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The Bengals are for real?

Didn't see it posted..... But if its bout the Bengals... Im going to read it.... here it is.

Single page view By David Fleming

Page 2

A few weeks ago, I was walking near Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, still marveling at the reborn Bengals and the startlingly disjointed reconfiguration of Soldier Field when I heard in the distance a sing-songy kind of chanting. Up ahead there was a huge crowd of people gathered in a parking lot of the Field Museum and, well, they seemed to be intoning the name of the Bengals guard Eric Steinbach.

Go Stein ... Go Styyeeennn ... it's your birthday.

It didn't seem possible. I mean, it was quite a catchy little ditty, don't get me wrong, but people just don't chant the names of Bengals linemen. At least, not in the last 15 years.

I checked my watch. I still had nearly 14 minutes until my flight began boarding at O'Hare, so I decided to investigate further. After witnessing the Bengals, a team that redefined NFL failure the last decade and a half, manhandle the Bears to start the season 3-0 for the first time since 1988 -- I figured anything was possible.

And I was right. Steinbach, a second-round pick out of Iowa in 2003 who grew up in nearby Lockport, Ill., had stuck around to celebrate the win with 100 or so of his closest friends. And in the middle of the tailgate bash, a dance circle had formed where his buddies were doing The Stein. It's a feet-planted, elbows out, shuffle-n-sway type dance that's one part soft shoe, one part chicken dance and one part "Napoleon Dynamite."

OK, so it's no Ickey Shuffle. It's not even Chad Johnson's brutal Ohio River dance. But after 153 losses during the last 15 years, after Dave Shula and Dave Klingler, after all the late-night TV jokes, after so much abject failure in a league that practically legislates parity, something tells me the Queen City will take it.

Chad Johnson and the Bengals are feeling golden these days.

"You can almost feel how much this city has been through and how much the fans deserve something to cheer and be happy about," says quarterback Carson Palmer, who is now 6-1 with a 74 percent completion percentage in his last seven starts. (Just don't ask him about MTV's "Laguna Beach," set near his hometown. He hates it.) "We win a few games and it's like this city has gone berserk."

Still, no trend is official until you can connect a dance to it. So now, thanks to The Stein, I am happy to report that football has officially returned to Cincinnati. (Pro football, I should say. Since as a bonus treat for me last week, while I was in town, I got to watch as the University of Cincinnati was demolished, demoralized and depantsed by my alma mater, Miami University, 44-16.)

Yes, I'm fully aware that the Bengals' schedule so far has been laughable and that the defense probably can't sustain its voracious pace (17 takeaways in a month), but after spending a week with the Bengals I can tell you this: the vibe has changed.

In years past, you could stroll into the Bengals' locker room and the palpable sensations of a team infected by losing and a front office infected by cheapness would rock you back on your heels. I've heard former Bengals complain that they had to bring bath towels from home because the ones the team provided were no good. It had gotten so bad in Cincy that some local politicians were considering a lawsuit against the Bengals because they believed the team was in breach of its $458 million stadium deal for not putting an even minimal effort into fielding a competitive team. For a decade and a half, this was a team that somehow managed to be as bad as its uniform.

Those days, it's safe to say, are over.

(I'll pause here for a moment so any Bengals fans reading along can stop to do The Stein.)

"You just couldn't have guys coming in here feeling like they had just lost their collegiate scholarship and expect to build a winning team," says backup QB Jon Kitna. "We needed to have change from top to bottom. And the minute Marvin Lewis got here there were many, many philosophical changes made within the organization."

Lewis' relentless, overpoweringly straight-forward, black-and-white (and yes, a bit grating and grandiose) style has seemingly turned the team's 'tude inside-out. His svengali-like hold has even extended to the team's mom-'n-pop front office. Heck, they're actually signing free agents in Cincinnati, bringing back all 11 starters on offense and -- eeeegad! -- adding scouts. And now, in Lewis' third season the Bengals have passed the critical turning point of any rebuilding job. They are certainly gonna hit a rough patch this season -- it might even be this Sunday in Jacksonville -- but this is a team that has now started to find ways to win instead of ways to lose.

Who knew that during the preseason, when Rudi Johnson told me to come back in November when the team was 7-1 and he had 1,200 yards rushing, that he was being serious? The defense is simplified and swarming -- or if you prefer complicated football jargon, "swarmlified." Rookie linebacker Odell Thurman, who I saw nearly jump over a quarterback in the preseason, won Defensive Rookie of the Month for September. It's taken a few seasons, but the Bengals finally seem able to balance the dual nature of the attack-style Lewis wants with the responsible gap-control run defense he demands. The offense also has a yin and yang thing going on with the Cali-cool Palmer and explosive wideout Chad Johnson who is (are you listening T.O. and Randy?) redefining how to be a unique, wild and dangerous dude while still operating within the structure of his team.

In the middle of our interview, Johnson held up his finger, walked across the room and changed the locker-room sound system from gawdawful country to some thumping hip-hop because, he said, he didn't want country music playing in the background when I listened to the tape. (I had hoped for some Hot Hot Heat or Death Cab but it could have been worse. He could have turned it to NFL charity case Bon Jovi.)

As we began talking again, a group of linemen walked by and turned the music waaaaay down. Not pleased in the least, Johnson threw up his hands and moaned at them, "What the &?" Unable to contain his laughter, The Stein himself, all 6-foot-6, 300 pounds of him, told Johnson to concentrate on his interview. Then, I believe, Johnson challenged the entire offensive line to a cage match.

See, this is what it's now like inside the Bengals locker room: fun, light, confident, collegial almost. In other words, Lewis and his team have successfully exorcised the ghost of Carl Pickens.

"We're gonna be very, very dangerous," Johnson said, turning the music back up as a wicked smile unfolded across his face. "The sky's the limit for this team."

After 15 years of suffering, hearing a statement like that must make Bengals fans want to drop what they're doing and ... dance.

Oh go ahead, you've earned it.

Nice. That's it.

Elbows out. And shuffle, uh-huh, and swing.

Go Stein ... it's your birthday.

Yep. Yep. You got it.

David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in the fall of 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.

Say it, The Bengals are for real!

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