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Bengals look to locker room


A.J. Green

Updated: 5:20 p.m.

Head coach Marvin Lewis's fashion statement in his 11th trip down the runway says on a black T-shirt in orange letters: "SUCCESS A lot of little things done well."

One thing the Bengals have done well in going to back-to-back postseason berths is building a solid locker room while steering away from questionable characters. That's been no small thing and on Tuesday, Bengals president Mike Brown said it is one of the reasons he has given his blessings to the intrusive cameras of the HBO series Hard Knocks.

"We want them to see our people," Brown said before the team's annual training camp luncheon at Paul Brown Stadium. "These are good people, people that they should be proud to have represent them, to be the team from their city. That's what we have and I want the public to know it."

Tuesday's luncheon capped one of the most optimistic offseasons in recent Bengals history. While Brown talked about the character of the roster, Lewis talked about its composition and how he's excited about the mix of new veterans, young veterans, and the catchy rookie class as a slew of NFL pundits pick the Bengals to be a 2013 power.

Plus, the same coordinators that have led the Bengals to a 19-13 record the past two seasons are back despite defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden undergoing interviews for head coaching jobs.

"It's great to have the continuity of the coaching staff. Particularly from the framework of the players because of the emotional parts of going through the ups and downs and the grinds of the season," Lewis said. "They know what to expect from those guys and those guys know what to expect from two-thirds of the roster. I think that's a good thing because you don't have to go through the process of restart, rechange."

The Bengals are upbeat, in large part, because they followed their offseason blueprint to the lines and letters. They wanted to sign most of their free agents, and during a rapid-fire March and April they reeled in a combination of 17 of their own UFAs, franchise players, restricted and exclusive right free agents that dropped about $40 million in 2013 salary cap numbers.

By the time left end Carlos Dunlap signed a five-year, $40 million extension last week, the Bengals had about $6 million under this year's cap. Since the average they spend each year on replacing injured players is about $5 million, they have about $1 million in dead money, and $1 million ready for the practice squad, the Bengals are looking right at or maybe even over the $123 million cap after keeping their own.

In addition to keeping the home fires burning Lewis really liked two guys the club went out and got from other clubs in perennial Pro Bowler James Harrison on defense and West Coast offense veteran tight end Alex Smith.

"We wanted to find one impact guy and we were able to get James Harrison," Lewis said. "I think another guy that we acquired that is going to be a help, whether he helps in competitiveness, whether he helps by making the 53, making us better on Sundays is Alex Smith on offense. He has really done a nice job. We watched him, coached against him."

Brown doesn't meet the media often but his session Tuesday is an annual rite and he offered a remarkable self-examination of the character issue that has plagued the perception of his franchise even though it has been a positive lately.

It has been six years since the Bengals ended a skein of 10 different players arrested 14 times from December 2005 to January 2007, but the stigma remains even though the Bengals have recycled through and been to the playoffs three of the last four years with a different cast.

"Over the years we dug ourselves into a hole, and I'm probably the one who did it," Brown admitted. "We would bring in guys and work with them. Sometimes they came around, sometimes they didn't. Yet, I think we did the right thing. Certainly it was good for them. We gave them opportunity when some of them didn't have opportunity and a lot of them proved that they deserved that opportunity.

"But in the process of doing that over the years we became branded as something of a club that had too many guys that didn't toe the line. I don't think that was ever really true but we did have a couple of spectacular cases."

Brown alluded to fullback Stanley Wilson's drug relapse the night before Super Bowl XXIII 24 years ago, but the cyberspace scrutiny in the middle of the last decade supplied the brand. He says a few years ago that he decided to try and put an end to the character question by staying away from players that had questionable characters.

(Last month he offered Exhibit A in former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez to Alex Marvez of Fox.)

Brown said he has taken a page out of his father's book as he recalled how Paul Brown was basically a zero-tolerance guy.

"I have drawn it at different places and I had different rationales," Brown said of the line. "The old rationale was, 'Let us step in here. We can help. We can make it better for this guy and, who knows, maybe he'll make us a better team?' Well, that had repercussions. Sometimes it didn't work out and they went sideways and we were stigmatized.

"In later years I've gone back to the way my dad did it. If you crossed a line on him and your can is out the door before you could count to 10. Boom. What we're doing now, and what we've been doing for a few years, is try to sign on guys who are solid people. We may have to worry about things and we may have to worry about how they play but we're not going to have to worry so much about how they are off the field."

The Bengals released safety Robert Sands after he was arrested for assault and domestic violence while on injured reserve this past Jan. 4. Two weeks later right tackle Andre Smith was arrested for carrying a loaded gun on to a plane, but the case was dismissed. Cornerback Adam Jones, signed by the Bengals in 2010 after he was suspended for a season for several legal problems, has an assault charge against him in a case he says he was assaulted last month.

On Tuesday, Brown didn't exonerate Jones but he defended him.

"I'll say this about Adam; it's uncertain what's going to transpire with him. You don't know and I don't know. I can tell you that in the house, when he's here, he shows up on time, he works hard, he's focused on his job and the people enjoy working with him," Brown said. "Now, as to what happened out of school, I guess that will play out. But don't prejudge him."

Brown has perceptions, too. This is the one he has of Jones:

"When I think of Adam Jones, the picture that's in my mind, it's not of a guy running back a punt or a guy making a play on a pass," Brown said. "The picture that's in my mind is a guy standing where you're standing holding a little baby, his baby, and trying to make a life for him and his family. That's the guy I see. But we'll find out how this is going to turn out. It's up to the court and it's up to the league office. It's out of our hands."

Brown recalled how he wanted to give Wilson a second shot back in the late '80s. At that point, "I was doing more running things and my dad was like I am now, a little older, and let me do things." Paul Brown told him he wouldn't do it, but it was Mike's call.

"And maybe it wasn't all together the best thing, and I did a few more, but I don't regret some of them," Brown said. "Some of them I do. The thing I do regret is how it came to make us, or put on us an image that I don't think was ever anything but a very small part of what we were and sometimes not a part at all. But if you want to blame somebody for it, blame me."

But then he would also have to be praised for a locker room that now includes, among others, wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, and left tackle Andrew Whitworth.

"We have made a conscience effort to draft and bring in guys that we think are well-behaving people, good people, and I think with Dalton and Green as examples, with Whitworth as an example, we have lots of others that this is how we want to be perceived," Brown said.

"In recent years I've tried to go the other way. I've just thought it's too heavy a price to pay and we were going to go back to square one and bring in here guys that were sound people. We'd brought in sound people before, it's just that on occasions we made exceptions. Now we're not making exceptions."

Without exception, the optimism is feeding off that locker room. Lewis is banking on the character overcoming last season's sudden, bitter end when a 7-1 closing rally got negated in the Wild Card loss in Houston.

"It was a game we felt we were prepared to win and didn't win it. We got our wings clipped a little bit. Through this offseason we've done a great job of coming back with that kind of attitude," Lewis said. "It's important that we know we have to do the work to get back. Nothing is given to us. Nothing is assumed. We've got some unfinished business and some unfinished work. Why we do this is to be world champions. We've got a talented football team and a great opportunity that goes along with that."

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