Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals, was in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, visiting his granddaughter at Dartmouth College. They went out for dinner. Brown struck up a conversation with the owner of the restaurant.
Owner: "What do you for a living?''
Brown: "I'm involved with a football team in Cincinnati.''
Owner: "Which team is that?''
Brown: "The Bengals.''
Owner: "Oh, the team that's always in trouble.''
Yeah. That team. Miscreants, troublemakers, low-lifes. Wanton rippers of mattress tags. Abductors of Jimmy Hoffa. Hose yourself down after you watch them on TV.
Compared with the rest of the genteel NFL, the Bengals are barbarians at the gate. It's a wonder Roger Goodell hasn't put them on double-secret probation. "It lingers,'' says Brown of his team's rep.
Images die hard. Sometimes, they don't die at all. The Bengals spent the middle of the last decade collecting players who got finger printed a lot. They had 10 players arrested in a 14-month span, in 2006 and 2007. Their reputation as bottom-feeding bargain hunters was deserved.
That wasn't a lifetime ago. In the NFL, it was two lifetimes ago.
To single out any NFL team as being the best at trouble is like identifying the most heinous criminal on Death Row. There's enough lawlessness in The League for everyone.
And yet, as the Aaron Hernandez shocker played out, the Bengals assumed their place at the national whipping post. Last week, SI.com counted Twitter posts to see how often "teams appeared as the butt of Aaron Hernandez jokes during the first two hours after'' the Patriots had released him. The Bengals finished first.
On Monday, FoxSports.com did a story about teams that shied away from Hernandez on draft day. Headline: "Even The Bengals Avoided Hernandez.''
"We have established a reputation that isn't what it should be,'' said Brown. "People still think of us as a bunch of misbehavers.''
People are stupid. And we say that in the nicest of ways.
On the San Diego Union-Tribune website, there is a handy database of NFL players arrested since 2000. It's 45 pages and 664 names long. I didn't go through the whole list, but I did peruse the first four pages, covering the last 12 months.
It listed three Bengals: Police charged Andre Smith was with carrying a loaded firearm in an airport. Adam Jones was charged with assault charge stemming from an altercation outside a restaurant. Robert Sands was charged with domestic violence. Working in Cincinnati and following these three incidents, I will tell you this:
Smith was a knucklehead. Jones had been struck with a beer bottle before he fought back. The Bengals cut Sands two days after his arrest.
In the same 12 months, a Dallas Cowboy drove allegedly drunk, crashed and killed a teammate who was riding in the passenger seat. A Kansas City Chief killed his girlfriend and himself. Police arrested a Tampa Bay Buc for having a .40-caliber handgun in his luggage at an airport. Police charged a Minnesota Viking with resisting arrest, and a Denver Bronco with aggravated assault with a firearm.
Here's the dirty little secret about the Cincinnati Bengals:
They're kind of dull.
When HBO picked the Bengals to do Hard Knocks again this year, no one here could understand why. It's not as if Rex Ryan coaches here, or Chad Johnson plays here. The HBO boys will earn their money this summer, making drama out of this bunch. The core of the team -- quarterback Andy Dalton, wideout A.J. Green, tackle Andrew Whitworth, defensive tackle Geno Atkins and corner Leon Hall -- are agreeable and friendly, and willfully uninteresting. They say "Amen'' on Sunday mornings.
The Bengals take games one at a time. They wish for good success. They're not big on "distractions.'' They don't model handcuffs or pose for bad pictures, front and side views. If you cover them for a living, they can make you wish for the days of Chad and Chris Henry and Odell Thurman.
Brown admits to taking chances on players in the not-so-deep past. He once referred to himself as a "redeemer.''
"I don't apologize for trying to help people get their lives straight,'' he said. And the Bengals still take chances on players, same as every other team. Coach Marvin Lewis reached last year for linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who failed a drug test just before the 2012 draft. The Bengals signed him as free agent. Last fall, Burfict led the team in tackles and never saw his name anywhere but on a depth chart.
Brown says the Bengals have cut way back on their reaching. He's still adamant about helping players he believes need the help. But the notion of his team as halfway house is more than a little dated.
"We loosened up our standards and took guys who were really special players, who might have had issues off the field. I think over time we did enough of it, we got tarred,'' said Brown. "In recent years, we have gone back to our old standard (of) taking people we're secure about.''
In recent years, New England has loaded up on questionable characters, everyone from Randy Moss to Corey Dillon to Albert Haynesworth to Aaron Hernandez. Somehow, the funny people on Twitter and those writing lazy headlines haven't noticed.
Brown said a reason he agreed to a Hard Knocks sequel was that "people will see our players are good people.''
Perhaps. More likely, they'll stretch out on the La-Z-Boy and rest comfortably with their stereotypes. It's easier that way. No thought required.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist with The Cincinnati Inquirer.