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CEDRIC BENSON didn't pack any extra clothes for his trip to Cincinnati last Sept. 30. He had little reason to think he would need them. The No. 4 pick in 2005 out of Texas, Benson had been cut 3½ months earlier by the Bears, one Chicago columnist labeling him the "biggest draft bust in Bears history"; he had been arrested twice (and exonerated twice) within the previous five months for alcohol-related incidents; and now he was one of six running backs whom the Bengals had called in on that September morning to compete for a single roster spot. "I didn't have too many expectations," Benson recalls. "If it happened, it happened. But I wanted to hit the ground running." Less than an hour after the tryout, coach Marvin Lewis called Benson into his office. "Cedric," Lewis said, "we need you to play on Sunday."
Benson did play that Sunday; he gained 30 yards on 10 carries in a loss to the Cowboys. Two weeks later Lewis named him the starting tailback. And two months after that Benson led Cincinnati on a season-ending three-game winning streak, during which he averaged 118.3 yards rushing. "I heard a lot of negative things about him—who knows what was really going on?—but since he's been here, he's been nothing but a great teammate," says quarterback Carson Palmer. "I enjoy playing with him because he's fun to watch. So quick, so explosive, gets to full speed so fast."
This year's Bengals will undoubtedly benefit from the returns of cornerback Johnathan Joseph (foot and ankle injuries in 2008), outside linebacker Keith Rivers (fractured jaw) and highly paid defensive end Antwan Odom (foot, shoulder injuries). They will also have Palmer, who, after playing in only four games last season, was one day away from Tommy John surgery in December before a final MRI showed that the partially torn ligament in his right elbow had healed.
But if the Bengals are to make the playoffs for the first time since 2005, they'll need significant contributions from players they acquired, in the words of Lewis, "off the junk heap." Benson, 26, is one of five probable starters—the others are fullback Jeremi Johnson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and both safeties, Chris Crocker and Roy Williams—who within the past two years found themselves on the NFL waiver list and thus available to any team.
Those retreads are changing the ethos in Cincinnati. "A lot of guys in the NFL believe that they walk on water, because they've made it," says defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. "Then when they get cut and the phone doesn't ring for a while, they realize what it was that really made them NFL football players. They know that they're one step away from being out on the street again, and this time, who knows if anyone will want any of them? We've got something to prove. We're like Eastside High in Lean on Me."
Adds Palmer, "The guys who have been around have noticed that there's a different feel to this team—more business, more professional, more guys dedicated to their trade."
Lewis—at seven years the fifth-longest-tenured coach in the league—and the Bengals have spent three seasons trying in vain to match the success of 2005, when they went 11--5 and made their first postseason appearance in 15 years. But on the opening play of Cincinnati's first series, the helmet of Steelers defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen tore the ACL and MCL of Palmer's left knee, ensuring a one-and-done. Since then the roster has been overhauled: Just five starters remain from the AFC North champs. Says one of them, receiver Chad Ochocinco, "It can't get any worse than it's gotten since '05. We're looking forward and getting ready to climb out of this hole."
In order to accomplish that, the Bengals will rely on a core of players familiar with desperation. And if they fail to deliver? The junk heap awaits—for them, and for their coach.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
COACH: MARVIN LEWIS