Going from scratch, Lewis has Bengals feeling itch to win

Ex-Ravens coordinator revamped organization to make it competitive

December 06, 2003|By Mark Curnutte | Mark Curnutte,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CINCINNATI - One year ago this week, the Cincinnati Bengals were 1-11, having lost to the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.

The Bengals would limp to a franchise-worst 2-14 record. The 12-year, playoff-drought mark would hit bottom at 55-137 before team president Mike Brown fired coach Dick LeBeau on Dec. 30.

Then, on Jan. 14, Brown hired Washington Redskins and former Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis. And the effort to bring the NFL back to Cincinnati began.

Tomorrow, the Bengals face the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium in a game that will go a long way toward deciding the AFC North champion. The Bengals and Ravens are tied for first place at 7-5. The Bengals haven't been two games over .500 after 12 games since 1990, not coincidentally the last time they made the playoffs.

The transformation from NFL pretender to contender started with Lewis' hiring and the unprecedented authority Brown gave him to make change.

Organizational changes are the root out of which an improved football team has grown.

The Bengals are one of the league's best-conditioned teams, and Cincinnati is no longer considered NFL Siberia for free agents.

Years of last-place finishes produced a series of top-five draft picks who seemed to slide backward once they hit Cincinnati; their performances have improved with more demanding, detail-oriented coaching.

Notorious for their rookie contract holdouts, the Bengals actually signed quarterback Carson Palmer two days before drafting him first overall.

An organization that had no consistent football plan was given one by Lewis. Being competitive no longer was good enough. The goal now is to win.

Lewis hired a cohesive staff to replace the conflict-riddled one that was part Brown, part LeBeau and part former coach Bruce Coslet. Gone were quarterbacks coach Ken Anderson, defensive line coach Tim Krumrie and strength coach Kim Wood - all Bengals lifers who had never coached anywhere else on any level.

Lewis brought in nine new coaches, including defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton, a former Ravens assistant. Morton overhauled the NFL's least effective weight room and inaugurated a three-month offseason program that was attended by some 90 percent of players.

After 12 games, the Bengals are the only NFL team without a player on injured reserve and have lost only 11 starter games to injury. Lighter, faster, better-conditioned players have performed better on the field. The 2002 Bengals lost fourth-quarter leads three times en route to losses and were outscored by 17 total points. The 2003 Bengals have three fourth-quarter rallies for victories and have a 10-point scoring edge in the final 15 minutes.

The Bengals also have cut their giveaways in half. Through 12 games, they lost just 13 turnovers - tied for fewest in the league with the Chiefs and Jets - compared to 35 in 2002.

Lewis cites the "commitment of players to prepare and focus on the little things" as a primary reason for the turnaround. After the 0-3 start in which they committed seven turnovers, the Bengals are 7-2 and have committed just six turnovers.

"We've eliminated bad plays that were getting us beat," said Lewis, who has his coaches emphasizing fundamentals.

"That gives you a chance to win," he said of adhering to basics. "But it doesn't happen overnight."

Lewis also has benefited from keeping the best of what was already in Cincinnati. He retained offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, whose system has produced the highest-scoring Bengals team since 1997.

Less than a month after his hiring, Lewis announced that Jon Kitna would remain the team's starting quarterback - even though there was a solid chance it would draft Palmer.

In the past nine games, Kitna has thrown 19 touchdown passes and four interceptions and has entered the Most Valuable Player race as a long shot.

"Better players help make a better quarterback," Kitna said.

Wide receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick, both Bengals draft picks, have blossomed into stars with a combined 130 receptions and 14 receiving touchdowns.

Corey Dillon's abdominal strain sidelined him for the first time in his seven-year career, giving Rudi Johnson, a middle-round draft pick in 2001, the chance to play. He has three 100-yard games.

Though holdovers have played key roles, so have newcomers. Five veterans who are first-year Bengals start on defense - linemen Duane Clemons, tackle John Thornton, linebacker Kevin Hardy, cornerback Tory James and strong safety Rogers Beckett. Thornton is the type of A-list free agent who would have bypassed Cincinnati. He turned down more money elsewhere to play for Lewis.

Both specialists - former Ravens punter Kyle Richardson and kicker Shayne Graham - are new. Graham leads the team with 82 points and has missed just two field goals in 19 attempts. Under first-year special teams coach Darrin Simmons, another one-time Ravens staff member, the coverage teams have yet to give up a touchdown and the return teams have scored one.

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