That the Cincinnati Bengals have been among the leaders in the NFL in players arrested over the past decade is hardly news (insert your joke about the stripes on their uniforms). We have seen in recent years, however, a concerted effort on the part of Mike Brown and Marvin Lewis to make the character of players a more important consideration when draft day comes around.
That has resulted in two playoff appearances in the last three years, and looking at statistics on the arrest rates among NFL teams, it's no coincidence that as the Bengals off-the-field problems have decreased, their on-the-field success rate has increased.
Of the ten NFL teams with the highest arrest numbers since 2000, there are a combined 12 playoff victories among them in that same span. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers account for a quarter of that total and the lone Super Bowl championship among the group. It should be noted also that of the 24 arrests since 2000 among Tampa Bay players, 21 of them occurred after Tony Dungy left.
Dungy ended up in Indianapolis and brought his "character first" mentality with him. That resulted in a string of nine consecutive seasons in which the Colts won the playoffs, seven of them under Dungy. Say what you will about Peyton Manning, but Tony Dungy's playoff record speaks volumes in favor of elevating the importance of character when evaluating players.
Some fans might ask, "Why is that important? So long as they can perform on the field, who cares what happens off the field." To some extent, that might be valid, but Bengals fans especially know that off-field issues quickly become on-field problems. The late Chris Henry was the most notorious Bengals' offender. All reports indicate Henry was trying to reform his life before his tragic death, but his career was unquestionably curtailed due to the suspensions that resulted from his arrests. Even now, the Bengals await word on LB Rey Maualuga who is most likely facing a suspension for an assault charge. WR Jerome Simpson is currently serving a 15 day jail sentence for his involvement in a drug bust. He'll no doubt face a suspension from the league as well, which has no doubt been a big reason why the free agent hasn't had any offers yet from the Bengals or any other team.
This year's draft features more "questionable" characters than in previous years. Some of these, like CB Janoris Jenkins, are immensely talented. Jenkins had repeated drug arrests and was eventually kicked off the team at the University of Florida. Last week we learned that Jenkins was "fired" by his agent. That doesn't bode well for his draft stock. He'll most likely be available when the Bengals pick in the first round, but if the team wishes to continue their positive development, they'll pass on Jenkins despite their needs at cornerback. He may have tremendous talent, but that's irrelevant if it doesn't see the field because of legal problems.
The Bengals drafted five players with "character issues" in 2005 and 2006: LB Odell Thurman, WR Chris Henry, DE Frostee Rucker, LB AJ Nicholson and WR Reggie McNeal. Only Rucker was able to overcome his demons. The rest eventually became casualties, and in Henry's case that extended beyond football to life. From a football standpoint, that's a full one-third of two years' draftees lost due to bad behavior. Throw in injuries (David Pollack) and simply poor evaluations (Eric Ghiaciuc) and that's the kind of personnel loss that will cripple a football team.
It did cripple the Bengals. They won the division in 2005, but wouldn't return to the playoffs until 2009.
The Bengals are finally on the right track with their roster, They have solid starters and are building considerable depth. The chemistry, from all accounts is outstanding. The only thing that could derail them right now is either catastrophic injury (over which they have no control) or a return to high risk drafting. Marvin Lewis needs to play it safe. There's plenty of good talent out there that will actually see the field. No need to risk the team's future on players like Jenkins who might self-destruct.
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