Cedric Benson believes the Chicago Bears did all they could to prevent him from signing with another team.
Released in June 2008 after two alcohol-related arrests, Benson will come face to face with his former team when the Cincinnati Bengals host the Bears on Sunday. Although he insisted he’s not out for revenge and won’t try to send a message, Benson clearly has some bad feelings for the Bears.
“I heard all the rumors that were said coming out of Chicago,” Benson said. “Even the Bengals told me all the things, that they would call and inquire about me and get nothing but negative things. Just that I didn’t work hard, that I was I guess a prima donna or I didn’t work hard on the field, just wasn’t focused, just anything negative that they could say, it was said. I’m sure that contributed largely to me not getting picked up right away.”
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Bears coach Lovie Smith insisted, “He was not blackballed by anyone in our organization.”
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Smith even gave a good review of the running back, but Smith’s endorsement aside, Benson believes he had little support in Chicago. He wasn’t particularly popular with his teammates, either, and he believes the reason he remained unemployed until Cincinnati signed him on Sept. 30 last season was that alleged smear campaign by the Bears.
Now, he’s the league’s third-leading rusher, which is quite a turnaround for someone who fizzled in Chicago after being drafted fourth overall in 2005. Instead of taking his place alongside Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, Benson rubbed teammates the wrong way and never fit in with the Bears.
“Some questions that you all ask are very interesting because I don’t have the answers,” said Benson, who has 531 yards. “I think there was once upon a time where I would like to have known the answer. But now it kind of doesn’t really matter anymore. But I couldn’t pinpoint it. I remember there being a lot of talk about the holdout and things like that, but that’s quite ridiculous in this business because there are holdouts involved. It’s not just football, there’s the business of contracts involved. I’m sure there was once upon a time where many players on that team had a holdout or something along those lines.”
Benson was the last first-round pick to sign in 2005 after a standout career at Texas and missed training camp that year, setting a bad tone for his three seasons in Chicago. Complicating matters: incumbent Thomas Jones was a popular figure in the locker room and the two never really meshed.
He once told the Chicago Sun-Times that Jones, who eventually was traded to the Jets, punched him in the face during a practice drill, and Benson wondered why the Bears even drafted him.
“You know how in drafts teams always want you to agree to something before they pick you or they’re probably not going to go with you?” he asked. “There was a bit of that before I was picked. I never agreed to anything but still managed to get picked there.”
He said a “small group of people” in the organization believed in him, but most were against him. While Smith might have been in his corner, Benson said “no” after a lengthy pause when someone asked if the offensive coaches had his back.
The tension with Jones and issues with the coaches weren’t the only problems.
He annoyed teammates with blunt comments, was frequently injured and didn’t produce enough when healthy. The Bears were still reeling from Tank Johnson‘s numerous run-ins with the law when Benson got arrested twice in a month on alcohol charges in and near Austin, Texas. He eventually was cleared, but Chicago had already let him go.
“There were a few times where I was kind of down on myself,” Benson said. “But I knew that would get me nowhere. All I wanted to do from that point on was to move forward. So I accepted the situation and found a way to learn from it, found a way to be somewhat thankful that it happened, and move forward.”
In Cincinnati, playing alongside Carson Palmer and Chad Ochocinco, Benson seems to be a good fit. Palmer was skeptical at first, but now has him over for dinner.
“None of the stuff I read was true. I don’t know exactly what happened,” Palmer said.
Maybe Benson changed. Maybe the perception and reality didn’t quite mesh. Or maybe it just helped that he joined a team needing a running back.
“Dreams are coming true,” he said. “It’s a wonderful feeling and I will promise you that I will take full advantage of it all the time.”