GREEN BAY, Wis. - Cedric Benson had been here before, and yet he's still getting his hopes up that the Green Bay Packers will give him something he's never had previously: A legitimate, long-term NFL home.
"I think things are going good," Benson optimistically said this week, as the Packers prepared for Sunday's game at Indianapolis. "Things are coming together quite well. And I think it'll only get better."
Of course, Benson had hoped that was the case with his last team, too. After things with the Chicago Bears – the team that drafted him No. 4 overall in 2005 – went south, Benson landed in Cincinnati and had four productive seasons for the Bengals, rushing for 4,176 yards and 21 touchdowns from 2008 through 2011. And yet, he never got the feeling that the Bengals wanted to make any sort of lasting commitment to him.
After the Bears cut him in June 2008, he was on the street for three months until the Bengals signed him to a one-year deal worth the four-year veteran minimum of $520,000. When he went on to rush for 747 yards in 12 games for the Bengals, the team re-signed him to a two-year, $7 million deal. But while he posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons while playing for that contract, he only received a one-year deal worth $3 million with another $2 million in incentives. And when he had another 1,000-yard season last year, the Bengals made no effort to re-sign him.
He wound up signing the ultimate prove-it contract with the Packers: A one-year deal that's only worth the NFL seven-year veteran minimum of $825,000 with no incentives.
But through four games, it's clear Benson is the team's unquestioned No. 1 running back, as James Starks – the guy who was at the top of the depth chart to start training camp – is over his turf toe injury but still is likely to be inactive for Sunday's game against the Colts. If the 29-year-old Benson continues to contribute the way he has – he enters Sunday having carried 64 times for 228 yards (3.6-yard average) and one touchdown while catching 12 passes for 76 yards – he believes he'll be spending much more than just this season in Northeastern Wisconsin.
"I was just talking about it a couple weeks ago (with some teammates). This is my eighth season and third team. I've had to find success without finding a home," Benson said. "I've had to go into new systems and make it work and find success. It's been a crazy career for me thus far. But I'm looking forward to possibly the chance to be somewhere where they want me."
The Packers certainly want his productivity. Other than the Sept. 9 opener against San Francisco, when he carried just nine times for 18 yards, and the first half of the Sept. 24 game at Seattle, when he had two carries for 4 yards amid the Packers' imbalanced approach in the first 30 minutes, coach Mike McCarthy has clearly been more committed to the run game with Benson in the mix.
Carrying 20 times for 81 yards against the Bears on Sept. 13, Benson became the first Packers running back to get 20 individual carries in a single game since Brandon Jackson on Dec. 19, 2010. And carrying 18 times for 84 yards in last week's victory over New Orleans, Benson kept the struggling Saints' defense honest by forcing them to respect the run. Even in Seattle, after quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sacked a whopping eight times in the first half, it was McCarthy's commitment to Benson that righted the ship, and he ended up carrying 17 times for 45 hard yards that night.
While the Packers have now gone 30 regular-season games without an individual 100-yard rusher, Benson seems like a sure thing to put an end to that streak next.
"I think you want to get him touches as much he can," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. "In a system where it's a pass-first system ... you hate to go in with a guy who gets better with the more carries (and then) limit him to 10 carries or split carries with somebody else, because you're taking away from his ability to understand the flow of the defense, understand how they're reacting to each run type – which is one of his strengths that gets stronger as the game goes on.
"He came in kind of raw to the understanding of what we're trying to accomplish in the run game and it showed in that San Fran game. Since then, he's gotten a better feel for what we're trying to get done and it shows."
For his part, Rodgers has said several times that he doesn't care if the offense starts flowing more through Benson and less through him. Rodgers' reasoning: If Benson needs more carries, so be it; if defenses have to be more cognizant of the running game, it's all the better for the passing game.
"I think he can do even more for us, I really do," Rodgers said. "The encouraging thing is he's getting better for us. He's understanding things better. He's doing a great job out of the backfield catching the football, getting north and south. I think he's still not 100 percent comfortable in the offense. He's run the football really well, which is great, but understanding immediately what his job is in the no-huddle stuff and the protection game, it's close.
"But he's been great for us. He's been great in that meeting room, he's been great with me in the one-on-one time we spend together. He's been great in the locker room, and we're pretty happy to have him."
Considering how his career has played out up until now, Rodgers' words mean a lot to Benson, even if he doesn't know if Green Bay will be a long-term or short-term stay.
"That's nothing he and I have talked about, but I'm grateful that he's got that kind of outlook," Benson said. "I take pride in it, and I invite tough times or have my back against the wall – all those type of things. I'm grateful things are working out.
"I'm just playing the cards that I'm dealt. I didn't really have any expectations coming in here. I knew coming in here, it's not like it's a heavy run-style offense or anything like that. So I didn't really have any expectations of attempts or anything like that. I'm just making the best of the situation they're giving me."