Bottoms up: Lewis has Bengals on move

November 19, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

CINCINNATI BENGALS coach Marvin Lewis is sitting in his office, smiling a lot these days, but with some reservation. It's taken the Bengals a long time to get to the top of the AFC North, but they can get to the bottom quickly again.

Lewis knows the franchise's history. The Bengals have had winning streaks before, only to reclaim their identity as The Bungles, NFL doormats and owners of 12 consecutive non-winning seasons. In less than one season, Lewis has taught the Bengals how to win. Now, it's time for lesson two: how to win consistently.

"We were there before," said Lewis, alluding to his team winning three of four games earlier this season before losing to the Arizona Cardinals. "This time, we've got to learn how to live with success."

That's going to be tough. There is a buzz around Cincinnati that hasn't been there since the late 1980s when Ickey Woods was shuffling, Boomer Esiason was giving some of the greatest play-action fakes in history and David Fulcher was the biggest safety in the game.

A sellout crowd of more than 60,000 at Paul Brown Stadium watched Lewis, the architect of the Ravens' 2000 Super Bowl record-setting defense, and the Bengals pull the upset of the NFL season with a 24-19 win against previously unbeaten Kansas City on Sunday. The win allowed the Bengals (5-5), who defeated the Ravens earlier this season, to claim a share of first place in the division with the Ravens.

The win increased the hysteria in town. Some fans didn't go to work Monday. Everyone but George W. Bush has called to congratulate Lewis. A Mike Brown for mayor campaign has to be next, right?

Well, let's not get too carried away.

That's the point Lewis, a first-year head coach, has been making since Monday morning. The Bengals have three straight road games coming up with San Diego, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. At least two of those games will be nasty, butt-kicking, mud-slinging affairs.

Guess which ones?

"Those Pittsburgh and Baltimore games are going to be dogfights, wars," Lewis said. "At the beginning of this season, we were hoping to get where the Ravens and Pittsburgh were. We didn't know if that would happen this year, but that was the goal.

"Right now, it's one game at a time. It is most important that we keep things in perspective, that we're just 5-5. We have done some things right, and if we keep doing those things right, we're going to be successful. But this is no time to let up."

The last time the Bengals got big-headed, they got ambushed by the Cardinals in Arizona on Nov. 2. They don't want to get suckered again. On Monday morning, Lewis went looking for the veterans, who were already looking for Lewis.

"They wanted to know what they could do differently, if there was another way to approach things so that it would be different from last time [Arizona]," Lewis said. "Maybe we might do more on the field the Saturday before the game. In Arizona when we arrived, there were a lot of Bentleys and Range Rovers outside the hotel. I was wondering what the hell was going on?

"Then I found out the Lakers were there and it was an entirely different atmosphere. We're still learning how to handle success."

The NFL has always been a big-head game, and Lewis had to play it once he became a head coach. The Bengals always had talent, but they had a cheap, interfering owner (Brown) and a lot of big-name stars with attitudes like receivers Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott and quarterback Jeff Blake.

Individual performances were more important than wins. And they kept contaminating young players, like running back Corey Dillon. Cincinnati was the place for complacency - until Lewis came along.

Lewis declined to re-sign high-priced free agents such as fullback Lorenzo Neal and linebacker Takeo Spikes. Within 24 hours of freeing up Spikes' money, the Bengals signed middle linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive tackle John Thornton and cornerback Tory James.

Lewis then cut players such as linebackers Bernard Whittington and Steve Foley and defensive end Vaughn Booker, players who were either too old or too content to collect a paycheck without practicing.

"No question, 90 percent of the time the game comes down to the mental side," Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna said recently. "That's what Lewis is working on. He is always on that."

Part of that may have come from Ravens coach Brian Billick. Before Billick arrived in 1999, the Ravens were a team without direction. Lewis admires the leadership Billick brought to the Ravens. He has been on a similar mission in Cincinnati.

Make no mistake; this is Lewis' team. He went to Brown's office and asked for about $250,000 to upgrade the weight room, and he got it. Former Cincinnati coaches would choose a draft pick, and then ask for Brown's approval.

Not Lewis. He wanted rookie quarterback Carson Palmer with the No. 1 overall pick in April, and not a word was said. Give Brown credit. He has let Lewis run this franchise, something a majority of NFL owners have not allowed an African-American to do.

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