CINCINNATI – By carrying the ball in the rain with his former Bengals teammates, running back Cedric Benson sent the front office another reminder that he wants to be the centerpiece of Cincinnati's all-new offense.
The free agent joined his former teammates for a voluntary workout Wednesday at the University of Cincinnati, acting much more like someone who's ready to lead rather than leave. Benson has topped the team in rushing each of the last three seasons, but didn't get a contract extension.
During the NFL's lockout, free agents can't negotiate or sign with teams. The 28-year-old running back from Texas not only wants to stay, but is ready to become one of the leaders in an offense undergoing dramatic change.
"I've been very passive the past three years, maybe just because I had to," said Benson, who revived his career in Cincinnati after tough times in Chicago. "I'm not saying I'm a totally different person or that I'd be crazy vocal or nothing like that, but I'd be a little more expressive on work ethic and passion for the game just because that's how I am."
The Bengals plummeted to 4-12 last season, when reality-show hosts Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco became the faces of an offense that had a lot of self-promotion but not nearly enough production. The defending AFC North champions put the focus on their look-at-me receivers, and ended up in last place.
The TOcho show has been canceled, and quarterback Carson Palmer — the face of the franchise since 2004 — isn't coming back. While the NFL and its players try to resolve their labor dispute, Benson is trying to remind the front office that he's ready for a much bigger part in a new-look offense.
"Cedric wants to be more than the guy who gets the ball in the backfield," quarterback Jordan Palmer said, after a morning workout in the rain. "He wants to be a leader. He wants to be the identity of the team and the franchise, and I'm all for that."
He attracted the attention of his former teammates by flying in from Texas to join them for several voluntary workouts.
"To have a guy like Cedric out here — unsigned, showing his leadership by being here — that's tremendous," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said.
Benson was the focal point of the offense when the Bengals won the division in 2009, then lost to the Jets in the first round of the playoffs. The Bengals decided to emphasize the passing game last season, a move that backfired. Benson thought it was a mistake to de-emphasize the running game.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski was fired after the season. Replacement Jay Gruden is bringing in an entirely new scheme, one that's more West Coast style. The Bengals drafted TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round as Carson Palmer's eventual replacement.
With the quarterback position in flux, the Bengals need a dependable running back to carry the load.
"You have an offensive coordinator who's coming in and saying that we're having a running identity," Jordan Palmer said. "And you have an uncertain quarterback situation, which is going to mean more carries. That's a green light for him. I know he wants to be here. He's close with these guys.
"I think he's one of the best running backs in the league and he's going to be primed to have the best year of his career. I want him here more than anybody."
Benson likes the changes so far.
"Change can be good," he said. "Considering the way things went a year ago, it's time for change. I think it's going to be a good look."