“Hard Knocks” came to Cincinnati Bengals training camp one year too early.
As much fun as the New York Jets circus should provide this preseason, the Bengals have become the NFL equivalent of Jim Rose and his traveling pack of carnival freaks.
Terrell Owens. Chad Ochocinco. Pacman Jones. Matt Jones. Cedric Benson. Rey Maualuga — all under the same big top.
The only sideshows missing are flaming-sword swallowers and carnies hanging weights from their genitalia.
Not even Vince McMahon could assemble such a collection of cartoon characters for our amusement — and his World Wrestling Entertainment product is scripted. The 2010 Bengals are an HBO marketing dream: a combination of football and “Oz.”
The “spin the wheel, take your chances” mantra long followed by Bengals owner/general manager Mike Brown was given a whirl once again with Tuesday’s addition of Owens. Concerns at the wide receiver position prompted Brown to take the plunge that 31 other teams were unwilling to make.
Ochocinco has compared his pairing with Owens to Batman and Robin on his Twitter account. “Dumb and Dumber” is a better fit.
The Owens signing reinforces the apathy that Cincinnati’s front office has toward locker-room chemistry. For most clubs, one prima donna wide receiver like Ochocinco is more than enough to handle. The sideline chirping that could develop if Ochocinco and Owens aren’t sufficiently fed the ball has the potential to make quarterback Carson Palmer’s head explode, let alone cause internal disharmony.
So why take that chance?
A Bengals offense that thrives in three-receiver sets got desperate because of personnel gaffes. The once-formidable trio of Ochocinco, T.J. Houshmandzadeh (now in Seattle) and the late Chris Henry is down to one member. The Bengals whiffed on high-priced free-agent addition Laveranues Coles last year and with 2008 second-round pick Jerome Simpson. Antonio Bryant, who signed a four-year, $28 million contract during the offseason, has a bum knee. Andre Caldwell and rookie Jordan Shipley haven’t impressed enough despite being drafted in the third round. Matt Jones, a drug-addled washout in Jacksonville, will be lucky to make the roster.
The Bengals also were unwilling to wait deeper into the year to see what wideouts could emerge as trade possibilities, a la Chris Chambers, Roy Williams and Braylon Edwards in recent seasons.
So hello, T.O.
Curiously, he fits the profile of everything Brown has always stood against internally when it comes to free-agent signings. Owens is old by NFL standards (36) and a declining player based upon last year’s forgettable season in Buffalo.
As for the disruptive reputation of a player like Owens, it has never discouraged the Bengals from signing someone before. Gambles on troubled college and veteran players like Benson, Henry and running back Corey Dillon have sometimes paid big dividends. But the lack of attention to personal character often has caused more harm than good from a team-building standpoint. It also has placed even more pressure on Coach Marvin Lewis to keep the inmates from torching the asylum.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that Lewis, who yearns for more say in personnel moves, has yet to sign an extension entering the final year of his contract.
Besides being a huge fan of Brown personally — he is one of the nicest and most sincere people I have ever met in or out of football — I’m halfway willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Cincinnati has won as many division titles in the past five seasons as Pittsburgh. The Bengals have assembled a potentially dominating young defense. They’ve made some nice offseason upgrades. The fact Brown splurged on a one-year, $2 million contract for Owens with $2 million more available through incentives is a reminder that the Bengals aren’t as thrifty as perceived. In a season without a salary cap, Owens also could get cut with no long-term financial ramifications if things get ugly.
The best-case scenario: T.O. keeps his yap shut like last year in Buffalo, truly sheds the image of being a team cancer and rebounds with the 10th 1,000-yard receiving season of his 15-year NFL career.
The worst case: A T.O.-Ochocinco schism develops as the offense sputters. That isn’t a far-fetched scenario considering their egos and how badly Palmer struggled at the end of last season. An NFL general manager told me that Palmer’s late-season problems last year may not stem from his mended throwing arm but rather a lack of leg strength — the kiss of death for a quarterback.
Regardless, this group of outcasts has the potential to provide enough material for another “Longest Yard” remake. But remember this: The last time a franchise with so many misfits won a Super Bowl title was Oakland during the 1980s. And while today’s Raiders could use a veteran presence at wide receiver, even Al Davis passed on Owens.