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Coping at the top


Posted: 7:20 p.m.

The Bengals are 4-1 and here comes CBS, ESPN, HBO, SI and everybody but FDR and JFK as the nation descends on PBS to figure out how this team has gone from cardiac care to the Cardiac Cats.

And if there is one thing head coach Marvin Lewis has detested in his seven seasons it is how his best teams failed to cope with success. That's why when he began to tear down this roster for a second time in five years after the '07 season, he opted for straight men instead of thespians in his effort to craft a mature, physical, blue-collar team.

The identity the Bengals lacked in '05 and '06? They've got it now and they seem comfortable as a team of recycled vets and untried youngsters who style themselves as "castoffs."

"We joke about having more heart than talent," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "But we know how important the heart is. We've got guys that want to win at checkers or hopscotch. Whatever it is, we want to win."

So Lewis has told his team they are not only one play away from 5-0, but also four plays away from 0-5. And this team embraced it instead of bristled.

"I thought that was a neat comment," said running back Cedric Benson. "It really hits home."

Only 14 players remain from the team that watched Santonio Holmes run away with the Bengals playoff hopes in the 2006 finale at Paul Brown Stadium against Pittsburgh.

This 4-1 team, Lewis and his players will say, is different than the 4-1 of '05 or the 4-2 of '06. Indeed, what was once the Genoa City or Springfield of the soap opera NFL is now the ground zero of zzzzs. The Bengals have given all their drama to Obama.

"We're just a different team," said Whitworth, a rookie on that '06 club that went through more peaks and valleys than a grade school map.

"The attitude. The way we work. What drives us is totally different. Before, it was stats, where you ranked in offense. This team doesn't care about stats. I think the only stat this team worries about is wins and losses. When you go through suffering, you learn a lot like we did last year. ... We don't see ourselves as a 4-1 team, but as a 4-11 team and we're not there yet. We haven't played our best football."

Or, as right guard Bobbie Williams said, "We're a little bit more mature. Even though we had vets, emotionally we're more mature."

Lewis is loving this. Remember, he was the guy enraged at the club's 2005 Pro Bowl press conference where the AFC North champion hats were displayed. Asked if this team is better equipped to handle the pressure than those teams that wilted at the slightest hint of adversity or success, Lewis lit up.

"I think we have guys who are pretty content with where they are in their careers and their lives. For the most part, it's 52 and one," Lewis said. "I think that's fine, and I think they realize that. It's about 52 and a half now, so were getting closer. But somebody has to have the attention, so he (Chad Ochocinco) might as well do it because he loves it. Let him eat it up and have fun with it, and you guys love to talk to him and he loves to talk to you. It's a marriage that's made in heaven.

"The other guys are pretty satisfied with where they are, and I think they appreciate that. They understand the ultimate thing is to win football games, and they all benefit. Without winning football games, nobody will care about you."

But even The Ocho isn't the Chad Johnson of 2005-2006. Oh, there is another book, Ustream, Twitter and the X-rated "Child, Please," but he has left the team alone. In fact, he has added to the chemistry by saying and doing all the right, political things. His Wednesday media sessions have bordered on pin-striped-suit boring.

On Wednesday night, he took turns with Lewis and linebackers Dhani Jones and Rey Maualuga appearing on a Bengals FanForum via a teleconference that drew about 13,000 of the faithful. When Dean from New Jersey called in, he said, "What up, Dean? I went to high school with you."

Then he made the plea to buy tickets for Sunday's game, but didn't overdo it like Chad '05-06: "If you want to buy the tickets but don't want to go, I'll give you your money's worth through the TV."

The host of the call, Bengals all-time leading scorer Jim Breech, was not only impressed with The Ocho, but everybody else. He thought the rookie Maualuga sounded like a veteran.

"The players made it easy and that says something," Breech said. "Chad was great. He always is. I said at the beginning of this season I thought they were mentally tougher. I asked Maualuga about how long has it taken for the game to slow down for him and he said he never really saw a change in speed."

And Maualuga assured Breech, "Hey, I'll stay on as long as you want me."

If that's not the kind of team guy Lewis has been searching for, who is? While the 2005 draft has been mourned since 2006 (Pollack, Thurman, Ghiaciuc, Tab Perry), what about the next three that have formed the nucleus of the team's leadership?

In '06 there was Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko, now each captains, as well as cornerback Johnathan Joseph, the guy who has been in the secondary the longest. In '07 there was cornerback Leon Hall and safety Chinedum Ndukwe, both productive and verbal as they inherited major roles. In '08 there was WILL linebacker Keith Rivers, solid, stoic and a Maualuga mentor. And Andre Caldwell, whose last-minute cool has frozen the defensive empires of Pittsburgh and Baltimore, has to get some lead-by-example points for that.

"There are more veteran guys here that are reminding the guys that are a little young how to do it," Joseph said. "That's big. I don't hear anybody in this locker room talking about the media attention. We're trying to win the next game. For me, (the national media) comes in and then they leave. That's it."

Caldwell recalled what Lewis told the team early on, before, during and after they filmed *Hard Knocks *this past summer.

"We've been on NFL's Hard Knocks. It gets no bigger than that," said Caldwell of the attention. "We're grown men. We think we can handle it. It's better than being at the other end. We'll handle it all right."

Along for the ride are a batch of veterans that bring the cold, harsh reality of the NFL smack into the locker room. Benson, safeties Roy Williams and Chris Crocker, defensive tackle Tank Johnson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones, center Kyle Cook and right tackle Dennis Roland are all reminders how hard it is to get here. All have been discarded and left on the scrap heap.

Sometimes more than once.

"That is present," said Benson of a group that knows how hard it is to stay in the league, never mind go 5-1. "I think largely because of the way it went last year. It can be put to a halt.
"I think a lot of guys take personal pride in it. A lot of guys like this position. Everybody's got a little experience in this field."

The experience of not having a job has clearly affected Benson. Every time he does an interview, he says he's grateful for the opportunity and the faith the Bengals have shown in giving him an NFL-high 111 carries.

That certainly doesn't sound like '05-06.

For guys who lived it, like The Ocho, they say they can't remember back that far. Maybe he doesn't want to.

"It seems so long ago," Carson Palmer said. "It's a different team, mindset and players. It's like comparing the Cincinnati Bengals with the Washington Redskins or any other team in the league. There are a couple of key guys still on the team, but it's new names with new numbers, a number of new coaches and schemes.

"It's a more mature group. We play with a lot of fire and energy, not necessarily calm but more professional and mature."

The man from ESPN was waiting to talk to Whitworth and the guy from SI was on deck.

"Week to week," Whitworth said. "That's what is really different about this team. We've realized it's really week to week. Last week doesn't matter. What are we going to do this week? As long as we keep that attitude that all that matters is the week that is ahead, we've got a chance to be really successful."

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