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Hat trick

Posted Sep 9, 2012


Marvin Lewis

Marvin Lewis heads into his 10th season as head coach of the Bengals wearing, it seems, as many hats as the team-record 147 games he's coached.

To his boss, the owner, Bengals president Mike Brown, he is the calm and reliable steward of his team and the closest thing to a wife without going down the aisle.

To the youth of Cincinnati, he's the CEO of the most effective charitable fundraising organization in the region.

To Hue Jackson, the one former NFL head coach on his staff, he's a role model.

To Ray Lewis, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker he helped draft waiting in Baltimore to play against him Monday (7 p.m.-ESPN and Cincinnati's Channel 12), he's a father figure.

To Bengals rookie Vontaze Burfict, the middle linebacker who went unloved and undrafted this spring he's also a father figure 17 years after Ray Lewis went in the first round.

"Marvin has a way with people," Jackson says. "Not so much players, but people. To set a common goal and go for it. I think that's amazing because that's what this league needs and that's what I think sometimes people don’t understand."

His critics point to Lewis being third on the list for most regular-season games coached without a playoff win (144) behind Jim Mora (231) and Norm Van Brocklin (173). His supporters point to three playoff berths in the last seven seasons for a franchise that had none in the 12 seasons before he arrived. They could also point to Lewis being the first Bengals coach to make the playoffs with two different quarterbacks, something not even the coach he is second to in AFC coaching seniority, New England's Bill Belichick has done. They could also …

"I think he's a good coach. I think he's done well for us," Brown says. "This league has a problem with the mathematical issue that only half the teams are going to win. That doesn't mean everyone else is incompetent or bad. It creates a lot of hand-wringing and heartbreak at the end of the year as we kaleidoscope-like redo the direction of the team and that includes the coaches. I think probably people do too much of this, owners react in response to the public pressure. ... The way to handle the public pressure is to can the coach and it's his fault and he's the scapegoat. ... I think the league would be better off if there were fewer firings and we were more patient with our coaches."

One of the many ironies of the Bengals playing in Baltimore the first game after the death of former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell is that Lewis has worked for both Modell and Mike Brown, the son of the man that fired his father Paul Brown after he coached Cleveland to 11 title games in 17 years. The act was so devastating to the Brown family that it's a big reason Brown has been so patient with his own coaches in the face of withering criticism. A big reason Lewis has an extension to coach 12 years in the same place.

"He's the same person; he's the same teacher," Brown says of Lewis. "The same administrator and sometimes things go wrong. It isn't his entire fault. That can be due to things beyond his control."

Lewis admitted after he and Brown reached Lewis's fifth extension back in July (through 2014) that the owner has more patience than him. When he would have fired himself is anyone's guess.

After the underachieving fourth season at 8-8? Certainly after the miserable disappointment of 7-9 in the fifth season? No doubt after the out-of-nowhere 4-12 that followed a division title in the eighth season?

But those people skills have come through for Lewis and he's now going through the second season of his unheard of third rebuilding process with the same team. A week after Lewis got a reprieve following the 4-12 season of 2010, quarterback Carson Palmer walked into Brown's office and stunned him by demanding a trade.

What goes around comes around. The first rebuilding process began with Lewis's hiring and the drafting of Palmer in 2003. Then when Palmer hurt his elbow early in 2008 while injuries and off-field problems blew up a couple of drafts, the Bengals began in midseason with a blueprint that yielded a division title the next year.  

"I had no inkling he felt like that," Brown says, and now 19 months later he and Lewis are overseeing a defending Wild Card berth team with four Pro Bowl players age 25 or younger and a roster of 28 players that never played with Palmer.

"I came to do a job that's not been completed and that's important," Lewis says of why he hasn't walked away. "We're going in the right direction. Any head coach wants the ability to make sure there's an ability to add players it takes to win and have an opportunity to develop those players."

Lewis calls himself "a people person" after a lifetime of being around coaches that approached it the same way.

"That's what life is all about. It's an important part of life. Adapting, adjusting and moving and dealing with different personalities," he says. "The challenge is to take the hopes and expectations of everyone, mold 'em and point them in the right direction. It's easy to get along when your goals are aligned and that's important."

