A question of character

Editor's Note: This story appears in the Jan. 1 edition of ESPN The Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marvin Lewis stood in a dank cement corridor beneath the stands of Paul Brown Stadium, the sides of which were lined with large, black, plastic rodent traps. It was late September, and if ever there was a time for contrition, this was it.

On Sept. 20, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had visited the Bengals and spoken about the responsibility of being professional football players. Five days later, just hours after Cincinnati improved to 3-0 with a 28-20 win in Pittsburgh, the team's leading tackler last season, linebacker Odell Thurman, was arrested by Cincinnati police for DUI. This was Thurman's third violation of the league's substance-abuse policy and it would result in a yearlong suspension. As if that weren't bad enough, Bengals wideout Chris Henry had been seen vomiting out the side window of Thurman's SUV. Henry, meanwhile, was just two weeks removed from pleading guilty to a gun charge in Florida. In January 2006, while in Orlando, police there say, he stepped from a limo wearing his own black-and-orange Bengals replica jersey and pointed a 9mm Luger into a crowd.

Yet when asked that cold and rainy September day how these off-field issues might be affecting the Bengals' performance, Lewis threw up his hands in frustration and began to stomp away. At the door of his team's locker room, he stopped and pointed inside. "It has not made one bit of difference to them," Lewis said. "To the guys in there, the coverage is almost comical. The most important thing to me when you say the word character is the locker room. The problem is, there's no way for the outside world to evaluate the kind of character that's important to players."

He may have a point. The Bengals find themselves atop the AFC wild-card race while piling up wins and arrests, two categories normally considered mutually exclusive. In the past year, eight Cincinnati players have been arrested a total of 12 times. The Bengals' spree has been so pervasive that, after bumping off Baltimore 13-7 on Nov. 30, the last thing Lewis said to the team inside the locker room was, "Stay out of trouble, and be careful." Three days later, rookie wideout Reggie McNeal became No. 7 on the list when he was charged with resisting arrest in Houston after a disturbance outside a nightclub. A week after that, veteran cornerback Deltha O'Neal (No. 8) was charged with DUI. That prompted Goodell to invite himself into the situation again and to ask the Bengals if he could help.

At 8-5 heading into Monday night's game against the Colts, the Bengals are poised for a second straight postseason appearance. They're also threatening to obliterate what was thought to be a fundamental NFL truth: that moral fiber, at least as defined in conventional terms, relates to on-field success, and that there is no difference between the kind of character that matters to teams and the kind that matters to their fans. "This is where things get interesting," said Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker, before his team's Oct. 22 loss to Cincy. "In football, you need a mix. You can't win with 53 choirboys. This can be a grimy, nasty sport, and you need people who are a little grimy and nasty."

It's a dirty reality that teams like the Bengals and Chargers and Bears force us to acknowledge. That talent and power, not manners, win games. That football mirrors society, it doesn't transcend it. And that as much as we want to think of football as a secular form of religion, no one in this church -- not fans, owners or coaches -- values character more than conquest. If they did, the sign in the Bengals' locker room would read "Be a Super Good Person Today" instead of "Do Your Job."

"In the old days, you talked about character if a guy played hard, played hurt and was a tough-minded guy you could count on," says Bengals Pro Bowl tackle Willie Anderson, an 11-year veteran. "That's what character was. It's so different now."

Take Henry, for example. Outside Paul Brown Stadium, he has been nothing short of a basket case since Cincy drafted him out of West Virginia in the third round of the 2005 draft. In addition to the gun charge, he has also pleaded guilty to -- and was benched one game in December 2005 for -- marijuana possession, was arrested again in June for allegedly providing alcohol to three underage females in a hotel room (the trial is in January) and served a two-game suspension this season for violating the league's personal-conduct policy.

But inside the Bengals' locker room, Henry is regarded as a model teammate. And therein lies the difference between the kind of character that matters to teams and that which matters to fans. Henry's coaches and teammates say he shows up on time, pays attention in meetings and goes about his football business as quietly as a mouse. When he does speak, Henry addresses coaches with barely audible "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs." He works hard in practice, has played through injuries and has quickly developed into the Bengals' No. 3 receiver, with 29 catches for 451 yards (15.6 ypc) and 7 TDs, the same number as Chad Johnson. "These guys couldn't have been better," says Henry of his teammates' support. "They are all good at taking a young guy under their wing to help him learn."

Seen through the lens of the team, Henry's off-field behavior, as outlandish as it is, has not been anywhere nearly as disruptive as that of, say,
former Bengals bad boys Carl Pickens and Corey Dillon. In the late 1990s, Pickens became so surly and divisive that the Bengals used to insert a "loyalty clause" in team contracts that prohibited players from ripping the club in public. Dillon, meanwhile, forced his way out by heaving his shoulder pads into the Paul Brown stands and saying he'd rather "flip burgers" than play for the Bengals. "Bad character to a teammate is different from what bad character is to the outside world," says Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "All teammates think is, Can you help us win or not?"

