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Taking national pulse

Posted: 8:45 a.m.

MIAMI, Fla. - From Pro Bowlers to The Swami to that other Jungle stocked by Jim Rome, the opinion-shapers in and around the NFL don't have a shortage of takes about the talented yet tainted Bengals.

Leave it to Rome, who blazed a national talk radio trail by taking off where Howard Cosell left off, to sum up head coach Marvin Lewis' team that many are trying to love into the next Super Bowl.

"If they keep their guys out of jail, yeah, I think they can make it," Rome said this week here at that media outlet mall known as the Super Bowl. "I think right now they're not playing up to their potential. They should take the next step. Potentially."

Rick Gossellin, who covers the NFL for The Dallas Morning News figures if the Colts can get here, so can the Bengals.

"If you have a franchise quarterback, you can go any year and every year," Gossellin said. "Carson Palmer is a franchise quarterback. The question is if they can stop the run. The Colts got here with a franchise quarterback and no run defense. It's the same team as Indianapolis. Why aren't the Bengals here?"

The national consensus is the same as the one at One Paul Brown Stadium, Newport on the Levee, Salem Gardens, The Sports Animal, and where ever else they take a shot of orange and a jigger of stripes.

"I don't mean to criticize Marvin," said ESPN's Ed Werder, who then did. "You can justify that kind of behavior on a smaller scale if results are going to Super Bowls. Other coaches have done that, but (the Bengals) don't win their division and they don't get in the playoffs, much less the Super Bowl."

The Bengals off-field problems have been a sidebar here all week from the top all the way down in the city where they pretty much lost their best shot ever at a Super Bowl title because of a cocaine binge 18 years before.

A league source said this week that numbers the NFL has shared with at least one team show the Bengals don't have the most legal problems in one analysis, but the shocking number of nine arrests since Dec. 15, 2005 has made for the headline.

The Bengals were featured during rookie commissioner Roger Goodell's first 45-minute Q-and-A. Asked why the Bengals have had such an inordinate number of arrests, he could only say "I don't know the answer to that, but we want to find it and we're going to find it." Officials at the NFL Players Association news conference refused to talk about the Bengals and the club's most visible ex-player wouldn't say the situation is particularly unique.

"I can't sit here and tell you my team was any different," said Boomer Esiason, one of the voices of the Super Bowl, after the CBS news conference. "We had our guys too, we had our moments, too. We weren't nearly as exposed as today's players are. Guys leave bars now and people are on phones calling cops to tell them a Bengal is leaving the bar and he's drunk. I'm not saying that they shouldn't do that, but I'm just saying it's because of who he is. That's the negative part of living and working in today's world."

The arrests do give Esiason and other media the opportunity to do what they've done for 30 years and advocate that the Bengals expand their personnel department and change their stripes in the draft room.

"About seven and a half arrests too many," Rome said. "When you go out there and take certain chances on certain guys in terms of character, it's going to come back and bite you in the back."

Future Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter, now an NFL analyst for HBO, thinks the character problem is keeping the Bengals from being an elite team.

"They're a good team and they can get here next year if you look around the league," Carter said. "There are always disappointments in the playoffs and teams come back. This is Indy's worst team of the last five and they finally got here. But (the Bengals) were down for so long, they've taken shortcuts by adding some questionable guys and they have to look at it. Shortcuts. That's all it is."

Some media members haven't been wrapped up in character. ESPN's Chris Berman, who has been known to use the Bengals for a punch line like Rodney Dangerfield used "I don't get no respect," actually respects what Lewis has done.

"The offense is dynamic. Marvin has instilled an understanding of how to win like Tony (Dungy) did in Tampa Bay," Berman said. "That's the most difficult part, to get that overturned and he's done that, so that's the biggest hurdle. It's already been made. Bottom line is they have one of the best quarterbacks in football, an old-time football player.

"I think they saw they have to work every day or it comes back to bite you. Why not get here? They've got a high class offense. If they get back to forcing turnovers like a year ago, like the Bears this year, I can see them getting here. They've got a great quarterback. Bengals in the Super Bowl? It can happen."

Berman waved off the character question ("That's a different story," he said.) and Pete Prisco of CBS flat out beat it down.

"I'm a big believer no one cares if the guy is an ax murderer. As long as he shows up and does his work. Organizationally and outside, people care about it but I think Sunday is all that matters," he said. "They were worse when Chris Henry wasn't playing than when Chris Henry was playing. You've got to stay on the field, that's an issue."

But Prisco says the fate of the Bengals has been hung more by their defense and one example of what he sees as curious offensive play-calling in the loss to the Colts.

"Just don't go into big games and emulate somebody else's game plan when you have a quarterback like Palmer who can throw it all over the place," he said. "The Indy game was terrible. They're good on offense, but if their defense doesn't improve, they can't get here. Where? They get run on too much. A tackle maybe not 122 years old might be a good idea."

One of the NFL's great defensive players, Giants end Michael Strahan, working this week for "The Best Damn Sports Show," doesn't believe the Bengals are going to get hurt with a league-wide perception in an attempt to lure players, or that Lewis' reputation has been damaged.

"Cincinnati was a team where before you would go, 'I don't want to go to Cincinnati.' Now I'd play in Cincinnati in a heartbeat," Strahan said. "(Lewis' rep) hasn't been hurt at all. We've all been on teams where crap has happened. As a coach you can't be with somebody 24-7. Guys make their decisions and they have to live with those decisions. I don't think anybody looks at it that way. I know as a player I respect Marvin and everybody that has played for Marvin respects Marvin. I'd play for Marvin in a heartbeat."

While Lewis' impeccable rep has taken some shots with the arrests, he still has more national supporters than detractors.

"Marvin has done a good job," Rome said. "He's changed the culture around there. They play hard for him. I like him as a coach. I think he's a good leader but I think they've taken some chances and made some reaches in terms of the type of guys they're bringing in. It's a gamble and they ended up crapping out because of it."

But the presence of Palmer and his offense keeps the Bengals in any future Super Bowl discussion nationally. Prisco is adamant that Palmer is one of the league's top three quarterbacks ("Manning, Brady, Palmer and then there's a significant dropoff," he said.) and his comments taking on the arrested caught the fancy of the national media.

"Carson called it exactly right," said Michael Wilbon, the Washington Post sports columnist. "They've got to get rid of the knucklehead factor. I love Marvin. He's done a great job there, but they've got to get that figured out."

Strahan could see a reunion of his Pro Bowl matchup with Bengals right tackle Willie Anderson in a Super Bowl.

"They have great players, great coach. It's just a team that has been inconsistent this year but a team you know can beat anybody once they're not," Strahan said. "They have a great offense with Palmer, (Chad) Johnson, (T.J.) Houshmandzadeh, all those guys and Rudi Johnson running the ball and defensively their solid as well. I think this year they've been more overshadowed by distractions off the field than on the field, but once they get past that they have the horses to beat anybody."

With the popular Lewis still grinding and poster boys like Palmer, Johnson and Houshmandzadeh luring fans, the Bengals still sound more like a national favorite than a national joke. But the clock is ticking.

Leave it to Rome telling it like it is with L.A.'s turn-of-the century cool instead of Cosell's '70s sermons.

"I like them, I really like them," Rome said. "They're good for the show. They do good interviews. I like them a lot. But I still think they need to stay out of jail."

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