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Bengals struggling with image, luring free agents

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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GEORGETOWN, Ky. -- Perception means little in the National Football League. Wins define legacies. Losses derail careers.

The NFL is not a popularity contest.

Teams don't need stars to win. They don't need big names. Due to selling the league emblem instead of the individual face, superstars are created every Sunday at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. ET.

Just ask the Green Bay Packers and everyone not named Aaron Rodgers or Charles Woodson.

All signs pointed to the Bengals keeping cornerstone cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- until those signs pointed to Houston. (AP)  
All signs pointed to the Bengals keeping cornerstone cornerback Johnathan Joseph -- until those signs pointed to Houston. (AP)  
Yet, when you are the Cincinnati Bengals, overshadowed by skyscrapers and residing on the fringe of the vibrant NFL city, the rules of the league don't necessarily apply. They certainly don't in this rare offseason.

Perception matters in Cincinnati.

When you own two playoff appearances in the past 20 years and zero postseason victories in that span, the only item to sell free agents comes with a complementary smoke machine and a mirror.

In January, Carson Palmer said he would rather retire and leave $50 million on the table rather than play another down for the Bengals.

Smoke machines and mirrors officially went out of stock.

Seeing Palmer choose beaches in California over shores of the Ohio River meant more than the loss of a talented quarterback for the organization. It exposed the perception of a drowning franchise. It crushed credibility.

Never was that more evident than in the devastating loss of cornerback Johnathan Joseph.

Retaining Joseph was priority No. 1 at Paul Brown Stadium. The defense that delivered an AFC North title in 2009 was built around Joseph and fellow corner Leon Hall. Without them, it had no backbone. The 2011 season is being sold as the return to the defense and running game philosophy of that year.

Not only was he a priority, but Joseph voiced his opinion on repeat last season. He wanted to be a Bengal. He loved Cincinnati. He desired an extension. He would accept a franchise tag.

No extension was reached, no franchise tag applied. Still, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was told since before the lockout that Joseph would be back.

Yet, when the Bengals made what Joseph admitted to be a "competitive offer," he bolted for Houston.

"It was a no-brainer for me," Joseph said. "At the end of the day, you have to weigh all the options. You know, what your team has in play."

The Texans had in play one of the league's top offenses. The Bengals had in play a stack of unsatisfactory extension offers and a quarterback held hostage.

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When president and owner Mike Brown opted to let Palmer squirm and "not reward" him for dishonoring his contract, a message was sent.

It's hard to sell a long-term contract to any player when the most prominent long-term deal in team history ended in a vengeful mess.

Joseph consequently shifted from undeniable loyalty to no-brainer exit. The team pursued offensive lineman Robert Gallery of the Raiders to join a run-heavy attack, but Gallery opted to join former coach Tom Cable with the Seahawks. The Bengals could throw money at other high-priced players, but when similar offers exist, the hope of landing the free agent ends.

For the past eight years, perception rose to un-Bengal-like levels. Chad Ochocinco made the Queen City a destination job for free agents. Palmer provided hope championships were possible at Paul Brown Stadium -- and not just of the AFC North variety.

Palmer's public stance supported by the departure of Ochocinco choked the popularity out of the Bengals. In the National Signing Day-style free-for-all of this hectic, new NFL world, that means quite a bit.

For now, it means the Bengals are about $49 million under the salary cap as of Saturday morning and currently without anyone willing to take large chunks of their cash.

There's a dilemma that likely didn't come up during lockout negotiations.

Those arriving at training camp Friday didn't buy into the panic outsiders associate with the franchise. Asked whether Palmer's stance changed league-wide perception of the Bengals, Tank Johnson wouldn't speculate.

"Maybe," he said.

Johnson has always been a believer in the Bengals since they believed in him through tough times. He isn't immune to training camp optimism like many of the new breed of relative unknowns around him.

"I'm not too sure of how all the players think around the league, but I know the guys we have here are happy to be here and employed by the NFL and the Bengals," Johnson said. "Whether guys want to come here or not, that is up to them, but I think guys here are excited about being here and starting an opportunity with a clean slate."

It was known this season would be a rebuilding one for the Bengals the moment last year's 4-12 campaign concluded. Palmer's stance determined the severity of it.

Although the hole left by Joseph was filled by former Niners corner Nate Clements, Joseph's departure made that severity all too real.

"It's more frustrating," Zimmer said. "If a guy gets hurt, he gets hurt. If he just leaves, that's a different feeling."

Unfortunately for the Bengals, not joining them became a "no-brainer."

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