Commentary

Benson drama opens door for Palmer

Running back's recent troubles should prompt Cincinnati to make QB its centerpiece

Originally Published: July 1, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Figuring out the consequences of Cedric Benson's arrest for allegedly punching an employee of an Austin, Texas, bar is a little tricky because of his two previous incidents involving alcohol.

The circumstances fall somewhere between Vince Young's recent altercation in a Dallas strip club -- which shouldn't result in a suspension -- and Michael Vick's 30th birthday party, during which there was a shooting and Vick told police he left the party much earlier than video tapes show. Vick isn't a suspect in the shooting, but he faces a parole violation and possible NFL suspension if he associated with the victim, who was part of his dogfighting ring.

[+] EnlargeCedric Benson
Frank Victores/US PresswireCedric Benson has been a workhouse back for the Bengals. Will the wear and tear of his running style and his legal issues slow him down?
Benson may be able to get away without a suspension, although there are multiple complications. Young was caught on tape and handled the issue by being open with police and apologizing to his team, and he legally received nothing more than a traffic ticket. What makes life tougher for Benson was that he let the assault investigation stay quiet for a month until he was booked. Plus, he had two previous alcohol arrests, which puts him in front of commissioner Roger Goodell for player conduct because this is his third legal incident since 2008.

Having attended the Bengals' recent minicamp, the feeling about Benson before this story came out was a good one, and I don't think this alleged assault will change it much. Benson totally resurrected his NFL career after being cast away by the Chicago Bears, who made him the fourth pick in the 2005 draft. He never fit in as a Bear, as they were a zone-blocking team that wanted one-cut quickness out of their lead back.

Benson is a marathon runner who does his best work with straight-ahead carries that wear down defenders. He became the perfect Bengal because they wanted that type of workhorse. Marvin Lewis was an assistant on the Ravens team that won Super Bowl XXXV with the run. In his 13 games last year, Benson averaged 23.15 carries a game, making him a dinosaur in this league. Only four backs averaged 20 or more carries per game in 2009.

Because he knows Cincinnati is his last chance in the NFL, Benson is willing to sacrifice his body for his team even if it shortens his career. That type of devotion has the Bengals willing to talk to him about a contract extension that could more than double his $2.65 million salary. He's a free agent after the season and reaches the dangerous age of 28 in December.

Benson's arrest should serve as a warning to the organization that it needs to be less dependent on Benson and more dependent on Carson Palmer, their franchise quarterback. Benson was a lucky bonus. Palmer has been the rock of the franchise since he was the first pick in the 2004 draft. As Palmer goes, so go the Bengals.

It serves the Bengals better if Palmer can return to the 4,000-yard-plus quarterback he was in 2006 and 2007. It's a quarterback-driven league and Palmer is an elite signal-caller who can battle successfully against other top QBs. His injury problems are also behind him. He bounced back from knee reconstruction surgery and recovered from a potential Tommy John elbow problem without needing an operation.

The feeling you get in the Bengals' locker room, though, is that the offense would rather pound Benson more than unleash Palmer. That's partly due to the fact they have a defensive-minded head coach. The Bengals won the AFC North last season by taking the air out of the football and saving Palmer's arm to win the close games in the fourth quarter.

While it's hard to argue with success, this recent Benson incident should serve as a wake-up for the Bengals' organization. Benson is a luxury. Each week that the coaching staff has him on the active roster it should consider itself lucky. But to put the onus of the offense on him for 16 games is dangerous.

Benson's hard-running style may not allow him to be a 16-game running back. He started 13 last season and 10 in his initial season with the Bengals in 2008. When he missed two games in November because of injury, the Bengals lost to the Oakland Raiders 20-17 and squeaked out a 16-7 win over the Cleveland Browns. There is no Benson behind Benson. Without him, the Bengals' running attack limps.

That's why Palmer needs to be the rock of this offense. Seeing the passing weapons he has this year compared to last season, the Bengals could easily go into a spread-passing set, work no-huddle and pass for 250 to 300 yards per game. If his knee is right, Antonio Bryant will be a significant upgrade from Laveranues Coles, who offered no speed on the opposite side of Chad Ochocinco. Between Andre Caldwell and Jordan Shipley, the Bengals may not have the ultimate slot replacement for T.J. Houshmandzadeh, but they could be close. Tight end Jermaine Gresham gives them an athletic, pass-catching tight end this franchise hasn't had in decades.

The Bengals left the offseason program feeling the offense will feature Benson's legs more than Palmer's arm. Benson's fist might not change that, but it's something Lewis needs to consider as his team prepares to face one of the league's toughest schedules.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer