Updated: 10-2-06, 12:50 a.m.
Lewis: Sending a message? (Getty Images)
"Not today he wasn't," Lewis said when asked if the troubled wide receiver was one of his best 45 players.
The move clearly had an impact in a 38-13 loss in which the Bengals couldn't attack the Pats' weakened secondary. But Lewis was just as clearly looking to make a statement bigger than one game, and it was a delicate subject in a losing locker room.
"I don't know about sending a message," said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "I feel differently about situations, so I don't want to get into that after we just lost a game. If you asked me after we won a game, I would have told you how I felt."
Lewis chose to deactivate Henry after the two best games of his career in a move that came six days after he was reportedly in a car driven by Odell Thurman when the middle linebacker was arrested for driving while impaired.
Although Henry is facing a possible suspension from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for two guilty pleas in two criminal cases, Lewis apparently felt he had to respond to a guy already deep into the league's drug and alcohol program.
It may or may not have had an impact on the outcome. The game turned on the first two drives when the Bengals drove to the New England 22 each time and could only get a pair of Shayne Graham field goals. Seven of Henry's eight career touchdowns have come from 27 yards and in, evidence of his ability to use his 6-4 frame in traffic.
"I don't know if it was a factor or not," Houshmandzadeh said. "We didn't attempt many deep balls and that's what Chris specializes in, and that's what he does well. Maybe with him not playing that could be why. I don't know."
Quarterback Carson Palmer found Henry in the red zone twice last week in Pittsburgh for touchdown passes of 16 and three yards in the first half, but he didn't get the ball to the 5-8 Antonio Chatman once all day Sunday in his Bengals debut after missing virtually all of this preseason and season with a groin injury.
"It's tough; I think he's one of our best receivers. Losing him hurts," Palmer said of Henry. "Any time you lose any player — especially a starter, and a guy who is a big time playmaker — it hurts. I thought Antonio came in and, after being out for so long, was right on all game. He didn't have a chance to make too many plays, but it definitely didn't hurt us at all."
Palmer said that players noticed the move and said he thought it was a good message. But defensive end Bryan Robinson said he didn't know Henry had been deactivated and defensive tackle John Thornton declined comment.
"The message should already be there; this is the NFL," said middle linebacker Brian Simmons. "Guys should know what they should be doing. Your head coach shouldn't have to send a message. Guys should know. I would hope (there wasn't an impact), but I don't know. That wasn't relevant in the game today. The head coach has that right."
"It was a decision by the coaches and they felt it was the right decision," said right guard Bobbie Williams. "We support the coaches on whatever they decide to do. I think they got across what they wanted to get across."
The Bengals could be seeing what life is going to be like without Henry when Goodell's ruling comes down. There had been some gray area where Henry stood with the NFL after pleading guilty to a gun charge in Florida last month on top of his plea to marijuana possession in Kentucky in March. While two admissions net a suspension, according to the league's personal conduct policy, the two charges can also fall into two different categories with one governing substance and alcohol abuse and the other personal conduct.
But when Goodell visited Cincinnati last week, NFL vice president Joe Browne said that Goodell had the final say, and the new commissioner indicated that he would be tough with violators in a statement that didn't bode well for Henry.
Goodell said the case had yet to reach his desk. If Goodell acts, Henry could be looking at a suspension of one or two games, and maybe more if another pending case, a DUI in Clermont County, is resolved later this month. That's the question now. Will Goodell act before the Bengals' next game - Oct. 15 in Tampa - or wait until the Clermont case is resolved? And if he acts, will he follow through on a suspension?
When it comes to criminal matters and matters pertaining to the league's programs governing drugs and alcohol, the NFL has the say in discipline.
The Bengals trail, 21-13, with 3:20 left in the third quarter, and they look to be rolling as Palmer has just hooked up with Houshmandzadeh for Cincinnati's biggest play of the day, a 33-yarder. But on a second-and-two from the Pats 38, Palmer almost throws a horrendous interception when linebacker Roosevelt Colvin jumps a quick throw to Chad Johnson. Then Palmer underthrows Houshmandzadeh over the middle on a play he thought there was interference.
