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Benson's presence has provided Cincinnati's attack with some desperately needed punch. After having the worst offense in the league in 2008, the Bengals ranked eighth in rushing and 14th in total offense through their first seven games. Benson is first in the NFL with 102.9 yards per game, and his 720 total yards already surpasses his single-season high in Chicago. His physical style is ideal for the rough-and-tumble AFC North—at 5'11", 225 pounds, he can both accelerate through a defense and punish tacklers. Says running backs coach Jim Anderson, "You want to be slow to and fast through [the hole], and that's what he has, plus that finish up the field." Adds guard Bobbie Williams, "Every play you know you're going to get a guy who's going to give his all. He has an O-lineman's fight."
Benson isn't alone in making the best of a new life in Cincinnati. The team has been built in part with detritus from other rosters. Linebacker Dhani Jones, in his third Bengals season after being cut by the Eagles and the Saints, leads the team with 46 tackles. Receiver Laveranues Coles, a Jet last year, has three touchdowns. Safety Chris Crocker, cut by Miami at midseason of '08, has two interceptions. Two former Cowboys headliners, safety Roy Williams and defensive tackle Tank Johnson, add to the veteran presence.
"That was the whole thing with Fight Back," Lewis says of the team's rallying cry. "Fight back from injury, or from being on the street, or from not fulfilling expectations. Fight back to the top of the division. That's what all those guys who came here told me they wanted to do."
Says Andrew Whitworth, the fourth-year left tackle, "Guys are [at the team's facility] more than I've ever seen them. After practice, after we've already watched film, Dhani and the linebackers are fighting with us for the main media room to watch more film. Guys are here all day. It's been guys who want to prove something. Sometimes that's the most dangerous person there is."
As a high school player, Benson was one of the most celebrated running backs in Texas history, leading Lee High of Midland to three straight state championships. At the University of Texas he continued to build on his legend. In four seasons he rushed for 5,540 yards, second only to Ricky Williams's 6,279 in school history. In the Longhorns' memorable 38--37 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2005, Benson hyperextended his left knee on his first carry of the game, missed one snap and returned to play the rest of the game—his last as a collegian. "After the game he was the last one to leave the dressing room," says Texas coach Mack Brown. "I said, 'Are you O.K.?' He said, 'I'm just sad this is over.'"
But the adulation didn't carry over to Chicago, where veteran Thomas Jones was the starter. During his rookie season Benson missed six games with a sprained right MCL, and in his second year he went to the locker room in the midst of a preseason game and was punished for missing a mandatory postgame meeting. He says he was frustrated because of a lack of carries and a sprained shoulder. His teammates were frustrated with his lack of professionalism.
"It didn't get off to a great start," Benson says of his pro career. "Most guys drafted at my level get to play. The team loves them and wants them there. It was different for me. There was another great back there, Thomas, and the team liked what he was doing. I was bitter on the backseat."
Benson says the sparse workload made it hard for him to find a flow. "Every time I went out there, I was just running," he says. His standing in the locker room suffered because of his attitude. Says Johnson, who was a teammate in Chicago, "He's a grown man now. He was an immature s--- back then."
As Benson's performance stagnated—he had only two 100-yard rushing games in three seasons in Chicago—two off-the-field incidents hastened his departure. The first came in May 2008, when he was on his 30-foot boat in Lake Travis near Austin with his mother, Jackie, and a dozen or so other passengers. Police stopped the boat for a random safety inspection. According to their report, Benson was slurring his words, smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes. After an officer told Benson he was going to be arrested and handcuffed, the report says Benson became "hostile," whereupon the officer "administered pepper spray into Benson's face to gain control."
Benson, who says he was not drunk at the time, was charged with boating while intoxicated and resisting arrest. "I was stunned," he says now. "I don't even know how it gets to that point."