Home > NFL > Cedric Benson’s Hot Start Isn’t All that Surprising

Cedric Benson’s Hot Start Isn’t All that Surprising

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As a team, the Cincinnati Bengals have been quite the pleasant surprise.  When I predicted that the AFC North would be the strongest division in football, I was not thinking that the Browns would compete for the title of worst team in football.  But with the Bengals and Ravens off to strong starts, it’s the Pittsburgh Steelers who find themselves in third place at an unimpressive 1-2.  Somehow, I think that team will be alright.

The Bengals, on the other hand, needed this 2-1 start–at the very least–to be considered a legitimate playoff contender.  They’ve done it behind strong defense and clutch offense.  But the source of the clutch hasn’t come from QB Carson Palmer as much as it has come from embattled RB Cedric Benson.

Prior to being taken by the Chicago Bears with the 4th overall pick of the 2005 NFL draft, Benson was a record-setting runner at the University of Texas.  He held out from the Bears into the season, which made his 2005 season a wash.  But he was a major player en route to the NFC Championship season the Bears had in 2006.  During that year, Benson posted a 4.1 YPC average in 157 carries and scored 6 touchdowns.  The Bears felt confident enough in Benson to trade Thomas Jones to the Jets for the equivalent value of a third round pick.  After an incredibly disappointing third season in Chicago behind an incredibly disappointing offensive line, Benson ran into trouble with the law twice in three weeks in his home state of Texas (he was never indicted of anything), and the Bears released him.

Benson was an easy poster child for a team that values high-character like the Bears, but since Benson never violated any of the NFL’s conduct policies, it’s reasonable to assume that what caused his release in Chicago was a blend of poor performance and public relations concerns.

Of course, what the Bears failed to realize was that Benson’s failed campaign in 2007 as the starter said no more about him than the 2006 breakout season did.  Benson was far from the biggest issue with the Bears in 2007, as a benched Rex Grossman yielded playing time to Brian Griese and later, Kyle Orton.  The offensive line was horrendous.  From all the starting lineman on that team, only Center Olin Kreutz and Guard Roberto Garza are still in the league.  The offense featured no creativity as Mushin Muhammad had his worst season as a pro, Greg Olsen was just a rookie trying to learn the ways of the NFL, and the only above average player on the offense (excluding Benson) was WR Bernard Berrian.

So when the Bengals gave Benson a second chance after Chris Perry did everything to show that he could not cut it as an NFL back, Benson hit the ground running.  Sort of.  His conventional statistics don’t look any better in 2008 than he did in the 2007 season that ultimately got him released.  But he provided an instant shot in the arm for a punchless offense, and emerged as the most dynamic weapon on a team with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad OchoJohnson.  So, you could say that this year, the production is simply catching up to him with an improved supporting cast.

In three games, Benson has 293 yards on 66 carries (4.4 YPC), 2 TDs, and he’s also on pace to set a career high in receptions and receiving yards.  He’s done it against the Broncos, Packers, and Steelers as well, and the way the Broncos have started, none of those teams are poor defensively.

So what’s the end-game?  Even with Carson Palmer struggling to produce consistently at the beginning of the season, the Bengals have ridden Benson to a 2-1 start with victories over two quality teams.  It shows that great players can be found on the scrap heap, if you follow them.  Teams who are struggling to run the ball should be asking themselves, is there another Cedric Benson out there?

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