CINCINNATI -- Cedric Benson isn't running in place anymore.
Nine months ago, the running back with seemingly unlimited potential was out of football, undone by his poor choices off the field. Two alcohol-related arrests prompted the Chicago Bears to waive their former first-round draft pick.
The only team that wanted him was one with a history of taking chances on troubled players, risks that often caused it grief and regret.
Not this time.
The Cincinnati Bengals gave Benson a two-year contract Tuesday to become the cornerstone of their rebuilt offense. NFL Network's Adam Schefter reports the deal is worth $7 million.
Instead of leaving as a free agent, Benson decided to stick with the team that offered him another chance last September when he was at a low point.
"Just the fact that they gave me the chance when nobody did," Benson said Wednesday. "I was at home. I was watching football. There was a lot of negative talk out there surrounding me, not only as a player but my character off the field as well.
"I'm sure maybe they second-guessed the thought at times, but they followed through with it."
The Bengals have a history of giving second chances -- and third and fourth chances -- to players who get into trouble. Linebacker Odell Thurman and wide receiver Chris Henry were the most high-profile examples, piling up arrests and suspensions.
Cincinnati's latest gamble had more to do with desperation. When the Bengals got down to one healthy running back last September, they decided to sign Benson, who had those two criminal cases dropped when grand juries declined to indict earlier in the month.
Benson was cleared on the legal front, but could he gain yards and stay out of trouble in Cincinnati? The Bengals' uncertainty was reflected in the contract they offered -- one season.
Benson quickly put them at ease. He and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh were the only bright spots in an offense that finished last in the NFL, done in by a crumbling offensive line and quarterback Carson Palmer's elbow injury.
"To his credit, he stayed late, he came early and really worked very, very hard at it," Lewis said Wednesday. "I think that impressed all of our players -- his work ethic and how he went about his task as a pro."
Benson started the last 10 games and finished with a career-high 747 rushing yards. He had three 100-yard games, including a career-high 171 yards at Cleveland in the second-to-last game. He finished the season with 111 yards in a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bengals won their last three games against reeling teams to finish 4-11-1. It's difficult to draw many conclusions from wins over Washington, Cleveland and Kansas City, none of which put up much resistance. But the Bengals concluded that Benson was their guy.
Benson wanted to see what offers awaited elsewhere after the season. He visited Houston on Monday, enticed by the thought of playing in his home state. But the Texans don't need a starting running back -- Steve Slaton ran for 1,282 yards last season -- so Benson would have to be a backup.
One day later, he decided to stay in Cincinnati.
"Not only was it for me personally a redeeming season, but I think as well as for the team, how we turned it around there toward the end of the season," Benson said. "We were able to redeem ourselves."
Maybe not quite. The strong finish couldn't disguise a season that reminded everyone the franchise hasn't changed substantially over the past 18 years. Cincinnati has only one winning record over that span, one of the worst stretches of misery in NFL history.
Until the last two days, the offseason hadn't gone very well, either. Starting right tackle Stacy Andrews left for the Philadelphia Eagles, and Houshmandzadeh -- their top wide receiver each of the last two seasons -- signed with the Seattle Seahawks, saying the Bengals didn't make a sincere attempt to keep him.
The Bengals replaced Houshmandzadeh on Wednesday by signing wide receiver Laveranues Coles, an unrestricted free agent who caught 70 passes for the New York Jets last season. Cincinnati drafted wide receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell in the first three rounds last April, giving them options in case Houshmandzadeh left.
"We really addressed those voids last year through the draft," Lewis said, while details were being worked out on Coles' deal. "We're working very diligently to maybe upgrade us a little bit in some areas, too. Hopefully here soon, that will be done."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press