Though many teams opt not to allow the cameras to infiltrate every crevice of their training camp and preseason, fearing it gives opponents a competitive advantage and exposes too much of the team's most secretive plans, the Bengals choosing to give it another shot is an excellent idea this year.
Unlike the Bengals' first go-round in front of HBO's cameras—in which former receiver Chad Johnson played a major role—this season will serve as an introduction to the team's young, talented roster to the world at large, who have mostly left the team ignored over their impressive rise in the past two years.
Including their first 'Hard Knocks' season, the Bengals have finished with an above-.500 record for all but one year, but after Johnson's departure, few NFL fans around the league have found reason to give the Bengals their attention. It was as if the Bengals' being an Ohio team meant that they didn't exist or that they wouldn't be any good. But, in fact, the Bengals have steadily been building one of the most complete rosters in the league, leading to postseason appearances in 2011 and 2012.
Though young—especially on offense—the Bengals haven't had much in the way of growing pains. They managed to ease the transition from former quarterback Carson Palmer to their current, third-year starter Andy Dalton thanks to a talented wide receiver, A.J. Green, and a bruising defense that has steadily improved to become one of the NFL's best.
In 2012, the Bengals defense ranked sixth-overall in yards allowed, eighth in points per game allowed, fifth in tackles and third in sacks. Though their offense wasn't as productive, they still ranked 12th-overall in points per game and Green's 448 yards after the catch ranked him 10th in the league among receivers (subscription required). Their 10-6 record was one win better than their 9-7 finish in 2011 and also marks the first time since 1975-1976 that they've had back-to-back winning records. But yet, it seemed few outside of the AFC North were paying close attention.
That's why the Bengals have a lot more to gain from this added exposure than to lose, regardless of how many sneak peeks other teams may have at any new wrinkles they're installing into their offense and defense or what whiteboard-scrawled depth chart changes are made week by week. It's a chance to say, "This is who we are now," for fans who may have an idea of the Bengals based on who they used to be—a halting joke of a franchise that signs free agents with criminal records and cannot find any consistency.
The agreement to do 'Hard Knocks' for a second time is a way for the Bengals to be viewed as a legitimate Super Bowl contender long before teams start battling for playoff spots later in the year. They can enter into the fan conversation on par with a perennial contender like the New England Patriots because now, they're a known commodity and not just a dark horse in one of the league's most storied divisions. 'Hard Knocks' can do more things for the Bengals, in terms of NFL fans, than any 10-win season or playoff berth.
Another season being trailed by HBO's cameras can turn defensive tackle Geno Atkins into a household name—he's the best in the league at his position, with 12.5 sacks last year. It will get people in other time zones talking about how the Bengals' employment of a two-tight end offense—with veteran Jermaine Gresham and first-round 2013 draft pick Tyler Eifert—is going to be dangerous.
A chance for fans to actually get to know the players on the heretofore under-the-radar Bengals doesn't simply increase exposure—it increases overall respect for the team on a national level (granted it's not a New York Jets-like circus, but the odds of that seem low). Based on their last two seasons on the field, the Bengals should have already gotten it, but that's not how it often works for smaller-market NFL teams.
Instead of the Chad Johnson show, 'Hard Knocks' viewers this year will get a different look at the Bengals, one of them being a serious team quickly developing their young players into the class of the NFL. Whatever drawbacks that come from being featured on the show are vastly outnumbered by the benefits the Bengals franchise will reap as a result of this much exposure, especially when they're seemingly on the brink of becoming one of the league's most dominant franchises.
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