Culture change: How Marvin Lewis turned the Bungles back into the Bengals
CINCINNATI – Following a disastrous four-win season in 2010, many Cincinnati Bengals fans wanted owner Mike Brown to fire coach Marvin Lewis. Nothing personal, Lewis is a terrific guy, but after eight seasons, you can't go 4-12, let alone when you're 60-67 overall. The trend line was obvious.
At the same time, plenty of Marvin Lewis' friends in football were calling him and telling him he needed to get out of Cincinnati. The franchise was lousy – too many bad apples on the roster, too much terrible history for it to be a coincidence. The script was written. He'd get another chance to do it right somewhere else.
Owner and coach had a meeting. They decided rather than separate, they'd reunite and apply the lessons they've learned in creating a losing team. And together, they'd change. Everything.
"I believed in him and he believed in me that we could get this right," Lewis said. "I restarted here. A lot of coaches have to move. I was basically able to start again here, [to] restart in the same spot."
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He didn't waste the opportunity, cleaning house that offseason, empowering a core group of character guys and riding the unexpected positive effects of the NFL lockout that offseason to rewire the entire franchise.
"The lockout was the best thing," Lewis said. "The lockout took this franchise back out of the muck. It was like an exorcism. It was really good."
On Wednesday, Lewis sat in a Paul Brown Stadium meeting room with HBO "Hard Knocks" cameras installed all over the place, the most tangible sign that this is one of the most anticipated seasons in team history.
The locker room down the hall isn't just deep with talent, but the kind of team-first, mentally strong players Lewis vowed to ride or die with. Gone are the days of the police-blotter Bengals, let alone a bunch of me-first talents. Two consecutive playoff seasons (albeit without a victory) have everyone talking about breaking through and making a January run.
And Lewis swears this is different than past times (after 2005 and 2009) when expectations got high.
He has a team that is willing to trade individual "recognition for the ability to win a championship," he said. "That's what's most important. It's different than if you have a group of guys [who] have a limited amount of success and then they have personal recognition and they think it's all about them and they want to write books and beat their chest."
There is no Ochocinco here. No T.O. No Chris Henry or Odell Thurman or almost anyone else who may fit the above description or worse. Pacman Jones is here, but Lewis says, "Adam begged for an opportunity and for the most part, he’s made good on it. Adam has really turned the corner." There is also a smarter, more surefooted coach with a different philosophy on building a roster and running a team.
"Things that we knew were true were proven in 2010 to be true," Lewis said. "If you do those things, you're going to get your butt whipped. And if you do these other things, you're gong to be successful. Unfortunately, we had to live the 2010 season to really get that imprinted on our foreheads."
He said he sat down immediately and began plotting out the revolution. Who would be in and who would be out. The Bengals have been drafting very good talent for years, now it would focus on character also. No more reaching for talent, Lewis said. He volunteered to coach the Senior Bowl that year to help get to know the prospects as people.
He absolutely had to have guys he could count on. This from a team that not only drafted the late Chris Henry, but re-signed him even after a slew of arrests.
"I don't think Chris Henry, we would pick today," Lewis said. "See, Chris had social issues [at the time of the draft but] he hadn't really gotten into legal issues. Chris would have a harder time today just because we would be more sketchy on if he could handle the day to day of being a good teammate.
"I think there was always a feeling that boys will be boys," Lewis continued. "There are some boys that just can't get over being boys. And unfortunately, the organization had to learn that."
The new theory led to the Bengals pruning themselves of anyone they deemed a potential distraction, such as running back Cedric Benson in 2011 even after three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons.
"Ced's not a bad guy," Lewis said. "He texted me last year [and asked] 'when did you make the decision I couldn't do that for you anymore, run for 1,300 yards.'
"And I said, 'Ced, it's not that I didn't think you could do that on the football field, it was the other [stuff] that I got tired of. When I would go to you and say we're going to rotate the backs [and Benson would take it poorly]. I don't need that anymore.' Those are the things they don't get. It could be something as simple as that. But you just get tired of it. Then they put the pout on. I don't need that [stuff]."
Lewis said he doesn't have the time or patience for unnecessary aggravation. The job is demanding enough. During the lockout, he realized there was life outside of football. He took up golf. He now belongs to two country clubs. On the grind of trying to manage a franchise, he's a bit more philosophical. He's not going to sweat everything.
"[Stuff] happens every day."
Lewis points to a turning point for everything. It came after the second preseason game of the 2011 season. Quarterback Carson Palmer was holding out, leaving the team in the hands of rookie Andy Dalton. The offense was terrible. Dalton didn't look ready for primetime after a 27-7 loss to the New York Jets.
