Cedric Benson made his first appearance at camp Thursday.
GEORGETOWN , Ky. — HBO's Hard Knocks crew surfaced just for the day Thursday here at Georgetown College just like it did for the entire 2009 training camp, which seemed to be fitting for a Bengals team trying to recast the elements from that season they swept the AFC North and won the division.
After Thursday night's practice, running back Cedric Benson and new quarterback Bruce Gradkowski worked alone in an end zone on handoffs and pass patterns. At the other end of the field, one of the defense's three new starters, SAM linebacker Manny Lawson, talked about how he plans to fit an athletically-gifted 6-5, 240 pounds into a 4-3 defense for the first time in his life.
Benson and defense. It's how they did it two years ago and with the Bengals trying to groom a rookie quarterback, Benson was all smiles after a season he felt the running game was virtually ignored.
"If having a rookie quarterback causes them to rely on me a lot more, then I'm excited he's here," Benson said. "I've always dreamed of being in that role and having that opportunity to kind of carry a team. That's all I know how to do."
If there was ever a drop-dead date, this was it. With the collective bargaining agreement finally ratified by the players a few hours earlier, Thursday turned out to be May 9, or whatever the first day the entire team usually gets on the field for the first time in a season.
"Oh my God. Way behind. Way behind," said Lawson, one of the 17 free agents that couldn't take the field until Thursday. "But that's what I love to play: catch up."
Head coach Marvin Lewis has coveted Lawson since the 2006 draft and his signing indicates how the Bengals plan to offset the growing pains of 23-year-old quarterback Andy Dalton. They paid Lawson $3.5 million to come over from San Francisco for a year and Thomas Howard about $6 million for two years to play the WILL linebacker while doling out that much in guaranteed money to Nate Clements to replace cornerback Johnathan Joseph.
Defense and Benson.
With versatile backup Brandon Johnson also back, there is a buzz that the linebacking corps with Rey Maualuga in the middle has had its biggest upgrade in years. On paper.
"Solid players that know the game; they help us," said linebackers coach Jeff FitzGerald, who apologized for not being too elaborate. "Give me a few days to see them. I haven't even seen the first practice tape yet."
Everyone in the league is in the same boat. But not everybody has two new quarterbacks taking most of the snaps for a new offensive coordinator. This is where Benson comes in, fresh off another new diet of no sugar and no dairy products and showing up at 227 pounds, declaring it's the best and most refreshed he's ever felt.
"We need that '09 attitude," he said. "We can't come in here with the same work ethic and attitude we had last year, me included. We're still one of the worst teams off of last year and we have to wash that taste out."
Benson had some suitors (Washington?) but said that deep down he wanted to return to the Bengals because of the comfort level and he remembered what new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said when he first talked to him.
"If you're going to get paid like the big dog, you're going to get the ball like the big dog," Gruden told him.
"Changes were happening and I was excited about the changes," Benson said. "I'm not talking about anything in particular. I'm talking about the organization as a whole. Even from staff or players to the dining, or something in the locker room. Changes were starting to happen."
Benson admitted an assault charge in Austin, Texas against a former roommate last month cost him money. It no doubt cut down his options, but he kept them opened anyway until he agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal on Tuesday, a week into free agency.
"It's a business as well. They have every right to use that against me in negotiations," he said. "The best part is I'm here. I wanted to be here to get a chance to turn it around. I didn't want to hurt anybody. It was a good learning lesson for me. Sometimes the people closest to you hurt you the most."
Benson seemed relieved when Bengals player rep left tackle Andrew Whitworth told the media after practice that it's his impression players who ran afoul of the player conduct policy during the lockout won't be disciplined. On Friday morning NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the issue had been discussed with the union but had no comment. A few hours before when he met the media Thursday night, Benson expressed concern.
"You don't want to hurt your team in any kind of way. You don't want to miss any games," Benson said. "You don't want to be fined or anything like that. It's unfortunate and for that I'm greatly sorry to not only the team, but the fans. Hopefully matters won't come to that."
So there is that massive chip on the shoulder that fueled so much of '09. As quarterback Jordan Palmer said, "If he made $10 million this year, he'd still have it. It's what makes him such a tough runner."
"I wouldn't necessarily call it a chip," Benson said, "other than me feeling unsatisfied with my career at this point. I want to go out on top. I feel I'm doing what I need to be doing to achieve that. That's why I'm so eager to get this playbook down fast."
He only took one snap in Thursday's practice—a screen on the first play of the night—and that was it. The coaches want to ease him in, so he did just individual work. Part of that will be holding on to the ball. Last year his seven fumbles were devastating, as well as uncharacteristic.
"If you ask everybody on the team who works the hardest, 99 percent of them say Ced," Palmer said. "If he had a hole in his game last year, he's going to fix it. He's not a fumbler. It's like Adrian Peterson. One season he coughed it up a bunch and then he coughed it up twice or once (the next year). He's that kind of guy."
Benson says he may have become lackadaisical about it, or that he was trying to make a play when he just should have been going straight ahead. He knows one thing:
"When I get the playbook down, the defense better be ready," he said.
Lawson is now a huge part of that defense and on Thursday, he didn't know names, never mind defenses. But he knows he's wanted and that's why he signed.
"It's the simple fact I love Marvin. We've kept in touch this whole process," Lawson said. "He's not one of these coaches that just calls you when things are looking good. We talk about family some, he wants to know my thoughts on his defense. How I want to be used and how he intends to use me."
At the moment it looks like the Bengals are going to use him doing everything. The biggest adjustment from playing on the left outside in the San Francisco 3-4 is that he's now going to be over the tackle. But he'll still be dropping into coverage and he'll be lining up occasionally as a nickel rusher. He's counting on a lot of communication and he says it's nice to have his 49ers teammate behind him in Clements. They've already spent a couple of days of going over the playbook together
"He'll cover and hit anybody," Lawson said. "He doesn't shy away from contact. I love that. We have a rapport and we communicate well. He brings a lot of tenacity to this defense. Cover skills, tackling skills and a leader, too."
Lawson says he's still shaking hands, still meeting people, still getting used to a 4-3. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says he has no starters penciled in and that this defense is going to evolve into the season. It was, after all, the first day.
"I like to be that person that somebody sleeps on," Lawson said. They call it a 'sleeper.' Right now, we're a sleeper. But eyes will open."