So much so, that the Bengals became a national punchline, even though they had two playoff appearances in five years (2005, 2009) and two other near misses (2006, 2007).
A supposed unspoken agreement in Marvin Lewis' contract re-upping before the 2011 season was the idea of the team beginning to shy away from these poisonous guys for a locker room. If that truly was the case, the 40 regular season wins since that time prove that there is some validity in that strategy.
Still, anyone who watches the Bengals in January realizes that the team, while good, lacks late-season game-breakers. Inexplicably, the players that they have relied on all season tend to disappear in the postseason and a lack of a viable alternative options at these positions hurts the club.
At the Senior Bowl, Marvin Lewis said that the club was going to be more active in free agency, at Mike Brown's urging. It's unclear what that exactly means and if they'll stick to that promise, but they have room to make a significant impact. Though they rarely do, the Bengals could theoretically land a "big fish" at one of the needed positions (defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker) and make more noise with other sound draft selections.
Both the draft and free agency pose an interesting question for the Bengals this year: Do they ignore the off-field issues and focus solely on the talent and potential impact once again? We flirted with the idea in one of the top-five offseason priority pieces last week, and with a guy like Greg Hardy poised to hit the market, we thought the idea needed to be re-addressed.
As you may or may not know, Hardy was involved in a domestic abuse case. The details are quite grizzly, but somehow Hardy recently managed to reach a civil settlement with his ex-girlfriend and the charges were subsequently dropped. For the sake of the argument, Hardy will be the center of this post, though there are a number of other players out there who have some off-field baggage.
Why is this even being discussed? Well, aside from the aforementioned vague reference to being more active in free agency this offseason, certain figureheads in the organization (Brown, Lewis, Andy Dalton) are feeling pressure to start making a deeper postseason run in 2015. We don't want to label it as "casting principles aside", but sometimes teams value a desire to win over the look of a player's rap sheet. Multiple media outlets have been tabbing Cincinnati as a possible destination for Hardy, which has also opened our eyes a bit on the situation. We're not sure if the Bengals are back there or not, but the character issue (even outside of just Hardy) is a thought that we at CJ started kicking around.
Youth and Athleticism: Hardy is currently 26 years old and is hitting the prime of his career. He was a Pro Bowler his last full season of playing (2013) and sat out almost all of 2014 when healthy. Some might say he rested his body last year, making him fresh for 2015.
Recently Productive: In just 40 career starts, Hardy has 31 sacks, including 26 in 2012-2013.
Possibly Cheaper Than Originally Thought: If Hardy has to serve an additional punishment, aside from sitting out and being paid in 2014, his asking price could get driven down.
Scheme-Fit: Hardy is a true 4-3 defensive end and at 6'4", 275 pounds, he is one of those big guys the Bengals covet up front.
Bringing Back A Decade-Old Stigma: Even though they've greatly shied away from these types in recent years, Joe Public seems to still label them as harborers of misfit children. Signing Hardy or anyone of his ilk just fuels that public perception.
A Year Off/Football Shape: Some argue that Hardy could be fresh, but others could say that he might be rusty. Who knows until he gets back onto the field?
The Fickle Nature Of The Commissioner In Disciplining Players: In short, the NFL is making up disciplinary action for domestic violence cases as they go. Hardy sat out 15 games last season, but was still paid all year. Is that enough discipline in the eyes of Roger Goodell?
The Possibility That He Could Cost A Fortune: Hardy was the franchise tagged player for the Panthers last year and plays a premium position at a high-level. If he doesn't miss time and teams overlook his misdeed, he'll get paid handsomely.
Unreliable/Propensity For Repeat Offender: As with anyone who has off-field issues, the question of whether they will do something again lingers.
Accused Of Terrible Crime: Each person has their own unique value system, but most would agree that the accusations against Hardy are of a terrible nature. He hasn't received as much scorn as Ray Rice though, mainly because there isn't public video evidence for the world to see his crime.
This is not a post clamoring for or against Greg Hardy coming to Cincinnati. That is for the Bengals to ultimately decide. If the ugly details of the early allegations are true, the Bengals (or any team, really) could catch major publicity heat for bringing a guy like this into their building. But, if Hardy is signed and helps a team get to a championship run, the unfortunate truth is that winning makes forgivers of a lot of people.
There are other players still getting jobs in the league after some dark chapters in their respective lives. Michael Vick and Adam Jones are two poster boys for committing egregious crimes/acts and then finding redemption. Both have kept themselves pretty clean after almost being bounced from the league completely. Maybe Hardy will fit into that category, maybe not.
This examination could be used on any football player that has baggage and is looking for a job, not just Hardy. I've gone on record before as a supporter of the "good guy approach", as I've taken the same one when I coached a team as well.
Sometimes enormous talent is too hard to pass up, though. The Bengals might not wholly be where they were almost a decade ago, but they have shown certain instances of taking chances like these (i.e. Jeremy Hill just last year). I don't know if Hardy is the type that the Bengals can pass up on, or if he'll even be in their financial ball park. However, I do know that the Bengals have the money and the need for on-field services of a player like Hardy, regardless of how we all may feel about the accusations from last year.