If head coach Marvin Lewis is the voice of the franchise and quarterback Carson Palmer is the heart and soul, then Cedric Benson is the face of the Bengals.
Like his team, Benson has been scarred but rebuilt his destiny by going back to his roots and the roots of the game in a bruising style that has mirrored the Bengals' rise in the AFC North. In his nine North games for Cincinnati, Benson has averaged 4.8 yards per carry in games the Bengals have a 6-3 record. And Benson has loved every hit of it, admitting, "I kind of like" the pounding.
"I love the division," Benson says. "To kick butt in this division, you gain the respect of the world. Know what I mean?"
For the first time since he set a club playoff record with 169 rushing yards in the Wild Card loss to the Jets back on Jan. 9, Benson on Wednesday reflected on his breakthrough season. The Bengals still don't seem to get any respect. They swept the division last year with a refurbished locker room of character and this unseemly off-field offseason in Pittsburgh still generated headlines like, "Steelers act like Bengals."
Like his team, Benson doesn't think people respect him, either, despite a club-record six 100-yard games.
"I think people didn't think too much of me regardless of what I did last season. I think maybe people thought they could have done it," Benson says. "When I went home, I was very proud of myself what I had done this season. I achieved a lot of things not only on the field, but off the field as well. I was very happy with who I saw in the mirror. I was very proud of my guys and how they fought. I was sad about (the playoff loss) and the way it ended so early. I thought we'd have a better run than that. But I couldn't be prouder considering the (4-11-1) season this team had the year before."
Behind the physical bolts of the 5-11, 226-pound Benson, the Bengals have been able to revive their running game since they signed him on the last day of September in 2008 following a controversial run in Chicago on and off the field. In Benson's 23 regular-season starts, the Bengals are 13-9-1. He believes they have the talent to win the Super Bowl, but on Wednesday he made a plea for some mental toughness to fight the postseason fatigue.
"The things we have to do are play the way we played Baltimore the first time and Pittsburgh both times," Benson says. "This team has to play like that every Sunday to win the Super Bowl. They have (the talent). It has to come from within. Young guys. When the season is all over and there are these playoff games and this Wild Card game, that's when you really have to find it. You've got to dig deep ... I don't want to play four (playoff) games. I'd love to have a bye week, but those are the cards that are dealt. Do you stand up to the challenge and play? Or are you going to go home?"
Asked if the Bengals got tired, Benson says, "I would hate to answer that question. It's behind us. It's over. All we can do is focus on the future. I think this team can find it and bring it to the surface and win a Super Bowl."
But he's wary of talk that the Steelers are already done with Santonio Holmes shipped to the Jets and Ben Roethlisberger starting at Roger Goodell's Siberia.
"If we start thinking these guys are going to be weaker, we're kind of beating ourselves already," he says. "In my mind they are still top dogs in this division. You have to be prepared to go into battle when you play those guys. They may be losing some key players but I don't have any doubts they will fill those slots with just as good talent. I'll never underestimate those guys. They've set a mark. They've won Super Bowls. They're in the playoffs year after year. They deserve every bit of respect in this division and I give them that."
Benson was in rare form Wednesday. Noting the five preseason games with the addition of the Hall of Fame game, Benson stunned Fox 19's Rufus Millennor by declaring he had never, ever gained a yard in the preseason. With Millennor set to run back down River Road to produce the 2009 preseason stat sheet, Benson broke into a wide smile.
"They didn't count," he said.
Then, "I got that guy."
But he also got serious.
"I really hope the coaches, owners and staff don't prepare for the preseason but prepare for the regular season; those games don't count," says Benson of a slate that has the Bengals playing five preseason games in 25 days.
But he sure doesn't mind carrying the ball when it counts. Last season in his 13 starts he averaged 23 carries per, which would compute to 370 in a 16-game schedule. Bengals all-time leading rusher Corey Dillon averaged 19.6 carries in 95 starts. From 2004-2006 when he played in all 48 games, Rudi Johnson averaged 21.6 carries. 370 carries are a lot of carries.
"Nah, nah," he says. "The more you get, you get more fun ... I never got hurt from a pounding. I got a lot of pounding when I was a kid. I got a lot of butt whippings. I got used to that."
Benson will talk about the number of carries, not the number of yards.
"I'll tell you what," he says. "Every Sunday I'll give it all I've got and y'all add up the numbers for me, all right?"
All right, but Benson admits the best encore is breaking the team's single-season rushing record. Told that was Johnson's 1,458 from 2005, Benson says, "Easy. When we come up with a number, we definitely have to come up with something way higher than that."
Like his team, Benson is proud of how far it has come and he believes he'll maintain the edge that cut open his pride and unleashed it while sitting on a couch at home during a training camp and Opening Day no team called.
"I've been through a lot. I'm still going through a lot. I love that edge," Benson says. "It's awesome. It's like an adrenaline rush. ... When I was starting in Chicago, I didn't have the edge that I have now. I found the edge I had in high school and college. I like it. That's me. I was distracted back then. I let outside things distract me. I paid attention to the negative. Now I'm a happy guy. I've got the world by a string."
The face of the Bengals is smiling.