That philosophy explains the vast difference in how Carson Palmer has reacted to Henry this season. After Henry caught the Bengals' first two scores in that September win at Pittsburgh, Palmer dismissively said of his teammate's off-field transgressions, "He's just a guy who's been in the wrong place at the wrong time a couple of times." Compare that to Palmer's explosive response when Henry gave up on a deep route during a Nov. 5 Cincy loss to Baltimore. The normally Cali-cool QB tracked down Henry and chewed his butt out with the whole world watching. The message was clear: I'm cool with your being at the wrong place at the wrong time, just not while running routes on Sunday.

If anything, "poor character" has actually helped Cincy. When Lewis took over in 2003, the Bengals had gone 12 straight seasons without a winning record. Three years later, they were AFC North champs. Lewis got them there in part by drafting and signing explosive, eye-popping, first-round-caliber talent for bargain-basement prices. Thurman was one of the top linebackers in the 2005 draft. But while at Georgia, he was kicked off the squad for one year for multiple infractions, and he admitted to testing positive for marijuana. That caused him to fall to Cincy in the second round, and he signed a five-year, $3.76 million deal. When he arrived, Thurman, whose mom died when he was 10 and his dad when he was 20, instantly saw Lewis as a father figure. He was inspired to finish with five picks and a team-high 148 tackles, making him a candidate for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. And he cost just a fraction of the price of the eventual winner, Shawne Merriman, a first-rounder with a five-year, $15.73 million deal and a $9 million bonus (and a four-game suspension this season for steroid use).

Lewis selected Henry in the third round. At 6-foot-4 with 4.42 speed, big hands and, for a big receiver, a unique ability to separate from defenders at the top of routes, Henry has physical gifts that put him in the Randy Moss stratosphere. But during his junior season in Morgantown, he was kicked out of one game for unsportsmanlike conduct and suspended for disciplinary reasons. As a result, the Bengals were the only team to bring Henry in for a visit. When he fell to the third round, Cincy snagged him with a five-year, $2.79M deal and an $865,000 bonus, a paltry sum for a productive player compared with, say, Atlanta's 2005 No. 1 pick, receiver Roddy White. He signed a five-year, $7.3M deal with a $4.47M bonus -- and has three career TDs.

"The Bengals organization can tell people, 'Don't do this, don't do that.' But they can't control everyone in that locker room."
Odell Thurman, suspended Bengals linebacker

Emboldened by his success, Lewis saw his honorable intention to act as a guide to young, directionless players morph into the classic case of a coach who believed he could change anyone. It began to get the better of him at the 2006 draft. With several equally talented defensive ends still on the board in the third round, Lewis selected USC's Frostee Rucker who had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment in 2002. In the fifth round, the Bengals took linebacker A.J. Nicholson, who was suspended from Florida State days before the Orange Bowl for alleged sexual misconduct in a hotel room (charges were never filed). What had been an anomaly in 2005 became a trend.

In June, Nicholson was charged with burglary, grand theft and vandalism for allegedly stealing $1,700 in electronics from the apartment of a former college teammate. That same month, Henry was arrested twice more: a DUI (that was dropped) and for allegedly giving alcohol to minors. Also, Rucker was charged with two counts of vandalism and two counts of spousal battery (from an incident in 2005). In July, before the Bengals opened training camp, Thurman was suspended for the first four games of the year for, he says, skipping a league-mandated drug test during the off-season. In August, guard Eric Steinbach was arrested for boating under the influence, and he accepted a diversion program for dropped charges. (Then in September came Thurman's arrest and yearlong suspension.)

Now, with Henry having missed two games because of his suspension and both Rucker and Nicholson inactive most of the season, public pressure has forced Lewis to admit that his strategy does have on-field consequences. It's a rare flip for a coach who has held tight to his message. "I've realized that you can't fix everybody," Lewis says now. "Some people, they just don't want to be fixed. It's a fact of life. Sooner or later, these guys filter themselves out of here." Or, as Thurman says with a conciliatory tone, "the Bengals organization can tell people, 'Don't do this, don't do that.' But they can't control everyone in that locker room."

That said, Lewis has been more understanding than even the most lenient player's coach, and he has struck a chord with his team. It's a dangerous high-wire act, but players say they feel obligated to give their all for a coach so willing to put himself on the line. Says defensive end Bryan Robinson: "It's one of the things we love about the guy." And they show it. At a time of year when momentum means everything and character teams like the Chiefs and Panthers are fading, Cincy is streaking.

It's an outlaw attitude often reflected in the music Chad Johnson plays inside the Bengals' locker room on Friday afternoons. On one of those Fridays early in the season, after ignoring a request from the defensive line for Ludacris' latest tune, Johnson chose a classic sample from Grandmaster Flash ("Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge") and followed that with Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl." When the thumping chorus of that song hit the overhead speakers, even Palmer couldn't help but bob his head and shout out the refrain that serves as the theme to the Bengals' bizarre season.
"This s--- is bananas," Palmer sang, "... b-a-n-a-n-a-s."

David Fleming is a senior writer covering the NFL for ESPN The Magazine.