The widespread public perception of the Cincinnati Bengals franchise before its "Hard Knocks" appearance in 2009 was that of a laughingstock — or worse.
The Bengals were riddled with player arrests during the previous three years. Team management was regarded as inept.
The on-field results were just as ugly. The Bengals slid from being the 2005 AFC North champions to a 4-11-1 record in 2008.
From the outside, the environment was so dismal that it seemed Cincinnati was setting itself up for further embarrassment by agreeing to have every second of its 2009 training camp documented by "Hard Knocks" cameras. Instead, the Bengals received the type of positive image makeover that is usually scripted on other reality television shows.
Cincinnati’s coaching and personnel meetings were shown as being on par with those of the other teams previously featured on the HBO program. Bengals players responded by keeping their noses clean and enjoyed a spirited preseason. Cincinnati ultimately won the division and is now one of just seven teams to have reached the playoffs in three of the past four seasons.
Considering how positive the experience was, it makes sense that the Bengals were willing to return for the 2013 "Hard Knocks" season that will begin airing Aug. 6 on HBO.
“What we found when we did that show was people saw us differently,” Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown recently told FOX Sports in an exclusive interview. “They saw us more positively. They saw us as just people.
“We would like our new guys to be seen that way by Bengals fans and develop a bond with our players. That’s a good reason why we did this.”
Brown himself was the lightning rod for the heaviest pre-"Hard Knocks" criticism. As the Bengals experienced a 14-year streak without a winning record (1991 to 2004), Brown was bashed as miserly and overmatched when it came to the team’s personnel acquisitions. Even when the Bengals improved under head coach Marvin Lewis, Brown was still knocked for taking too many chances on players with character issues or off-field baggage.
Brown is personally unabashed by such chatter. But he does worry that a negative perception about the Bengals still exists to some extent despite the franchise placing a greater emphasis on drafting “sound” players rather than taking greater risks on talented-but-troubled prospects like in the past.
“We sometimes are portrayed as almost villainous,” Brown said. “The players are sometimes thought to be selfish or even criminal. I’m going to the far end of the spectrum there, but we get some very difficult criticism.
“I’d like to think we aren’t that way. It isn’t that we’re anything so special but we’re just ordinary folks if you will. If people would come and look, I think that’s what they would see. I think for the most part that’s what they did see. We surprised people a little bit.”
The Bengals were a surprise "Hard Knocks" choice since the franchise was featured only four years ago. HBO, which recently signed a multi-year extension with NFL Films to continue the series, declined to use clubs that were willing to appear but wouldn’t offer unfettered access to every aspect of their training camp. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to lean on those franchises so that "Hard Knocks" showcases different training camps in the future.
"Hard Knocks" already has started filming off-field vignettes featuring Bengals players. More footage will come after the Bengals open training camp Wednesday.
Responding to criticism that the Bengals aren’t a fresh team to feature, "Hard Knocks" executive producer Ross Ketover has pointed to the fact that “80 percent” of the team’s roster is different than in 2009. Some of Cincinnati’s top current players like wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were drafted since then.
“We have a new team really,” Brown said.
The Bengals, though, enter the 2013 campaign with the same old problem – a lack of postseason success. Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
Brown said he is proud of what the Bengals have accomplished during the regular season but admits the team’s lackluster performance in consecutive first-round losses to Houston the past two years was “a big disappointment.”
Brown believes that such an experience will help fuel the 2013 Bengals to greater heights.
“I like the fact that we bring our team back intact,” said Brown, whose team lost only a handful of players in free agency. “Our guys now have been through the wars. They’ve competed against the good teams. We haven’t won all the battles, but we know what it’s about now.
“It leaves us with a goal going forward. It’s not going to overwhelm us. We know it’s a big challenge just to get (to the playoffs). But our guys have in the back of their heads wanting to get there and do well once they get there. They’re primed. Whether that’s enough we’ll find out.”