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Cincinnati Bengals quickly graduating from school of ‘Hard Knocks’

They finished last season as one of the worst in the NFL. But five games and four wins later, the Bengals are quickly gaining the respect of all around them…

Summer workout: The Bengals in training camp, where every move was followed by the cameras...

Summer workout: The Bengals in training camp, where every move was followed by the 'Hard Knocks' cameras...

With the 2009 NFL regular season hitting its stride, storylines abound. Picking the biggest one is virtually impossible.

Is it Brett Favre, alienating Green Bay Packers fans as he searches for success with arch-rivals the Minnesota Vikings?

Is it the 5-0 Denver Broncos under preposterously young head coach Josh McDaniels, despite trading away star quarterback Jay Cutler in the off-season?

Or is it future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning once again putting up Most Valuable Player numbers with the impressive Indianapolis Colts?

The answer depends greatly on the fan you speak to. Some might even eschew those three options to suggest that it is actually the Cincinnati Bengals that are the story of the season so far. After all, the Bengals are 4-1 and atop the AFC North so far this season, an impressive turnaround from 2008’s disappointing 4-11-1 effort.

Their improvement is all the more notable for the obstacles and issues they have had to overcome since the off-season, a charge-sheet of problems that made the Bengals’ storyline attractive to HBO as they looked for potential teams on which to base the fifth season of the popular series Hard Knocks.

“This is a story perfect for our times,” said Ken Rodgers, one of the show’s producers, when the Bengals agreed to be filmed. “[Football] is not about getting knocked down, but how you get back up.”

“We try and target teams that are good storylines,” director Steve Trout added. “The Bengals were one of our top choices because they have a quarterback [Carson Palmer] coming off injury, a wide receiver [Chad Ochocinco] trying to get back to being among the elite in the league, a team trying to redeem itself, players trying to redeem themselves. It’s a giant story of redemption.”

But redemption, by its very nature, is difficult to attain. And add into an already difficult situatio the drama of first round draft pick Andre Smith’s contract hold-out (one followed by the HBO cameras), not to mention the devastating death of the wife of defensive co-ordinator Mike Zimmer last week, and it is clear that the knocks have come hard and fast this season for head coach Marvin Lewis.

Nevertheless, the team have managed to win four of their first five games — all in games that have been decided in the last minute, a fact that has earned them the label of the ‘Cardiac Cats’. They would have even won all five, if Kyle Orton’s freak tipped pass in the Bengals’ opener hadn’t seen McDaniels’ Broncos grab a last-gasp win.

For Coach Lewis, such a turnaround is all due to an improved team ethic. Players wore t-shirts with the message ‘Fight Back’ in camp, and now regularly train in nameless kit in a bid to promote the idea that the team is bigger than any individual:

“It doesn’t matter what your name and number is, its football and focus on what your assignments are,” Lewis said. ”It’s just where we are right now and what we have ahead of us. It’s important as we go forward.”

Team effort: Ochocinco has a flavour for the individual, but has bought into the team ethic

Team effort: Ochocinco has a flavour for the individual, but has bought into the team ethic

So far, the message appears to be paying dividends. Carson Palmer has performed steadily if unspectacularly so far, with an average passer rating of 76.9. Chad Ochocinco, the club’s star wide receiver, has grabbed his fair share of passes in the opening five games but it has been Andre Caldwell — the relatively unheralded second-year wideout — who has scored two of the team’s decisive touchdowns (against the divisional rivals, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers).

Indeed, it has been the team’s defence and running back, two areas not necessarily considered that strong by the rest of the league, that have been most impressive for them this season.

RB Cedric Benson might have arrived at the team in inauspicious circumstances after being released by the Chicago Bears in 2007 for various run-ins with the law, but he has seemingly cleaned up his act under Lewis and currently leads the league in rushing yards, with 487 to his name already.

Elsewhere, the offense has been ably assisted by a defence predominately made up of players released by various other organisations. Bringing a determination to prove all the doubters wrong, Zimmer has overseen a solid unit that does not give up easy plays.

And with second round draft pick Rey Maualuga impressing at linebacker, the defense now has the passionate leader that all good units need.

“I think they have been searching for a guy like Ray [Lewis, the Ravens’ talismanic linebacker],” said former Bengal nose tackle Kelly Gregg. “They got that in Maualuga now. You’ve got to have that emotional leader.”

With an overtime victory over the Cleveland Browns meaning they are 3-0 in their division so far this season, two more wins over other AFC North teams during the remainder of the season should leave them perfectly placed for a return to the playoffs. Even if they fail in that target, six wins from their remaining 11 games should put them back where they want to be.

Redemption would be theirs.

In the last 18 years, the Bengals have had just one winning season among a whole host of hard knocks. But having finally found the right team spirit, it looks like they might just be set to graduate to bigger and better things.

Watch the first episode of ‘Hard Knocks’:

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October 14, 2009 - Posted by | NFL, Sport | , ,

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