It was late September 2008, and Cedric Benson was one of a half-dozen running backs at an in-season tryout held by the Bengals—the jobless hoping to earn a roster spot with the winless. The No. 4 pick in the 2005 draft, Benson had been released by the Bears three months earlier after a pair of arrests, and on this early-autumn day at the Cincinnati practice facility, he was just another guy looking for a place to stick.
"We needed a runner," says Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, whose team started 0--4 last year and had lost DeDe Dorsey to a hamstring injury, "so we brought in five guys to work out who had been on and off NFL rosters, and Cedric."
The competition—Noah Herron, Keon Lattimore, Vernand Morency, LaBrandon Toefield, Dwayne Wright—hardly matched Benson's pedigree. And by the end of the workout the former All-America from Texas had done enough to convince Lewis he still had some football life left in him. While the players showered, Lewis called Benson's former coach, Lovie Smith, to ask why the running back had fallen out of favor in Chicago.
"Lovie was very candid," says Lewis. "He felt like Ced had come into a situation that maybe he wasn't ready for. There were mixed emotions [in Chicago] on whether he should have been there. On Ced's part he probably didn't handle it correctly, and he did things that didn't endear him."
Lewis invited Benson upstairs to his office, where the two sat at a large wooden table in the middle of the room. There Benson opened up, recounting moments he could have handled better on and off the field. According to Lewis, "He said, 'I made a lot of mistakes. I thought I was above things. I was aloof. I made poor decisions. And I sat on my couch and watched NFL football for four weeks, and my phone didn't ring.'"
Says Benson, looking back now, "I had tasted the bottom."
The Bengals signed him on Sept. 30, and after two games he had earned the starting job. By the end of the 2008 season he'd rediscovered the power-running form that had made him one of the most accomplished backs in college football history—over the last three games for Cincy, Benson rushed for 355 yards. The resurgence has carried over to 2009. In Week 5 he became the first back in 40 games to run for more than 100 yards against the Ravens, pounding out 120 yards on 27 carries in a 17--14 win at Baltimore. And ultimate redemption came two Sundays ago at Paul Brown Stadium, when he gouged Chicago for a career-high 189 yards and a touchdown in a 45--10 romp that improved Cincinnati's record to 5--2 and certified the Bengals as a playoff contender. More surprising even than that is one of the names near the top of the list of NFL rushing leaders: Cedric Benson.
"I knew who I was; I knew the type of player I was," says Benson, 26. "I knew when the opportunity came, I would shut all [the detractors] up."
Throughout the NFL, players like Benson are trying to make the most of new opportunities, shaping the story line of the 2009 season in ways large and small. In his first season in Minnesota, Brett Favre has so far proved to be dynamic at age 40, while Michael Vick's maiden year in Philadelphia has yielded only cameo appearances. Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton swapped Denver and Chicago addresses, respectively, in an off-season trade, and in October receiver Braylon Edwards was shipped by a floundering Browns franchise to a Jets team in the playoff hunt. Quarterback Alex Smith, picked three spots ahead of Benson in the '05 draft, is getting a second shot at a career in San Francisco after the 49ers all but gave up on him two years ago.
But it has been Benson's rise from the scrap heap that has grabbed special attention around the league. "A rebirth," says Jets linebacker Bart Scott, who was part of the Ravens' defense that held Benson to 17 yards on 10 carries in Week 13 last season. "They'd just picked him up, and you could see he was still figuring things out. Now he's figured it out. Sometimes it takes a young player around that fourth year to realize, 'If I don't get it together, I'm going to be out of the league.' You get labeled a bust, that's a wrap. Ain't a lot of homes for former first-rounders."