TWO MIDDLE BACKERS

Lewis's ability to adjust and absorb through the years and generations is on display in this year's opener, where Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis brings his warriors into another AFC North battle with the Bengals and where Burfict gets his first taste of the scrum on special teams.

"You don't stay as a head coach in this league for 10 years and have the success he's had as a defensive coordinator without being good with players," says Jackson, the assistant secondary and special teams coach. "He always has. Look at what he did with Chad (Johnson) and T.J. (Houshmandzadeh) when they were here."

To this day, Burfict can't say why he phoned Lewis after his rocky pro day at Arizona State this spring, the move that probably ended up getting him signed. He had struggled lately with his coaches at Arizona State and had famously mucked up the draft process with the bad decisions. But when he introduced himself to Lewis and said, sorry, he wasn't running his 40 today, something clicked.

Lewis snapped back with, "If I tell you you're going to run, you're going to run."

"Ever since then we've seen eye-to-eye and communicated," Burfict says. "He's the only guy that gave me a shot. I respect him for that. We exchanged numbers and I gave him a call and we just talked about football, our scheme at Arizona State. I don't know why, but something in my head told me to call him. Maybe it was the Lord or something. (Coach Lewis) wants what's best for me, to be the best I can be. He is like my father."

Just this week, Lewis snapped again like that first day at Arizona State. The famous Cincinnati humidity had returned and Burfict found himself gassed in his first practice running the entire scout team stuff as well as going through all four phases of special teams.

And there was Lewis, sensing the fatigue and pushing, "Let's go, let's go."

"He wants the best out of me and that's what I need at this level," Burfict says. "He's the father, I'm the son. He sees the potential I have. He's not setting any limits. Sometimes it gets under my skin, but that's what I need in order to be better than Ray Lewis, or up to his level. I just need to be pushed."

"Ray Lewis."

Like Burfict says, what youth linebacker didn't dream about becoming the next Ray Lewis? One of Burfict's great thrills so far is when his head coach at Arizona State, Dennis Erickson, also Lewis's college coach at Miami, got him on the horn for him his junior year.

"I was talking to him," Burfict says, "and I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, this is Ray Lewis's voice.' "

It was 17 years ago (and even Ray Lewis cackles about how long ago now that he has a son in college) when Marvin Lewis pushed the same kind of buttons. Burfict turns 22 on Sept. 24, the day after his third NFL game. Lewis was also 21 when he played his opener.

"There is no me without a Marvin Lewis. He was the first one who grabbed me at a very young age and asked me what I wanted to do," Ray Lewis said this week. "He educated me. He educated me not just on how to make plays, but he educated me on the business side of it and understanding how to conduct myself and all these different things. So I’ve always looked at Marvin as a father figure. So the impact he had on my life was great."

LOCKER ROOM SHIFT

Lewis's big-picture impact on the locker room in the third reboot isn't as dominating as that. He's not a father, but he's more like a grandfather knowing he can do the important things while the team elders take care of the nuts-and-bolts discipline.

Jackson, who coached two 1,000-yard receivers during his first stint with Lewis in 2004-06, remembers a middle school principal-type guy back then. He was in everyone's face trying to discipline the undisciplined.

"Different locker room, different team, different era," Jackson says. "Every year is different. Back then, he had some bad boys. You don’t wear the same hat. You wear different hats. Every team needs a little something different to get to where you need to be, and that's what he does a great job.

"Now he's a manager. He's managing a group of men and it trickles down from the coaches to the players and from the players to the coaches."

Left end Robert Geathers, dean of the Bengals with 118 games under Lewis, was in those locker rooms when veterans bristled that Lewis demanded the coaches handle the young players and told them to stay out of it.

"The way I've seen him grow over the years is just his communication with this locker room," Geathers says. "He's able to communicate to us through the leaders, the guys that have been around awhile. He uses us to get to the younger guys. In that aspect, he's done a great job.

"This locker room is a lot different than before. More so now we have guys in the locker room that can help the young guys. He puts it on us. That's why you keep some of the guys. We've got guys here now that can handle it."

