In rising to the top of the AFC the 2011 Bengals have proven, among other things, that there is a difference between following a team and liking a team. The good locker-room vibe has spread to a fan base weary of recycled trash talk without the trash, boasts emptier than a Tom Brady backfield, and sideline drama more Hamlet than Hines.
And they like it. From Anderson Township to Zanesville they'll tell you they like these Bengals because they are a team.
"What they like," says former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins, "is there's not the extracurricular activity. It's not one big side show. No one wants to be that guy. They shy away from the spotlight. It's hard to get them on the radio to pat them on the back."
Hawkins, who has been around the AFC's two most successful teams of the young century, most recently these Steelers that are at Paul Brown Stadium for Sunday's AFC North first-place showdown (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12), did. Hawkins, who ended his 10-year NFL career as one of Bill Belichick's valued Patriots professionals, finally sees the "It" factor in the Bengals locker room.
"What's impressive is that this team understands how it works in the NFL," says Hawkins, an analyst on the Bengals Radio Network. "When I came back here, the differences between the Patriots and Bengals were glaring. But this team is like that team in New England. This mentality is the right one to have. This is how you win."
Yes, chemistry matters. The knock on a Marvin Lewis team had never been talent, but mixing the talent together. Maybe you have to go away and come back to see it now.
After drinking Belichick's winning cocktail, Hawkins has been a big proponent of the Patriots way. But he also spent time with the Steelers this season at their training camp as a coaching intern working with coach Carnell Lake's secondary and got the same taste. When he recently had Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor on his show, Taylor talked about how the '05 Steelers team that beat the Bengals at home in the playoffs went on to win the Super Bowl with no one giving them a shot.
"It was about sticking together, paying attention to detail, the effort," Hawkins said. "This team understands it's all about the championship."
You hear it from veterans that have been around other clubs. Outside linebacker Thomas Howard, who played five seasons in Oakland, says it's the most team-oriented NFL team he's been on. You hear it from young guys with bit roles. Practice squad quarterback Zac Robinson, who had time with the Patriots, has told people it's the best team he's ever been on anywhere. You hear it from a rookie like quarterback Andy Dalton, who says there are no barriers between position and age.
And you hear it from the guys who have been here for it all.
"It's not a one- or two-man team anymore," said defensive lineman Frostee Rucker, a six-year veteran and one of the several game captains that has made an appearance this season even though he's not a starter. "Nothing against anyone, but it's a great team feeling. It's not about a show or anything like that. It's just about going out with two or three units and playing effective team ball."
Head coach Marvin Lewis decided against having permanent captains during the summer as he saw this new faceless and young team come together on paper. No captains fit a team that didn't have an identity. He had never really liked the idea of voting for permanent captains before every season anyway, preferring the weekly captains that many teams use, such as the Ravens. But when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell pushed the idea of the 'C' on the jersey to promote leadership, Lewis went along with it until this season.
Plus, Lewis had an interesting conversation with running back Cedric Benson during training camp.
"He asked me about making the offensive line the captains and I joked with him, 'I can see through you. You've got your own reasons,' '' Lewis said. "But I can see where Ced was coming from. If they go, we go. And if we're running the ball, we're doing well as a team. And if you look at the captains we've had, probably about 70 percent of them have come from the offensive line.
"It's about everyone having responsibility. About spreading it out. Guys like Frostee and (Jon) Fanene were captains once and they don't start but they're big part of this team just like everyone in here doing their job. We've kept it away from the rookies and the veterans have been great."
The difference is as clear as Steelers Week, a couple of days each season that were devoted to enough trash talk for Rumpke. But safety Ryan Clark's conference call with the Cincinnati media this week seemed to indicate that even the Pittsburgh professionals realize the Bengals are no longer immature as he talked about their quick start.
"You are shocked in the way or you are impressed in the way that your go-to receiver can be a rookie, your starting quarterback can be a rookie, all of the offseason turmoil goes on and they're able to overcome it," Clark said. "I think the big thing is once those things were handled, once they knew Carson (Palmer) wasn't going to start, once you get (Chad) Ochocinco out, I think it became Marvin Lewis's team and he's been doing a great job leading them.
"You're just impressed with what they're able to do but not surprised because you always knew they had talent; they just had to get things together."
One of the defining moments in the Bengals-Steelers rivalry the previous decade is wide receiver Chad Ochocinco's meltdown at halftime of the 2005 Wild Card Game in which he went on a tirade because he didn't get the ball. It crystalized the difference in the two clubs even though the talent was comparable.
But only three players are left from that team and just one on offense, right guard Bobbie Williams.
"I don't ever think we had a cancer in the locker room," says safety Chris Crocker, one of the old pros that has been here since '08. "I think we had some guys that were selfish, that were worried about themselves, but I think this is a good locker room. You've got guys that care about football and just want to win."
Or, as Rucker says, "We're so close, all the young guys are old now. You can lead by example. It doesn't matter how old you are or if you've got a 'C' on your jersey."
The chemistry has been spiked by the narcotic of youth, a powerful drug that erases all institutional memory. They have no idea The Ocho melted down in a playoff game or that they were supposed to lose to the Bills or that they are supposed to be disgruntled. Even Crocker says there are so few guys left from the '09 offense, it's a good thing because they don't know how that offense faltered down the stretch.
"The biggest problem in Cincinnati is the doubt," says left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "There's been that feeling where it's another year where it starts out good, but it's not going to end up good. You can sense that with everyone. I think when teams let that carry over into the locker room and what they do, it affects them. That's the issue. That's what we're trying to change."
It has changed enough to clean up Steelers Week.