The quarterback from TCU had won over his teammates during voluntary offseason workouts, but suddenly there was some hesitation. No one, especially the veterans, want to waste time on a team incapable of success. In the past, everything would've splintered. Instead, a group of team leaders, including Andrew Whitworth, Frostee Rucker, Domata Peko and Robert Geathers showed up in Lewis' office for a meeting.
It started with concern but soon, mostly due to a speech by Whitworth, you could say the new Bengals were born. What Lewis had wanted to surround himself with was showing itself.
"We just kind of said, 'you can sit around and complain about the situation we are in or we can say, we have no excuses, no reason to doubt, everyone thinks we can't do it anyway so let's go out and win football games,'" Whitworth said. No more dreaming of Carson Palmer walking through that door. "We said, 'the truth is we have a young kid who knows what he's doing and if we play well around him, we'll have success.'"
"I let Whitworth talk," Lewis said. "And they got it back. I think Whit had great words of wisdom for them and what we needed to do. And to not flinch. We have to work through the adversity. It's not going to be like we scripted."
Palmer, of course, would never return to the franchise, choosing to sit out until he was traded to Oakland for two high draft picks (which have resulted in cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and rookie running back Giovani Bernard). Interestingly, Lewis thinks the old Bengals culture may have pushed the veteran QB out. If Palmer had seen the new one that would boost the confidence of his successor, perhaps he would've stayed.
"I thought Carson would be the leader of the revolution, but frankly I think he had enough and he wanted the chance to move on."
Lewis also believes Dalton was aided by a lockout that saw informal player workouts, mostly at the University of Cincinnati, instead of official mini camps and organized team activities. Normally, you'd think a rookie en route to being a week one starter would need as much coaching as possible.
"They had to learn to trust Andy, to accept Andy without us," Lewis said. "Had we had OTAs and we just stuck Andy as the quarterback and we're all 'Andy this,' all 'Andy that' [it may have been different]. They got to know Andy Dalton by Andy Dalton. He earned their respect separate from us."
Dalton has thrown for 47 touchdowns in two seasons and is a star on the rise. He credits the team for believing in him early.
"As a rookie you want to know that everybody has confidence in you," Dalton said. "It was good to come into that situation."
There was really just that one moment of doubt following the Jets preseason loss. It was over in half a meeting.
"This team made a decision to go play winning football," Whitworth said.
"And boom," Lewis said. "We won."
The locker room is exceptionally tight, the players say. Whitworth, for one, is even letting rookie tight end Tyler Eifert crash at his house until Eifert's condo is finished being built. It may even extend into the season.
"It's a nice house," Eifert said with a smile.
"He's being babied a little," Whitworth said of his wife's hospitality.
So far, Eifert hasn't even been pushed into mowing the lawn or doing the dishes.
"He keeps threatening he's going to give me something, but not yet," Eifert said.
"He doesn't know what's coming yet," Whitworth said. "You have to make them feel at home first, then you give them their tasks."
It's clearly a long way removed from the bad news Bengals of old.
Lewis knows how worthless preseason predictions are, so he really isn't too excited about all the hype about the playoffs.
"We can't talk about January when we have the defending Super Bowl champions in our division," he noted. "We have to take care of business at hand, which is this football season. We've got to play great football."
He points to his days on Brian Billick's staff in Baltimore, where no matter how powerful the team looked, Billick would walk around and refocus the coaches by saying, "we're not very good."
Still, there is only so much Lewis can do to hide the satisfaction of having a young, talented team. And one that seems to know how to stay focused.
"This team is extremely young but it's better every time it steps on the football field," Whitworth said. "[We] have the potential to do something special. You just have to keep harping on it, keep putting your foot on the pedal. We need to go win games we're not supposed to. We need to go win the games on the road against tough opponents. That's kind of the next step."
"There's no secret potion," said linebacker James Harrison, who came to the Bengals from Pittsburgh where he was part of two Super Bowl champions. "It's called hard work. You have to go out there and put in the work and dedicate yourself to getting better. That's it."
For Lewis, the entire boomerang of the last couple years is almost unheard of in the NFL. He was all but done. Instead, he picked himself up from the coaching canvas. And now he's babysitting less, relaxing more. His golf handicap, he says, is down to a 13. He's still pouring time into his extensive charitable work.
And he knows he has a core of leaders in the locker room who have built this "foundation, this core inner strength, this mental toughness."
Mostly, he's been able to implement the lessons learned – "Damn, I knew that, but I didn't listen" – from what was essentially his first coaching run into his second coaching run, only with the exact same franchise.
He conducted an exorcism after 2010, of the roster and the way the Bengals did business. It resulted in the resurrection of a coaching career, and perhaps a franchise too.
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