Back in the day, from around 2008-10, left tackle Andrew Whitworth was part of a player committee that met with Lewis once a week for lunch to hash out player issues. It didn't do a whole lot and the proof came when it disappeared as more team players populated the locker room.

"At that time, we only had three to five guys he knew he could rely on to make good decisions," Whitworth says. "We're doing things a little differently now, but we have leaders at every position. This is a lot different team. We don't have any de facto leaders or two specific guys that are captains.

"He doesn't have to worry about losing control as much. The leaders on this team want the exact same things he wants."

Which is the same thing Brown wants, a Super Bowl title, and Lewis's relationship with Brown has been no different than with everybody else and has evolved.

Even though their splits have been more celebrated than the agreements, with the two most famous Brown's decision to bring back wide receiver Chris Henry in 2008 and going slowly on the building of an indoor facility. But obviously the Browns and Lewis have agreed enough to keep doing it for 10 years.

Brown is comfortable enough with Lewis that the media reports following the 2011 extension that panned the two of them for looking unhappy at the news conference surprised him.

"I didn't feel that way then and I don't now," Brown says.

"We have an open, direct relationship. We know each other. It's his career and my football team and those things are important to us. Next to marriage it's the most important relationship you can have. We talk about things. He doesn't do everything I would probably want him to do and I probably don't do everything he wishes I would do. But we understand each other and it's OK with both of us that we go about it that way. It's a good relationship. It's the way it ought to be.

"He says his piece, I say my piece and we come to a resolution. As he puts it, when he walks out the door, that's what we're doing. Sometimes I dictate. Sometimes he dictates. It's a mix. More often than not 90-plus percent of the time we agree."

Brown agrees that Lewis has been a huge factor in the community, another example of Lewis's ability to reach through different worlds. You never know who you're going to find in his office and thanks to the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, it could be a group of kids.

"I can't think of anyone who has done a better job in the community than Marvin," Brown says. "He has involved himself in his foundation and has done a great job. We have let him run with it. That reflects well on the team and it should because we support it strongly and not just verbally but otherwise.

"It is the way we have evolved to do a lot of our charitable work. An NFL team has a responsibility to do charitable work in its community and we do a lot of it with him and some of it on our own separately. But he has played an extraordinary role in this regard."

If there aren't kids in Lewis's office, there are coaches or players. It was that stint with Lewis that gave rise to Jackson's chance to coach the Raiders last season before he was shockingly fired after coming within five minutes of winning the AFC West in a season that ended 8-8, a record that Lewis has had three times.

Jackson received a strong backing from both Brown and Lewis when late Raiders owner Al Davis phoned about Jackson, then his offensive coordinator.

"Ten years on the same team in this league?" Jackson asks. "It says he's good at what he does. It says he's with an organization that believes in him. It says he's had an opportunity to settle into the environment around him with players and coaches alike."

Something else that Jackson notices since he left.

"The wear and tear of 10 years on the body and mind," he says. "That's not a bad thing. I see him interact with everyone in the building and there isn't a situation he hasn't seen. He's a confident coach."

And there's a new defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer. Not all that new. Lewis had two of those coordinators in his first five seasons and now Zimmer is going into his fifth season.

"One of the differences is you have Mike Zimmer. You have the best at his position in the NFL," Jackson says. "You have what some would call a young offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden, but he has done a great job and you've got Darrin Simmons, your special teams coach that’s been with you for 10 years. You don't have to worry as much about the lay of the land because it's already been laid. You just have to worry about massaging it and churning it and he does a great job that way."

Jackson has a poster in his office from the Fritz Pollard Alliance that charts the evolution of the NFL's African-American coaches and celebrates those that have blazed the trail. Both Lewis and Jackson are on it.

"I met Marvin back when I was playing in college (at Pacific) and he was a college coach out west," Jackson says. "That's a long time ago. When I saw him become an NFL coach and do what he did, that inspired me, you can believe that."

Jackson pulls out the poster, looks at it, and then puts it back next to his work station. The dream still lives. At 46, Jackson is the age when Lewis went 8-8 the second time.

"I hope he gets 10 more," he says.

 

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