Change in the game plan

NFL: As he tries to turn around the NFL's losingest team in the 1990s, coach Marvin Lewis has put his stamp on every facet of the Bengals.

August 19, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GEORGETOWN, Ky. - Here on the jagged edge of parity, Marvin Lewis is changing attitudes and mind-sets, practice routines and airplane seats.

Nearly everything at the Cincinnati Bengals' Georgetown College training camp is under revision this summer, including the roster. If Lewis has his way as the team's new head coach, the bumbling Bengals also will obliterate their sorry reputation.

The NFL's losingest team in the 1990s is finally serious about changing its dastardly stripes. So serious that Lewis has been ceded more control than any other Bengals coach since founding father Paul Brown stalked the sideline.

Serious enough that owner/president Mike Brown, who has overseen 12 consecutive non-winning seasons - with a combined record of 55-137 - since his father's death in 1991, has retreated to the background and out of public view.

Turning around the worst franchise in recent NFL history is a lot to ask of a man with no previous head coaching experience. Yet Lewis, the former Ravens defensive coordinator who became the ninth black head coach in league history, seems eminently qualified for the job.

"I think the players on this team and the people in football recognize the plight he's had, the path he's had to travel," said right offensive tackle Willie Anderson. "Because we know he came from the bottom up, he did basically the same thing [in his career] that he's trying to teach us to do."

Lewis already has been hailed by cornerback Artrell Hawkins as a "black Jesus" for rescuing the team and has been commended by quarterback Jon Kitna for ending double standards.

"It seems before that there was different treatment for different types of players," Kitna said. "Certain things were accepted out of some people that weren't accepted in others. When it came down to it, there was no accountability there."

Hawkins' tag grew out of Lewis' record-setting defense with the Super Bowl champion Ravens in the 2000 season. Lewis' past three defenses, including one season with the Washington Redskins, all ranked in the top five in the NFL.

"It's just saying he's the savior for the Bengals," Hawkins said. "That's how he's seen with his expertise and his obvious success in doing what he does. He's the one that needs to bring us out of the basement of the NFL and push us to contending level."

Lewis, who turns 45 next month, took a winding road to his head coaching job. He spent 11 years as an NFL assistant - six with the Ravens as defensive coordinator - after college stopovers in Idaho State, Long Beach State and Pittsburgh. When he arrived in Cincinnati last January, fresh from the Redskins, he had a clear vision of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to transform the Bengals.

That blueprint does not stray far from the one that Brian Billick used when he became Ravens head coach in 1999. Lewis began to formulate his own version one night with Billick after the '99 season. The New England Patriots had just fired Pete Carroll and wanted to interview the Ravens' coordinator.

"Brian stayed up all night and helped prepare me for that," Lewis said. "Not too many people do that kind of stuff. I'm very thankful for that. We were preparing how we had done things, so that I could go through it and have it in a complete form, not just off the cuff."

The Patriots' job ultimately went to Bill Belichick, but the experience turned into an epiphany for Lewis. "The New England thing opened my eyes, the fact that in one day you could be here and the next day this could happen," he said. "So make sure you've got your bases covered."

Learned from Cowher

Ravens secondary coach Donnie Henderson, who recruited against Lewis in the early '80s in college and who worked on his staff in Baltimore, said Lewis has been preparing himself a lot longer.

"Marvin always had an attitude of presenting himself as if he knew where he was going to go," Henderson said. "Always. He walked with integrity. ... When you're destined to be great or you work hard to be great and you know what you want, it shows on you."

Lewis also had the good fortune to work on Bill Cowher's staff when Cowher was in his first season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992. Seven years later, he watched Billick under similar circumstances and last season he worked under rookie coach Steve Spurrier with the Redskins.

"We went to the playoffs the first year in Pittsburgh, and we had a chance to go to the playoffs in Baltimore," Lewis said.

Lewis said his coaching temperament more closely resembles Cowher's than Billick's.

"I think the thing that was important for Bill was he wanted to know what the players knew," he said. "It doesn't matter what we know, it's what they know. And they don't care what you know until they know you care about them."

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