CINCINNATI -- A happy and indefinable alchemy has pushed the Cincinnati Bengals to four wins in five games. That's how they see it, anyway. "Talent is overrated'' the players tell their coach. Maybe so.
Pro football players don't dwell on feelings, because pro football is a business. Emotion, though -- emotion is different. It can last a play or a quarter or until something goes wrong. Or maybe, it can last longer than that. The Bengals have won three games in the last minute, seemingly on faith.
"We all just believe more in each other,'' kicker Shayne Graham decided. "It's a sense of pulling for the guy beside you. I don't know why, exactly.''
On a rainy Tuesday morning, five days after Vikki Zimmer died, the entire team arrived by bus at Holy Cross-Immaculata, a 150-year-old Catholic church atop a hill, with a postcard view of downtown Cincinnati. On Sunday, they had paid tribute to Vikki's husband, Mike, their defensive coordinator, with a brute-iful performance in Baltimore, against the Ravens. Now, on this hill with a view of Paul Brown Stadium, they'd do the same for her. It's what families do. The sad irony of Vikki's passing was that it made Shayne Graham's point.
"Tragic but uplifting'' was safety Chris Crocker's assessment.
They wanted to do right by Zim, a tough, tart guy who tells his players they stink. He reminds them nobody wanted them. Then he picks them up, dusts them off and tells them he wouldn't want anybody else. "Hard on us, man,'' Crocker said. "Cusses us out. But always lets us know what we mean to him.''
All summer, Zimmer told his players they were rejects and second-chancers. That was partly true: Desperate for linebackers two years ago, the Bengals signed Dhani Jones off the beach in San Diego, where he was living and surfing. Zimmer lobbied the team to bring in Crocker, a safety who'd been released three times. Rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga slipped from the first round of the draft last spring to Round 2, for supposed character issues. No team was assigning a limo earlier this year to pick up free agents Roy Williams and Tank Johnson.
A player can take that one of two ways: Stuff his head into his shell, or come out swinging. Those boulders on Crocker's shoulders? Rocks for a slingshot.
Last Sunday, the Bengals defense dominated a Baltimore offense that had been the talk of the league. The Ravens averaged 413 yards in their first four games; they had 257 Sunday. Other than rookie Ray Rice's 48-yard catch-and-run TD, the Bengals shut them down completely. Derrick Mason, the Ravens' best receiver, came in averaging 15 yards on 18 catches. He caught as many balls as I did. Incredibly, he had just one thrown to him. It was a dominant performance by Zimmer's crew. And totally a tribute to him
For two days last week, Zimmer's players had hugged their coach, dipped into his well of grief. Then on Sunday, they paid their respects the best way they knew. Zimmer's extended family, the players nobody wanted, wanted him. They protected him from hurt for three hours.
Vikki leavened her husband's personality. She was the den mother of the defense, baking "victory'' brownies and offering encouragement that her husband unfailingly passed along. Said coach Marvin Lewis, "I'll remember her passion for being here, and just how thoughtful she was. I think that's what we'll all remember about her.''
Roy Williams simply called her "a saint.''
And the brownies? "Fudge, I think,'' Dhani Jones said.
When did you have them, someone asked.
"Whenever Zim decided we deserved it.''
Jones arrived at Vikki Zimmer's Mass wearing a bow tie and a bowed head. "It was a time to reflect on life and the blessings given to you by those around you'' he said.
Long the pooch of the NFL, Cincinnati has found something. Said Graham, "These close games have pulled us together. It's better than if we're winning by 20 every week.'' When you're winning on a tightrope, every footstep matters. Each close win builds upon the next and before long, a feeling happens.
Carson Palmer has become King of Late Game. But not without running back Brian Leonard, another castoff, who made a fourth-down catch that kept alive a last-minute, game-winning drive against Pittsburgh. Not without Andre Caldwell, an overachieving wide receiver who caught the game-winning pass in Baltimore. Not without Cedric Benson, who's now Rudi Johnson with a burst. Not without Chad Eight-Five, who's up to his old tricks. And maybe, not without the spirit of Vikki Zimmer. You can't prove the power of faith. You just roll with it.
"Every time something tragic happens to your team or people you associate with, you pull together or you fragment,'' said Jones. "We're not a team of fragmenters.''
The Bengals are testing NFL theories, clichés really, about the mysteries of team chemistry and its part in winning games. It could be as simple as a resurgent Palmer, playing confidently, or a defense making up for perceived slights. Or, you know, it could be the brownies. At the moment, the Bengals dwell in the land of Anything's Possible. Who's to say it's not?