By David Fleming
Page 2

Dead center on a pillar in the middle of Cincinnati's expansive locker room is an elaborate console that holds the room's stereo controls. It's a large black metal box, encased in tinted glass with several state-of-the-art components and a stack of controls that flash and flicker in red and green lights. It looks like something straight out of "Pimp My Locker Room." And what I've found is that most of the time, if you want to locate Chad Johnson or the pulse of the Bengals on any given day, this is the best place to find both.

Sure enough, during a recent trip to Cincinnati, Chad and I were chatting about a range of topics when I suddenly found myself in the middle of a full-fledged music, um, debate between Johnson and Bengals guard Bobbie Williams.

Williams, who goes about, oh, 6-foot-4 and three-and-a-half bills, was none too pleased with Chad's DJ-ing. Bobbie wanted to hear the new Ludacris single and when Chad said "thanks, but no thanks," without realizing it I had become the human buffer between a guy the size of a Mini Cooper and a dude sporting a "Taxi Driver" mohawk.

(Other sportswriters enjoy getting paid to watch football or wearing sweatpants to work. Me? I live for moments like this.)

The last time I heard someone question Chad's music selections inside the Bengals' very collegial locker room, it was place-kicker Shayne Graham. During a minicamp this past summer, Graham merely asked for an occasional country tune to be included in the mix. Oh boy. Chad told him if he wanted to hear country music his best bet would be to go out to the parking lot and lock himself in his car during lunch.

And although Williams weighs roughly 91,000 grams more than Graham, Chad treated him about the same.

"I don't think getting your [butt] kicked is the best way to prepare for Sunday," said Chad, in perfect jest.

"Man, that's some serious [cow manure]," replied Williams, taking his sweet time enunciating the final word in his syrupy baritone. "Play the song."

"Can't, I left it at home," chirped Chad, clearly fibbing. "Now sit down before you end up on injured reserve."

This is the Bengals in a nutshell, I thought.

Brash. Overconfident. Always entertaining. But so over-the-top, sometimes you can't really tell if they're serious or joking.

I would have can-opened my way out of this friendly exchange, but Chad and I had been engaged in a decent conversation about several topics, including a little secret of his. Apparently Marvin Lewis and I were the only ones who caught on to the motivation behind all of his outlandish trash-talking before the Patriots game. Chad, the sly dog, was trying to goad Bill Belichick into covering him one-on-one.

He knew coming in that strategically Belichick was going to go by the book: rush with three linemen and play tons of nickel defense which would put enough defensive backs on the field so that the Pats could double Chad or, at least, roll a safety to his side of the field on almost every down. So, Chad tried appealing to the genius's hearty ego as a defensive coordinator, trying to provoke him into single coverage.

When Lewis and Johnson heard Belichick had been bought into the trash talk, the two exchanged a wry, knowing smile. They had worked the same scam to perfection last year with Lovie Smith in Chicago -- the birthplace of Chad's (Ohio) Riverdance TD celebration.

Chad took tons of grief from the usual pear-shaped pale pundits for giving the Pats "bulletin board" material. But it wasn't for show or egomania. It wasn't out of boredom or pride or selfish motivation. Chad's yapping was strategic. And I thought it was brilliant, even if it didn't work. Because it somehow fits with what's going on in Cincinnati these days; it's a sign of how, on many levels, the scrappy, young and at times thoroughly confused Bengals will try just about anything to get to the next level.

Like Carson Palmer playing on a seemingly bionic knee. Like cool offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski flipping the switch on the no-huddle offense, sometimes running it as much as 75 percent of the game. Like T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Chad warming up before practice with a soccer ball. Like a defense trying to go an entire game without actually tackling anyone.

Like Marvin Lewis learning, finally, that sometimes taking shortcuts on guys with questionable character can come back to haunt you. (The joke e-mail making the rounds last week in town announced: Who Dey? Who Dey? Who dey think gonna arrest dem Bengals?)

Chad hit a few buttons on the complex monitor, turned a knob or two, slid a control over, flipped another switch and then we waited for his song selection (or the next Mars Rover) to launch. It was perfect. Stopped me dead in my tracks.

