CINCINNATI -- We're all guilty of it. When we see Bengals, we think "Bungles."
We see a team that will somehow find a way to lose, that is a perpetual accident waiting to happen, that just doesn't quite have what it takes to consistently compete with the big boys.
Sure, we'll witness an impressive win here and there. But in the end, we continue to doubt.
Even after the Bengals' Week 7 pounding of the Chicago Bears that put them on top of the AFC North, our doubts persisted. No matter how hard we try, we just can't separate this team from its ugly past. Last year's 0-8 start was still fresh in everyone's mind, even as the Bengals were on their way to 6-2 with Sunday's 17-7 victory over the Ravens.
Perhaps it's time for that attitude to change. Perhaps we should start buying into the exuberance that defensive tackle Tank Johnson displayed on his way into the Bengals dressing room, when he broke into a little "cleaning" dance and shouted to no one in particular, "Get your brooms out! Get your brooms out!"
So, too, is the makeup of the team. A healthy number of Bengals, such as free-agent safety Chris Crocker, weren't part of last season's 4-11-1 finish or the mediocrity of earlier campaigns.
"A lot of guys weren't here, so we don't worry about the 'old Bengals,'" Crocker said. "We're writing our book right now. Forget about everything that happened in the past. You have to live in the present."
"I see us as a team that finds a way to win," added center Kyle Cook. "All three phases of the game: Offense, defense, special teams. We're staying more consistent this year. There's none of those big giveaways and stuff like that that we might have had in years past."
The present shows us a Bengals team that is built for success. It shows us that:
» Quarterback Carson Palmer is no longer bothered by elbow issues, and even that special glove he wears to protect a sore thumb on his non-throwing, left hand doesn't present problems beyond some awkward-looking handoffs.
» Running back Cedric Benson is every bit the highly explosive and productive player that the Bears thought he would be -- but didn't see enough of on a consistent basis -- when they made him a first-round draft pick five years ago.
» Receiver Chad Ochocinco is making more of an impact catching the ball than stirring controversies (although he's still good for the occasional attention-getting stunt, such as the deodorant-filled gift baskets that he sent to several Ravens defenders during the week because he didn't want them to sweat at the thought of facing him).
» The defense generates strong pressure and forces mistakes.
There truly is a lot to like about this team, and probably its greatest quality is its mongrel-like composition. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is fond of telling players, "This team is filled up with a bunch of nobodies -- people that nobody wanted, whether it's someone let go from other teams or guys who weren't drafted and thought they were never going to make it in the NFL."
Nowhere is that more evident than on the offensive line, which last season was one of the weakest areas on the team and now has become one of the greatest strengths. Through eight games last year, the Bengals gave up 28 sacks. After eight games this season, they've allowed only 12.
And take a look at who's protecting Palmer and opening holes for Benson. Center Kyle Cook entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Michigan State, as did right tackle Dennis Roland from Georgia. The Bengals wound up with three undrafted free agents on their line Sunday after Nate Livings, signed from LSU in 2006, took over for injured Evan Mathis at left guard. These are guys that were cut by other teams, that logged practice-squad time, that saw action on kick-coverage units before getting an opportunity to start.
They've been humbled, and they're out to prove they belong right where they are, which fits in perfectly with the overall theme of the 2009 Bengals.
"We all have something we're fighting for, and we're fighting for each other," Cook said. "We're a bunch of guys who get along well together, who share the same bond, whether it's 'Whit' (left tackle Andrew Whitworth) who was drafted high or me or Nate who were on practice squad for three years, and I think that's part of our success."
The linemen routinely remain at the practice facility an extra hour after practice and regular team meetings for their own review of videotape of the opponent. No coaches, just players. They order pizza and discuss ways they can take advantage of various tips that opposing defensive linemen and linebackers are giving away.
Other times they'll get together for dinner, usually including wives and other family members. Those gatherings have every bit as much to do with the Bengals' impressive start as what they do on the practice field.
"It solidifies the family mindset that we preach and talk about," Williams said. "We're not only saying it; we're doing it. You'll see the wife of the guy that lines up beside me, you meet his parents. That's not only my teammate, that's my friend, that's my compadre, that's my comrade, that's my brother. And on the road, in a hostile environment, when that guy says he's got my back, I know he's got it because he knows everything about me."
Linebacker Dhani Jones is in his third season with the Bengals, after four seasons with the New York Giants and three with the Philadelphia Eagles. Since he has been here, he has been part of 7-9 and 4-11-1 finishes.
Jones knows there is something different about this year's club beyond the fact it has won all but two of its games through the first half of the season. He saw it take shape during offseason workouts and in training camp.
"Guys are just like, 'Man, it can't be like that,' where we're so embarrassed and so demoralized by getting just thrashed week in and week out," Jones said. "Finally, you come to grips and ask yourself, 'Do you want to be defeated day in and day out? Do you feel like coming to work and somebody just handing it to you all the time? Or do you want to get better, change your attitude and do something different? Do you want to get off the corner, get into the office and move up the corporate ladder?'
"And I think a lot of people have made that decision. We've talked within ourselves and made our decision together that that's what we want to do as a team."
Even the two losses, to Denver in the season opener and Houston in Week 6, served a positive purpose. As frustrating as it was to have a fluke catch by Brandon Stokley decide the Broncos' game in the final seconds and to be stifled by the Texans defense, the Bengals believe those games helped build their character.
"Those losses actually gave us that hope and that inspiration that we can do this if we do the little things right," Cook said. "Because nobody here puts their head down. They come to work each week, no matter what. Sometimes, you need a couple of those to get where you're going."
At one time, those games typically served as the Bengals' destination.
Not this team. Not anymore.