Philadelphia, PA -- Given their recent history of off-the-field problems, it's tempting to quip that the Cincinnati Bengals' signing of Terrell Owens is an attempt to improve the team's character.
It's natural to laugh at an organization where the imbalanced patients have run the asylum for so long, and where the man who made the Owens signing, longtime team president Mike Brown, has often seemed to be constructed with a couple fewer screws that his contemporaries around the league.
The marriage between Cincinnati and the radioactive Owens, hot on the heels of the offseason signings of Matt Jones and Pacman Jones, is more grist for the mill of those who would argue that the Bengals don't get it, and don't understand that character and chemistry are important components in the effort to win championships.
I say hogwash. Every successful NFL franchise takes chances, and if the Bengals wish to post back-to-back playoff berths for the first time since 1981-82, they know they had better do the same.
There were 12 playoff teams in 2009, and the Bengals were the 12th-best among them by the time the postseason actually hit. They peaked in Weeks 9-10, completing sweeps of the Ravens and Steelers and holding on for dear life thereafter. Cincinnati went 3-5 in its final eight games - the wins coming over the Browns, Lions, and Chiefs - and was outclassed by the Jets in the first round of the postseason.
Playing the same hand was not going to result in a royal flush, and Brown and head coach Marvin Lewis knew it. So, an offense that was 26th in passing in '09 sought to re-invent itself as an aerial team, with nearly every offseason move made on that side of the ball indicating that Carson Palmer will be winging it quite a bit this season.
Cincinnati signed Antonio Bryant and Matt Jones off the free agent wire, used a first-round draft pick on Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma), the top tight end in the draft, and followed up two rounds later by selecting Texas star Jordan Shipley (3rd Round, Texas). Though the offensive line remains something of a question mark after struggling to protect the plodding Palmer at times in 2009, there is hope that last year's lottery pick, tackle Andre Smith, will get in shape and be a major difference-maker up front.
In a division where the Steelers are never down long, the Ravens made similar aggressive moves (Anquan Boldin, Donte' Stallworth) with an eye on contending for a Super Bowl, and the Browns appear ready to get off the mat, Cincinnati has done exactly what was prudent for its survival.
The move to sign Owens, however controversial, was of a piece with the design of the larger blueprint. From a football standpoint, the Bengals are insulating themselves from the distinct possibility that Bryant, who has really only had one great season since entering the league in 2002, won't be sufficiently recovered from offseason knee surgery. They can hardly count on the troubled Matt Jones, who isn't even a cinch to make the team, and younger players like Andre Caldwell, Jerome Simpson, and Shipley aren't going to scare opposing defensive coordinators the way Owens will.
Though the popular sentiment is that the 36-year-old Owens is in decline, it's important to note that he's only two years removed from a 1,000-yard, 10- touchdown season with the Cowboys. Last year in Buffalo, where the Bills had major quarterback problems and an offensive line that couldn't even enable the receivers to get out of their breaks, Owens still had 829 yards and scored six touchdowns. The guy keeps his body fine-tuned and will work hard, that much is a given.
Of course, we all know that work habits and the attention the six-time Pro Bowler commands on the field have never been the prevailing issues. What everyone wants to know is how such a hyper-sensitive narcissist is going to co- exist with his long-lost emotional twin, Chad Ochocinco, how Owens is going to react toward Palmer or offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski when he doesn't get enough touches in a given game, and how he'll handle a losing streak should one arise.
Given that Owens is a future Hall of Famer who is nonetheless playing for his fifth team in the past eight years, you can pretty much set your watch for the headline-grabbing sound byte or sideline tantrum to come. With the one-year deal they gave him, the Bengals are gambling that he'll keep the antics to a level that will enable him to return in 2011.
In light of his history, we know that the odds of things working out between Owens and the Bengals long-term are prohibitive. But in light of the checkered history of the Cincinnati Bengals, sitting on the platform and watching the train roll by isn't any more attractive an option.