Posted: 8:15 p.m.
Marvin Lewis is emerging as a serious candidate to become the Bengals' first NFL Coach of the Year since Paul Brown led the "Baby Bengals" to the club's first playoff in its third year of existence in 1970.
A small sampling of the 50 voters who cast ballots for the award presented by the Associated Press has Lewis leading what looks like a tight race with the Saints' Sean Payton. Also in the field are Norv Turner of the Chargers and the Colts' Jim Caldwell. Of eight voters polled, Lewis had four votes, Payton three, and one was undecided between Caldwell, Turner and Payton. Of those that didn't opt for Lewis, three said he was their runner-up.
The ballots had to be in Monday, but it won't be announced until Jan. 16 and the AP's Barry Wilner, who runs the balloting for the NFL's major awards, thinks Lewis has a good chance in a normally fractured field. Lewis came in a distant second to Bill Belichick of the Patriots in his rookie year after he led an 8-8 turnaround following a 2-14 season. Lewis's seven votes finished a half vote ahead of Dallas' Bill Parcells with Belichick winning with 35.5 votes.
"If it's anything like the Pro Bowl vote, he's not going to get it," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth with a smile. "He probably wants to be in the boat with us. I definitely think he should be considered. He's been a great leader through some very difficult times."
Here are five reasons why Lewis could and should be the NFL's Coach of the Year:
1. He led a team that finished 4-11-1 last season to a sweep of the division that is considered by many to be the best in the NFL.
"When a team sweeps the division that has the defending Super Bowl champion and has no Pro Bowlers, then it must be the coaching," says Rick "Goose" Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News. "He's got my vote just by doing that."
Clark Judge of CBSSportsline.com was also influenced by the work in the division, among other items.
"It's the division that had two teams last year (Pittsburgh and Baltimore) that played in the conference championship game," Judge says. "And he did it with a running back nobody wanted and a retooled offensive line. I just think he did more with less. I really thought about Norv because the Chargers are playing so well, but Marvin had had Carson Palmer coming off major (elbow) surgery. You have to look at Jim Caldwell, too, but Marvin did it under a lot more adversity."
Gary Myers of *The New York Daily News *opted for Payton because "The Saints were the dominant story and had the dominant team for much of the season," but he also seriously considered Lewis. Myers covered Sunday night's Jets blowout of the Bengals at The Meadowlands, a rout that was so complete that it would have given him some second thoughts had Lewis been his man.
"I didn't vote until this morning and I thought the way they played was an embarrassment to the franchise, really," Myers says. "But in the end I still would have voted for Marvin if he'd been my first choice. There's no question that there will be much more backlash toward what Caldwell did a week ago (when he pulled his starters against the Jets) than what happened with the Bengals (Sunday) night. I think Marvin has a good chance to win it."
Peter King of Sports Illustrated thinks there are stronger arguments for Payton, who took a pay cut to get Gregg Williams in as his defensive coordinator, and Caldwell, whose seamless transition from Tony Dungy has also included a facelift of the Indy defense. But that said, last week King was holding off on voting until the end.
"I love what Marvin has done," King says. "He should be in the mix, but there are so many other good candidates. Here's a guy no one mentions: Steve Spagnuolo. The record is bad, but everything is different about the Rams. It will go down to the wire."
2. Lewis has shown a lot of growth since his rookie season and one of them is letting the third of his defensive coordinators, Mike Zimmer, have a lot of space. It appears to have cut down on the number of cooks in the kitchen and on-field confusion. Lewis also has changed the identity of the team offensively from a non-playoffish finesse team that lived off the pass and always got beat up in AFC North games into a version of the Steelers and Ravens that is physical running the ball and stopping the run.
"It's a no brainer that Marvin is the coach of the year just the way they came in and dominated the division," said Pete Prisco of CBSsportsline.com. "He completely changed the identity of the offense. I think he did it too much. I think they need Carson to take over more in the playoffs, but they are there because of the job (Lewis) did."
Tony Grossi of *The Cleveland Plain Dealer *is another Payton voter that thought long and hard about Lewis.
"I know what it means going undefeated in that division," Grossi said. "I just thought bringing back the Saints and doing it with so many records gave Payton the edge. Plus his team is playing better right now."
3. More evidence on how Lewis has learned on the job: He is listening to his players more and going out of his way to get feedback from them.
Exhibit A are the meetings he has with the captains during Thursday at lunch and the issues he discusses with them, such as practicing indoors during certain weeks of frigid weather. He had a reputation in past locker rooms for keeping players out on the field longer than they would like and wearing them down at times.
When he told them "I've got you" the week after Chris Henry died and they traveled to and from the West Coast as well as New Orleans for the funeral, he made sure he cut back on practice time.
"He's done a great job, really, with the senior leadership on this team and he's done a great job teaching us how to do it," Whitworth said. "He said in the offseason this is the kind of guys he wanted, and I think when he saw these were his kind of guys he trusted us to take over more of the locker room."
Cornerback Leon Hall says Lewis's best asset is as "a motivator. He'll criticize you, but he'll also praise you and I think you have to have that."
Make fun all you want about Lewis's T-shirt sayings, but he knows to find a vein and keep pumping. Know that he's leaving little subtle reminders around that no one made the Pro Bowl.
4. Not only did he oversee an on-field transformation but, as Whitworth called it, "We went from being a team perceived to have bad guys to a team with great guys on and off the field."
Known nationally as a team that had 14 arrests from late 2005 to early 2007, Lewis has been a major figure in reshaping their image as a team of recycled veterans who have been tough end and focused enough to win six of nine games that were decided in the last two minutes. It has been give-and-take on that issue with Bengals president Mike Brown, a guy that likes youth, but Lewis has been able to add some of his coveted veterans over the past few years.
"You've got to give Mike Brown credit and the patience of the Bengals," Judge says. "I know why they were patient with him, but still, there's a reason people who were successful don't turn over coaches and administration quickly and I think it's paid off for them."
Jarrett Bell of USA Today went for Lewis over Turner because Lewis doesn't have as big of a support staff and went through a bigger roster overhaul: "Really, this has been a three-year process."
Bell is right. With Monday's signing of defensive back Keiwan Ratliff, the Bengals now have just eight players who were here for the team's last playoff game, which took place four years and one day ago to the date of this one against the Jets. And Ratliff and Shaun Smith were added in just the last month.
5. Lewis was able to his enormous skills as a crisis manager to make sure the team didn't fold emotionally and physically after the sudden deaths of Zimmer's wife and Henry, on injured reserve when he was killed in a pickup truck accident.
"I know he was great with us when we were having a tough time earlier in the season," said Whitworth, whose wife Melissa had a miscarriage. "Whatever we needed and he gave me time. He's been awesome through that, and been such a good spokesman for the team. He's been a great leader."
But Lewis has always been willing to go above and beyond in a crisis and people respond. When cornerback Dennis Weathersby was involved in a career-ending car accident in April 2004 that put him in a coma, Lewis rode with him in the air care helicopter. Later that season on Thanksgiving night, the baby of cornerback Rashad Bauman died of sudden infant death syndrome, and Lewis reached out and spent time with Bauman's family in the hospital. He was the first one on the scene at the Zimmers' home in those first awful hours back in October and made Mike come home with him and wife Peggy that first night. He along with Palmer spoke at Henry's funeral.
"The fact they could go out to San Diego and play so well so soon after Chris Henry's death is a testimony to Marvin," says one of the voters. And Judge says, "Clearly how he got this team through those two deaths is something you really have to admire."