Bengals or not, this was a job Lewis simply had to accept

January 16, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

CONDOLENCES as well as congratulations should be offered to Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals' new head coach.

We understand. We really, really, really do.

In the NFL, the window of opportunity for an African-American to become a head coach is nothing more than a crack, so Lewis had no other choice but to slither through and take the worst job among the 32 teams.

Poor Marvin.

There can be nothing but sympathy.

Perhaps no other pro sports team can match the Bengals' incompetence during the past decade, not even the Orioles or the Los Angeles Clippers. The Bungles haven't been to the playoffs since 1990. They have a .286 winning percentage in the past 12 seasons, a fool for an owner named Mike Brown who doubles as the general manager, and the smallest scouting department in the league.

The franchise that brought us Sam Wyche, David Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau in the 1990s, now gives us Marvin Lewis.

Lewis, 44, reportedly agreed to a five-year contract worth up to $10 million. But this wasn't about money, unlike last offseason, when Redskins owner Dan Snyder pushed a lot of loot into Lewis' face and forced him to travel down the yellow brick road to Washington.

The sand was starting to fill up the other end of the hourglass for Lewis. After he interviewed and failed to land a job in Buffalo, Carolina or Tampa Bay in recent years, Lewis' stock was starting to fall. Just a month ago, he turned down $1.5 million a season to become head coach at Michigan State because he wanted to run an NFL team.

His name was starting to surface with a lot of openings, and that's not good. It's like hearing about a Jesse Jackson appearance. It makes news, but does anyone really care anymore? Lewis had to take this job or risk becoming the token interview.

Lewis is aware of the double standard for hiring minority coaches in the league. Former black head coaches such as Art Shell and Dennis Green haven't been given second chances despite initial success. One who did get a second chance, Ray Rhodes, was fired after only one year in Green Bay. Meanwhile, longtime black assistant coaches such as Ted Cottrell, Emmitt Thomas and Sherm Lewis get passed over year after year.

It's happening again this year. Look at the situation in Jacksonville. Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio, the Ravens' former linebackers coach, has emerged as a candidate for the Jaguars' job. Del Rio was a good assistant in Baltimore, and will make a good head coach one day, but he has been a defensive coordinator for only a year with a 7-9 team.

One season?

Del Rio has the skills, but he also has blond hair, blue eyes and white skin. It helps.

Lewis knew his time had come, despite the job's being in Cincinnati. Actually, the Bengals aren't that bad. Of the 22 starters, 10 could start for a lot of teams in the league. Defense is Lewis' expertise after building one in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, and the Bengals have two decent linebackers in Brian Simmons and Takeo Spikes. Two of four starting defensive linemen return, including tackle Tony Williams and right end Justin Smith. The Bengals need secondary help, but have a veteran they can build around in cornerback Artrell Hawkins.

Offensively, Cincinnati has some good skill players, more than the Ravens. They have running back Corey Dillon, two solid receivers in Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick and two good tackles with Levi Jones and Willie Anderson. If the Bengals can re-sign fullback Lorenzo Neal and draft quarterback Carson Palmer with the first pick, they can end up with five, six or seven wins.

It will come down to attitude next year.

Lewis has to become a master psychologist, and he learned from the best in Ravens head coach Brian Billick. He has to promote confidence and not let the franchise go south once things start going badly.


It must be reshaped in the locker room and front office.

That might be Lewis' biggest challenge. Soon after the season, Brown said there were going to be no changes in the way the team operates. But there is speculation that Brown made some concessions to sign Lewis, such as giving him major input in the draft and signing free agents. Brown, maybe the cheapest guy in the NFL, might add a few scouts to a department that has six lower than the league average of 11.

Maybe Lewis can teach the Bengals about a successful draft, that the key isn't finding players in the first and second rounds, but the mid and lower ones. Just how bad have the Bengals been?

Consider this: In 1992, Anthony Munoz, maybe the finest left offensive tackle in the history of the game, retired. Up until last year, the Bengals never drafted a bona fide left tackle.

That's why they are the Bungles.

Maybe that all changes now with Lewis on board. He has to be a little nervous. Careers have been buried in Cincinnati. Maybe the only person more nervous than Lewis is Snyder, who is left with Steve Spurrier to run the entire show and no Lewis to tell him it's OK to practice in the rain.

As for Lewis, a major indication of where the Bengals are headed will come soon. Brown loves quarterbacks coach Kenny Anderson. Anderson has been with the team as a player or coach since 1967. If Anderson doesn't return as a coach, then Lewis is calling the shots.

If Anderson returns, then Brown is calling the shots.

If that happens, hold onto your congratulatory card and send the one with sympathy.

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