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Bengals plagued by a rash of criminal behavior

CINCINNATI -- President Bush swooped through here last Monday afternoon, campaigning for a Republican senator, but when Cincinnati Enquirer subscribers opened their newspaper the following morning, there was only a small, cropped photo of the chief executive on the right side of the front page, below the fold.

There was, however, a much larger picture of Marvin Lewis, the coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. Above the fold.

Atop the photograph of a clearly agitated Lewis, the team's fourth-year head coach, was a headline that read, ``I am not pleased." Atop that headline were three smaller photos -- marginally smaller than the one of Bush -- which were from a police video. The photos detailed, sequentially, linebacker Odell Thurman being stopped by police at a sobriety checkpoint, trying to walk a straight line, and then in the back seat of a cruiser.

Thurman was charged with driving while intoxicated. His breathalyzer reading was twice the legal limit. Amazingly, he was already serving a four-game suspension for a second violation of the league's substance abuse program and had yet to play a down this season. This latest incident prompted the league Wednesday to extend the suspension for the rest of the season.

While Lewis tried to downplay Thurman's loss -- ``We have put this football team together without Odell Thurman for a long time" -- Thurman wasn't exactly a clipboard-carrying wallflower last season. He led the Bengals in tackles (46 more than the No. 2 guy) and basically defined the term ``impact rookie."

Now, sadly, he defines something quite different for the Bengals. If you type ``Cincinnati Bengals arrests" into Google, the search engine returns 226,000 entries. One of them might as well be the home page of the Ohio Department of Corrections since Thurman is merely one of six Bengals who have been arrested in 2006.

Wide receiver Chris Henry has been arrested four times since December and, in yet another moment of either bad timing or an incredible lack of judgment, was a passenger in the car that Thurman was driving. Thurman subsequently told police he was the least inebriated of the three in the car; the third occupant was, yup, another Bengal -- Reggie McNeal, a rookie wide receiver who has yet to play this season.

Among Henry's lengthy list of misdeeds are carrying a concealed firearm and driving while under the influence. He has to blow into a breathalyzer to start his car.

Nothing happened to Henry after this latest episode, although one of the Enquirer's sports columnists suggested that Lewis deactivate the undeniably gifted receiver for Sunday's game against the Patriots. Lewis has given no indication he is considering such an action. Henry had a big game last Sunday against the Steelers (5 catches, 69 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Bengals motormouth wideout Chad Johnson stuck up for Henry this week in a conference call, saying, ``I have Chris under my wing. Chris is going to be fine. He is a great addition to this ball club. He is what I call a Randy Moss threat. Maybe some people might not see it that way. I call him my Randy Moss threat."

Henry and Thurman are only the most notorious of the troubled Bengals. Two rookies, third-round pick Frostee Rucker and fifth-rounder A.J. Nicholson, were arrested in June and May, respectively, on charges ranging from vandalism to spousal abuse. They have been inactive for all three games, and Rucker was placed on injured reserve Wednesday with a shoulder injury. Veteran guard Eric Steinbach, a starter, was arrested in August for driving a boat while intoxicated. The sixth miscreant, defensive tackle Matthias Askew, was waived after his July arrest for resisting arrest and parking violations.

Focused approach
Somehow, despite all the obvious distractions, which include the obligatory, if annoying, queries from reporters, the Bengals claim to be unfazed by their small cabal of evildoers. This isn't the NBA, where there are no more than 15 players and a few bad apples can, indeed, spoil the whole bunch. The Bengals still have mostly guys who play football and stay out of trouble, something that is noted on almost a daily basis.

``You feel bad for what happened and everything," said veteran defensive end Bryan Robinson. ``This is a team with a strong group of veteran guys who has its eye on the prize, and that is to be playing in Miami at the end of the year [in the Super Bowl]. We're not going to let anything affect that, because we're professionals. We have guys on this team that stand for that and guys rally around them. We'll be fine."

Agreed Lewis, ``We'll just move on. It's unfortunate, but as I've told these guys from the start, whatever happens on the periphery with some of these guys, it isn't going to affect our football team."

To date, it hasn't. The Bengals are 3-0, including last Sunday's 28-20 comeback win at Pittsburgh over the defending Super Bowl champions. Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer has made an extraordinary recovery from last winter's brutal knee injury, one described more than once as ``career-threatening."

Palmer is a terrific story, an accomplished quarterback who led the NFL in touchdown passes (32) and completion percentage (67.8) last season. His quarterback rating of 101.1 was second in the NFL. Had he not gone down so early in the Bengals-Steelers playoff game Jan. 8 -- he was hurt on the second snap of the game completing a 66-yard pass to Henry -- who knows what would have happened?

By all accounts, Palmer seems to have made a remarkable and complete recovery. He is loath to talk about his injury -- ``the knee is a nonissue" -- and he isn't especially keen on the subject of his wayward teammates. But he insisted this week the Bengals are on task and have the necessary group of veterans and leaders to make sure things stay that way.

``This isn't a team issue," Palmer said. ``It's not something that's happening with the majority of our team. We've had a couple guys who've had one or two or more run-ins with the law. It's not something that affects the entire team in that way. A couple guys have made a couple of mistakes and they've been talked to and dealt with by some of the veterans. You don't worry about it. You worry about yourself and doing your job. If someone else is affecting your job, something needs to be said. But I don't see this being a problem for this team."

Receiving advice
Cincinnati's active and accomplished group of wide receivers, of whom Henry is one, is yet another point of pride for the Bengals and their followers, who will fill Paul Brown Stadium to the max Sunday afternoon. Johnson has been to the last three Pro Bowls and led the AFC last season in receptions and receiving yards. T.J. Houshmandzadeh made his 2006 debut last Sunday after missing two games with an injury and had nine receptions for 94 yards and a touchdown, good enough to earn AFC Offensive Player of the Week honors.

``Adversity? There's no adversity around here. There's nothing going on right now," Houshmandzadeh said. ``We're winning."

But, of course, there is a lot going on, some of which the Bengals players would prefer not to discuss. You can't blame them. They are football players, not social commentators. Ask Houshmandzadeh about the Patriots and he beams, saying, ``There we go. There we go." Ask him about the troubled Henry and what he thinks should be done, and Houshmandzadeh is not nearly so excited to talk.

``It's the choices you make. You live with them," Houshmandzadeh said. ``Hopefully, you make good ones. But you can't hold somebody's hand every day."

Echoing that sentiment is longtime defensive tackle John Thornton. He is one of the go-to guys in the Cincinnati locker room, appreciated for his availability, his accommodating nature, and his expertise borne from seven years in the NFL.

``You don't worry about contracts, you don't worry about what guys do off the field," Thornton said. ``You just try to take care of your own business and make sure you're accountable. As a person, that's how we deal with it. I'm not worried about the young guys. You're supposed to know what to do. I have a family at home. We don't have time to baby-sit anybody."

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