11-6-04, 5:40 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
When it comes to style and substance, Bill Parcells is the most recognizable and accomplished pro football coach of the generation that began with Dan Marino and ends with Michael Vick.
Or, since we're talking about two defensive guys here, make that the generation that began with Lawrence Taylor and ends with Ray Lewis.
So on the weekend the Cowboys' 63-year-old Parcells puts on his headsets Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium for his 263rd regular-season game in a career known as much for his my-way-or-the-highway handling of players as winning games, it seems like a good time to check in on the man expected to be one of the league's most promising young head coaches of the next generation. The Bengals' 46-year-old Marvin Lewis heads into his 24th, game faced with the adversity of a rehab project stuck in the muck of injuries and youth.
"Don't be a players' coach," is Parcells' advice, and with losses in eight of his last 11 games, Lewis doesn't have to worry about that code word for "soft," in his locker room.
One of the moments that has become part of the Parcells legend is the news conference he called wide receiver Terry Glenn "she," when both were with the Patriots. As the Cincinnati media has found, if Lewis is going to call a player "she," he'll tell her behind closed doors.
The closest he's come to criticizing a player publicly is after defensive tackle Langston Moore went offsides three times against Tennessee last week: "He gets another chance. He's running out of chances."
That was a glimpse at the closed-door Marvin as opposed to the toothpaste-commercial-no-comment smile he usually lets the public see. No matter if his team has knocked off one of the elite teams on Monday night, or stumbled to 10 penalties in a loss to a losing team six days later.
"Coaches that aren't labeled as a players' coach are perceived as demanding, emphasize hard work," says linebacker Kevin Hardy, the veteran of the Bengals defense. "But with Marvin, it's the best of both worlds. He's detailed. As a defensive player sometimes you get frustrated because he is a stickler for the details. But at the same time, when you go out and do it right, you see why. He's able to yell at you on the field, and off the field be that personable guy, that quote, unquote players' coach."
Hardy says a coach has to be himself. In Jacksonville, he played for the anti-players' coach and Parcells disciple in Tom Coughlin.
"He's a strict, detailed guy who was always the same," Hardy says. "It was a situation where guys didn't really like him, but we won a lot of games. He wasn't (personable), but that wasn't him."
A couple of weeks ago, the Bengals defense stayed on the field following practice for a few extra minutes to get some calls and formations straight. After practice, Lewis pulled up a stool at defensive tackle John Thornton's locker and the two spent about 10 minutes talking about concerns.
The day after Pro Bowl wide receiver Chad Johnson had what he called the worst game of his life in Cleveland last month, Lewis pulled up the stool at the No. 85 locker and gently reminded him that the Pepto-Bismol gag backfired because it got all the Browns jacked up. That was after he didn't so gently remind him before the game.
But Lewis says being accessible to players doesn't mean being easy on players. In fact, one player says that Lewis is not only demanding of his players, but he's tough on his coaches.
"When you come to coach in the NFL, you can't be intimidated by the players," Lewis says. "The best players in the NFL want to be coached. I think sometimes that's a fear of guys is that you can't coach good players. You coach good players harder. The good players on our team know I coach them harder. I ask more of them. If they make an error and it continues, I've got to get that fixed because everyone is watching that particular player. The other players are going to grow into it."
That's why Lewis might take a young player out in the hallway before a meeting and let him know, "I'm going after you to make a point." He'll walk off the practice field with a young player who didn't dress because of a nagging injury and remind him why he really ought to be dressed for the next one.
"There are certain days he may not be as close, where he just stands back," Thornton says. "Then there are days he's up close and personal. We have plenty of meetings where he goes off. He's not going to show (the media) that. He's going to come in and rip us, and tell us what we did wrong and show everybody. And then when we go out to practice, he's upbeat."
Lewis doesn't mind calling guys out. There was that meeting the day after the Bengals went into their bye week at 1-3 and he flicked the video through each of their mistakes in the red zone.
"There are a lot of players' coaches in the NFL," Thornton says. "Herm Edwards, Jeff Fisher, Mike Tice. Just because guys are close to their players doesn't mean they can't discipline them or be stern with them. I think Bill Parcells tries to intimidate a lot of people. I don't know that, but just by being on the outside, I think he would probably intimidate a lot of players.
"I think (Lewis) intimidates players. Because he's had success in this league," Thornton says. "He's coached successful defenses. You're not going to tell him he doesn't know what he's talking about. You're not going to second guess what he's talking about. It's in a different way, but I think he respects veterans, and I think Bill Parcells does, too. If you're one of his guys, you're going to have a job for a long time. In a way, he is sort of a players' coach, but you have to get on that list. You have to fight you're way up there and earn it."
If everyone knows the list of Parcells' guys Glenn, Richie Anderson, Keyshawn Johnson then Lewis is working on his. He says it's only just begun with his first two drafts. Thornton hopes he's on the list. When he became a free agent the same year Lewis became a head coach in 2003, his goal was simple. Where ever Lewis was the head coach, Thornton wanted to be there.
"I don't know what a players' coach is. Bill Cowher, to me, is an excellent players' coach," said Lewis of his former boss in Pittsburgh. "Because he gets the players to know it's your responsibility to get it done that way. To me, that's what you want. You want to have people who feel they can come to the head coach and say, 'Look, Coach, I think if we just do this every snap, things are going to be good.'
"My opinion of a players' coach is someone who listens and sees, listens and kind of motivates and pushes the players into what they want," Lewis says. "This is the responsibility that comes from that. Now you take it and respond to that."
That's just it. Everyone's definition of a good coach is different. Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna hasn't had all that many one-on-one dealings with Lewis, but they had the Big One back in February when Lewis told him he was no longer the starting quarterback despite being named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's the best head coach I've ever played for," Kitna said. "Marvin maintains the proper distance. I think he's available, but I don't talk to him a lot. In my dealings with him, whatever he says is going to happen, happens. I respect him a lot. He's always treated me fairly. That's all I've ever asked for in this league."
No question, his players say, Lewis has a style. And even though it's substantial, they know it won't pay off until the next shoe drops.
"We have to win," says tight end Matt Schobel. "To me, he's got the perfect mix of business and being personable. You know on the field how he's going to be and what he expects from you, and he'll be a little more laid back in the locker room. But until we go out there and do it, I don't think it comes down to him yelling at us or not yelling at us."