Then, with 3:12 left, Lewis decides to punt. Remember, this is the same guy that went for it on fourth-and-one from the Bengals 30 early in the fourth quarter of a game his team trailed, 17-14, last week in Pittsburgh.
And punter Kyle Larson did his job after Lewis moved him back with a delay-of-game penalty, with the help of wide receiver Kelley Washington tipping the ball out of the end zone and newly-acquired linebacker Andre Frazier downing the ball at the New England 6.
But the defense let the Pats get to the Bengals 9 in just five plays with the help of rookie running back Laurence Maroney's 41-yard run.
"We had 18-something minutes left in the game," Lewis said. "It's the way to do it. You've got to play defense. If we're not going to stop them there, we're not going to stop them at any point. Even though they drove the football, we still had it at only a two-score game — had an opportunity to still be in it."
But the Bengals didn't play defense, and one player said he was surprised they didn't go for it after they threw two straight passes.
Houshmandzadeh, who looked visibly surprised on the sidelines, offered, "I'm not going to get into second-guessing."
Palmer also looked like he was ready to go.
"Now, yeah," said Palmer when asked if they should have gone. "But at the time of the game, that was a tough call. (We were) just out of field-goal range, and they were moving the ball pretty well. In hindsight, it's always easier to sit back after the game and say, 'Yeah, we should have gone for it.' But it was Coach's decision, and at the time, it was a good one."
That is now five fumbles in the last two games after Cincinnati recovered two of his three in Pittsburgh last week. He also lost one in Kansas City, giving him all four Bengals' lost fumbles this year after they lost just six last season. Palmer expressed some postgame concern.
"I just need to hold on to the ball. There's no way to sugarcoat it," Palmer said. "When your quarterback fumbles the ball twice in two consecutive series, you don't have a chance to win the game, especially when you fumble the ball inside your own red zone. And they get 14 easy points out of it. When you're behind in a game and you're trying to come back, and your quarterback fumbles the ball, you can't come back."
The fumbles put the Bengals in the minus-turnover category because cornerback Tory James got his first interception of the season. That gives him 18 as a Bengal, moving him out of a tie with Tommy Casanova and putting him into fifth place on the club's all-time list by himself behind Lemar Parrish's 25.
James had a relatively rough day, particularly trying to tackle, but he made a nice diving catch when quarterback Tom Brady threw behind wide receiver Doug Gabriel late in the first quarter and Gabriel tipped it before James picked it off the 37.
But Larson, who is averaging 47 yards per punt this year after last year's 43.2, didn't get much help on Kevin Faulk's 43-yard return that set up the score that put the Pats up 14-6 at the half. Larson got off a driving 52-yard punt, but Washington whiffed on the tackle as Faulk put the ball under his arm after the catch.
Washington had a mixed day on special teams despite hustling all over the place. He had the whiff, plus an illegal block and a holding call on two kickoffs. Washington also had a hand in downing that punt on the Pats 6.
"I didn't have any time to watch TV this week. Any free time it was studying plays," said Frazier, 24, who played 11 games with the Steelers last season before hurting his leg in the AFC title game.
"It was great to be out there in a Bengals uniform, it's something I always wanted to do," said Frazier, the son of Bengals Super Bowl linebacker Guy Frazier. "I knew all my family and friends were watching."
His father still lives in town, but since Andre just arrived he could only get two tickets and one went to his wife. If he sticks, he knows those days are over.
"I wanted to sign last year, but when they drafted all those linebackers (Pollack and Thurman) I didn't think it would be a great fit to make the team," said Frazier, who signed with the Steelers as a free agent out of UC. "I've always liked Coach Lewis and the way he conducts his business."
INJURY UPDATE: Wide receiver Chad Johnson left in the last minute of the first half after falling on his shoulder laying out for a pass. Johnson said it was the same right shoulder he fell on after scoring a touchdown against Cleveland, but he came back and played with the bruise, catching two balls in the second half and finishing with six catches for 64 yards.
Safety Herana-Daze Jones looked to be the only player nicked when he left with cramps in the fourth quarter.