The news that Terrell Owens missed his flight to Cincinnati and, as a consequence, his first practice as a Bengal, wasn’t exactly shocking for those who’ve followed the wide receiver’s career. Might this be a sign that the Bengals’ decision to pair the volatile Owens with the NFL’s other receiver-turned-reality-star, the graceful-if-lovelorn Chad Ochocinco, will end in disaster? “I don’t care how peaceful Owens is now,”Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote earlier this week. “If he’s catching two or three balls a week, he’s not going to be happy.” On his Twitter feed, Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock mused that the Bengals’ next move would be to sign JaMarcus Russell and O.J. Simpson.
Unlike Russell and O.J., T.O. and Ochocinco have never been in legal trouble. (Owens, however, was suspended by the Eagles in 2005 for “conduct detrimental to the team.”) You can’t say the same for many of their teammates, including such police blotter mainstays as Adam “Pacman” Jones, Matt Jones, and Tank Johnson. For the Bengals, this accumulation of troubled talent doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Owner and general manager Mike Brown isn’t some bighearted, naïve humanist straight out of Boys Town, offering second chances to wayward athletes. Rather, he has developed a sabermetric stratagem worthy of Moneyball’s Billy Beane: signing players with questionable backgrounds at bargain prices.
In order to compete with the NFL’s bluebloods, a not-so-sexy franchise like the Bengals needs to find market inefficiencies to exploit. In the Roger Goodell era, with football reprobates getting suspended left and right by the iron-fisted commissioner, both past offenders and potential malcontents can be had for a fraction of the cost they might once have commanded. The low price means the risk is mimimal, the potential upside huge.
OK, I admit it—I’m a Bengals fan. Perhaps I’m reaching for a silver lining in an offseason that has brought not only T.O. to the Queen City, but also fellow wide receiving diva Antonio Bryant, who has previously been suspended for violating the NFL’s drug policy; another wideout, Matt Jones, who was suspended after being arrested for cutting up cocaine in a car; and the infamous Pacman Jones, whose lengthy rap sheet includes a yearlong suspension due to a Las Vegas shooting that stemmed after he “made it rain” in a strip club.
As a fan, I’m hypocritical enough to forget the queasiness I’ve felt after each signing so long as the Bengals win a bunch of games this fall. I’m surprised, though, that the Bengals decided to hold their nose and go for broke with misbehaving players. Cincinnati, after all, is the team that’s perhaps most responsible for inspiring Goodell’s hardline attitude. The Bengals earned a toxic reputation after 10 players were arrested in a 14-month stretch in 2006 and 2007, most notably the late Chris Henry, who was suspended twice for a long string of offenses. Fellow 2005 draftee Odell Thurman may have been an even worse representative of the team, failing multiple drug tests and getting slapped with an indefinite suspension. (He is playing in the United Football League at the moment.) The Bengals’ reputation deteriorated to such a degree that Goodell called Mike Brown in December 2006 to offer his assistance in ending the team’s lawbreaking ways. “It’s an embarrassment to our organization, to our city, and to our fans,” Coach Marvin Lewis said at the time.
If the Bengals learned any lesson from this crime spree, it’s that it pays to let players misbehave elsewhere, bringing them in when they are chastened and desperate for another NFL payday. Running back Cedric Benson was arrested twice en route to bust status in Chicago. Given a second chance in Bengal stripes, Benson piled up 1,251 yards in 2009 and was the team’s offensive MVP. Defensive tackle Tank Johnson also played well in Cincinnati despite being relieved of his arsenal of automatic weapons. Even four-time assault arrestee Larry Johnson had a 100-yard game after Cincinnati gave him shelter. So far, so good—well, at least until Benson was arrested in June for engaging in a barroom brawl.
The Bengals aren’t alone in taking shots on players who have run afoul of the league and the law. The Baltimore Ravens, desperate for receiving talent, signed Donte’ Stallworth, who was suspended for the entire 2009 season after committing vehicular manslaughter. The New York Jets brought in Santonio Holmes, who will begin this year with a four-game suspension and allegedly whipped a bar glass at a woman in a nightclub this March. And the Steelers, of course, stood by their boorish and immature (if unindicted) quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger.
All of these signings have come as Goodell has showed a lenient side of late, refusing to drop the hammer on wayward quarterbacks Michael Vick and Vince Young despite their involvement in nefarious doings. Likewise, the Bengals’ Benson dodged a suspension after his recent assault arrest. If the commissioner does start to show his softer side—or the Second Chance Crew collectively matures—then Cincinnati’s gambles will work out brilliantly. If the experiment of turning Paul Brown Stadium into a halfway house fails, Cincinnati will just have to look for another market inefficiency. Given the fact that the Bengals roster already includes Rey Maualuga, Domata Peko, and Jonathan Fenene, may I suggest an all-Samoan lineup?