I mean, how better to sum up the first month of the NFL season in Cincinnati than Grandmaster Flash's "The Message":

"Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge, I'm tryin' not to lose my head. Ah huh huh huh huh. It's like a jungle sometimes, makes me wonder how I keep from going under."

Exactly. Right?

I mean, at first I worried about writing a column about a team on its bye week. But then I thought 1) Shoot, it couldn't go over any worse than the Ricky Bobby column and 2) With the Bengals' penchant for off-the-field problems -- you can almost recite this phrase from memory: since January, six Bengals have been arrested nine times -- this could be the most intense, important, nail-biting bye weekend in NFL history. Because, as one Bengal told me last week, "with us, it's always something."

Indeed, by the time I got to Cincinnati another player was already using Odell Thurman's locker. The second-year linebacker, who led the team in tackles as a rookie in 2005, is now serving a one-year suspension after being arrested for drunk driving Sept. 25. A month earlier Thurman, you might recall, gave his only interview of the season to the FlemFile: a passionate, verbose, first-person pledge to his fans and teammates that he had learned his lesson and his problems were behind him.

Now, sadly, they all remain ahead of him.

It would be easy and something of a cop-out to stop here and piously rip Odell and the troubled Chris Henry, as well as Lewis for making these guys Bengals and thumbing his nose at critics with some of his personnel decisions. But the truth is, after taking the time to speak to these guys you realize it's not quite that simple. Like the rest of us, they are neither all good nor all bad, but a combination of both, mixed in with a sometimes toxic combo of money, fame and youthful ignorance.

And until owners and fans begin to value character over results, until a coach can go 0-16 in the NFL and keep his job because he's got a roster full of good citizens and really friendly people, until I get old enough that I can't remember what an occasional supreme jackass I was at 23, until Bengals fans e-mail me and say they'd prefer a loss in Pittsburgh instead of a win on the strength of Henry's TDs, well, until then I'll refrain from lecturing the Bengals on their character issues.

Besides, the best time to measure character is when things are going bad.

Before the Pats game, Lewis washed his hands of Thurman and then he benched Henry, who reportedly yakked out a car window during the DUI arrest. Without a run-plugger in the middle and a deep threat on offense, the Bengals were blown off their home field by the milquetoast Pats.

Not that he'd ever admit it, of course, but just in talking to Lewis you get the feeling he has learned his lesson when it comes to guys with character issues. (And, trust me, he wouldn't be the first head coach whose god complex and ego -- I can fix that kid -- got the best of him.)

That said, this still remains a critical week for the Bengals, even without a game. First, knock on wood, but it would be nice if the Bengals could go 10 days without someone getting cuffed, arrested or violently ill out a car window. Second, they need to solidify that line in front of Palmer and fix a defense that holds up against the run like a sand castle against a wave. And the laid-back good guys in that locker room, the Carson Palmers, the Willie Andersons, the Brian Simmonses and the Rudi Johnsons, need to step up and take control of the team once and for all.

You saw a little bit of that after the loss to the Patriots. The embarrassing loss dropped the Bengals to 3-1. A great start, no doubt, to a season that will have many more peaks and valleys. But if felt like a bigger deal than just one loss.

It felt like, once again, the Bengals talked a good game but couldn't back it up on the field. That deep down inside maybe they still aren't convinced they belong with the NFL elite. (And until they fix that defense I'd say they're right.) That just like in the playoffs against Pittsburgh all you had to do was apply a little pressure and squeeze and the Bengals would freak.

That maybe they're all flash and no substance.

As the seconds ticked down Rudi sat on the Bengals' bench with his face in his hands. By the time he walked to the locker room his sadness and shock had turned to anger. Rudi's eyes were popping out of his head and his voice was loud enough for everyone inside the locker room to hear.

"We got our ass whipped," he growled. "Everybody needs to look in the mirror and see that we're not as good as we think we are. Something's gotta change." At that moment Rudi was the angriest 3-1 player I've ever seen, which, I think, bodes well for the Bengals.

And once again, out on the empty field the stadium speakers blasted a tune that perfectly captured the wild first month of Cincinnati's season.

The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony."

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter". His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com




David_Fleming
David
Fleming
FLEM FILE