Bengals' M. Lewis wants to get back to the basics

Now in 2nd season, coach puts his focus on X's, O's

Pro Football

September 23, 2004|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis put his fingerprints on an entire organization and a city. This season, he has a more hands-on approach with the team itself.

Lewis won a major battle last season serving as administrator, liaison and salesman for a franchise that had the NFL's worst record in the 1990s. The Bengals finished 8-8, and challenged the Ravens for first place in the AFC North until the final week of the season.

But while he created a buzz in a city that had a hatred for the home team, a new standard was set. Cincinnati fans want nothing less than a playoff berth in 2004. Yes, in Bengals land, where they've had a 55-137 record from 1991 to 2002, they're mentioning playoffs.

"There was so much gloom around here for so long that the bottom looked like up," said Jack Cassidy, chief executive officer of telecom company Cincinnati Bell. "But last year we started getting record crowds. We're coming off a Sunday night game on national TV. People see Marvin as some kind of miracle worker.

"The expectations might not be realistic, and it puts a lot of pressure on the owners, coaches and players, but it's nice having people cheering for them instead of throwing food at them."

Lewis, 46, wants the pressure. But if the Bengals are to take the next step, he'll have to interact more with the team. When Lewis was hired in January 2003, he spent most of his time hiring and firing coaches. He had to persuade owner Mike Brown to beef up the scouting department and spend $250,000 for a redesigned weight room.

He asked Brown for better travel arrangements and a modern computer system for the coaching staff.

With those things accomplished, it is time for Lewis to push less paper and shake fewer hands and get more involved in personnel decisions and game planning.

"I've tried to cut down on my reactions, or should I say, overreacting to things," said Lewis, whose Bengals are 1-1. "Last year, I spent too much time trying to make sure things ran smoothly. I fought some battles that I didn't need to fight as a head coach. I missed coaching. I missed being involved in the game planning. I missed the X's and O's."

During the offseason, Lewis met extensively with coordinators Bob Bratkowski (offense) and Leslie Frazier (defense). He listened, and then implemented his own terms and philosophies.

There is a new Lewis on the practice fields, much like the old Lewis when he was the defensive coordinator in Baltimore from 1996 to 2001. He is more animated, more vocal with a lot more confidence. He hopes that will translate into more victories.

"I think the players have a better understanding of what we want to do," said Lewis. "Last year, I would be in practice and right in the middle of chewing somebody's butt, I had to back off because I wasn't sure what was going on. That doesn't happen anymore."

You can see Lewis' impact on defense. A year ago, the Bengals were 28th in the league in points and yards allowed. Lewis brought in linebacker Nate Webster, cornerback Deltha O'Neal and safety Kim Herring, a former Raven.

The defense is built around the strength of linebackers Kevin Hardy, Webster and Brian Simmons, much like Baltimore's in 2000 with Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper. The Bengals like to put pressure on the quarterback with various blitzes. Against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday night, the Bengals had five sacks.

"Oh, some of the things they did against us on defense, you can see it coming out of the archives, you can see Marvin putting himself back into it," said Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson, who coached with Lewis in Baltimore.

Lewis' biggest statements came in the offseason when he traded malcontent running back Corey Dillon to the New England Patriots for a second-round pick and announced second-year quarterback Carson Palmer was replacing veteran starter Jon Kitna.

"I've watched the guy play, I've watched him practice," said Lewis. "I think Carson can win more games for us this year, not just down the road."

Lewis sounds confident and secure. He has made inroads that few others ever made in Cincinnati. He brought weightlifting equipment and air conditioning units for several city public schools. During his first 90 days on the job, Lewis made 72 appearances at different events.

He has made it mandatory that players get involved in community projects, including prominent Bengals such as Kitna, Palmer and receivers Chad Johnson and Peter Warrick. The Bengals are all over the place, and so is Lewis. He's on billboards and magazine covers, flashing a smile that gives this city hope.

A Lewis bobblehead can't be far behind.

"He is highly visible," said Dave Lapham, a longtime Bengals radio analyst. "The first thing he did was sell himself. For 13 years, the Bengals have been getting blown out of games, which is hard to do in the NFL. Now, people are going to be disappointed if they don't make the playoffs. Realistically, in about four years, the Bengals should be there. But Marvin, well, they think he is the miracle worker."

Next for Ravens

Matchup: Ravens (1-1) vs. Cincinnati Bengals (1-1)

Site: Paul Brown Stadium, Cincinnati

When: Sunday, 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (102.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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