Updated: 5:45 p.m.
Think back to the last game of 2007 when the Bengals were in Miami, T.J. Houshmandzadeh was in stripes, it was Chad as in Johnson, and Barack Obama was in the U.S. Senate.
And there was head coach Marvin Lewis fuming after a 7-9 finish that he planned to air out all his files and playbooks.
Now finally after a year and a half this is what he had in mind. Particularly on offense. In Wednesday's conversation with Bengals.com, Lewis called it "a remade team," with upgrades at nearly every position and emphasized, "We know who our leaders are."
With the Bengals looking to open his seventh training camp next week, Lewis is looking at the culmination of his second rebuilding job since he arrived from Washington in 2003,
He focused on an offense that finished last in the NFL season without injured quarterback Carson Palmer for 12 games.
He compared the state of the offensive line to what he inherited in '03 with a battle at center with Rich Braham and Mike Goff, an unknown left tackle in young Levi Jones, and an established right tackle in Willie Anderson.
"From a year ago we really upgraded in that aspect. Being able to put the entire group out there to practice each and every day and to play together," Lewis said of the line anchored by inexperienced center Kyle Cook and bookended by veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth and rookie right tackle Andre Smith. "It's much like we were in '03.
"We've got two good (tackles) right now. We know what we have in Whitworth like we knew what we had with Willie. And we were unsettled at center until Braham beat out Goff."
Despite the loss of one of the NFL's most prolific receivers over the last two seasons in Houshmandzadeh via free agency, Lewis says the Bengals are better at that position starting with a healthy Chad Ochocinco.
"We've obviously upgraded at receiver just with the addition of Laveranues (Coles) and the experience of the other guys," said Lewis of last year's top draft picks Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson. "And the return of No. 85 and Chris (Henry) with an offseason and a training camp under his belt."
Lewis did say that Simpson "has a long way to go" if he wants to make sure he dresses on Sundays but he also said Simpson will get plenty of shots in training camp.
Lewis also thinks the Bengals are better at running back than they've been lately. "We don't have Corey Dillon, but I think we've got a Cedric Benson," said Lewis, who sees Benson as a very good back that has top five talent and has some solid complementary candidates around him.
He said the front seven has also been upgraded with a mix of draft picks, the free-agent signing of tackle Tank Johnson and the return to health of defensive ends Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom while calling safety "maybe the most competitive spot on the team."
After watching former University of Cincinnati punter and the club's fifth-round pick Kevin Huber work this spring, Lewis said, "We've upgraded in that area quite a bit."
Lewis could only smile about Ochocinco's assault on Twitter. Obviously, he said, Ochocinco is not allowed to Tweet during games or at halftime.
"He's having a good time having fun," Lewis said. "He knows the nature of the business, the letter of the law. He gets everybody's attention every time he says something and people just keep playing into it. As long as people keep following every word he says, he'll continue to keep giving them stuff to hang on to."
Here is the full conversation.
GH: You're going into your seventh training camp and it's almost like you've gone through your second rebuilding.
ML:We're a remade team. We're reworked on defense and offense. Along with that is a remade specialist group that played exceptionally well in some adverse moments last year.
GH: Talk about remade. You've got a rookie punter in Kevin Huber.
ML: We've upgraded in that area quite a bit.
GH: Where else have you upgraded?
ML: We've upgraded the offensive line. We're obviously upgraded at receiver with just the addition of Laveranues and the experience of the other guys and the return of No. 85. Chris (Henry) with an offseason under his belt and training camp under his belt. The maturity and maturation of Andre and Jerome.
GH: The offensive line is an upgrade? Most view it as the biggest question.
ML: From a year ago we really upgraded in that aspect. Being able to put the entire group out there to practice each and every day and to play together. It's much like we were in '03. We know what we have in Whitworth like we knew what we had with Willie. And we were unsettled at center until Braham beat out Goff.
GH: You had two pretty good tackles in '03.
ML: I think we've got two really good ones now in Whitworth and Andre. Levi was an unknown in '03. We weren't sure at guard and center, so there were some unknowns in '03 as well. Richie was able to win the center battle in '03 and Goff moved back to guard. Levi performed well in his second year.
GH: The only known item at running back is Cedric Benson, really.
ML: I think when Kenny Watson has had his opportunity he's done very well. Brian Leonard, who we traded for, will be competing. Bernard Scott, who we drafted. DeDe Dorsey, who has had flashes of great plays every chance he gets to play. And James Johnson showed us last year that he can do that. We're probably better at running back than we've been. We don't have Corey Dillon, but I think we have Cedric Benson.
We have very competent players that fit what we do. I'm excited with the addition of Bernard Scott. It will be a big key between him and DeDe and James Johnson which of those guys is going to be another complementary player in the backfield.
GH: Is Jeremi Johnson going to be on the field at the start of training camp with the fullbacks?
ML: Jeremi's got a long way to go to make the team. We don't know how Jeremi will be.
GH: If he doesn't make weight, is he gone that first day?
ML: We have to see how he comes to camp.
GH: It sounds like you think you've upgraded a lot on offense.
ML: I think we've improved on offense quite a bit. What we set out to do was improve our personnel offensively and I think for the most part we have. Kyle Cook at center will help us. He's been here and matured and matriculated in the spot. It's a development thing and that's good.
GH: You would think the defense is going to get better just going off the fact it's Mike Zimmer's second year as defensive coordinator.
ML:The experience of what they were building a year ago and learning the principles and foundations are already there. Now you have to go back and start from scratch with the same fundamentals and principles. I think we start from scratch knowing that we found some players that were able to help us, particularly at linebacker.
Brandon (Johnson), who filled in for Keith (Rivers), and we know Keith can be a good player. Rashad (Jeanty) had his best year and comes in as a more experienced player in this offseason. He was able to participate fully. And there's the addition of Rey (Maualuga) and the possibilities of Michael Johnson.
I think the defensive line is (better) getting the guys back healthy. Robert (Geathers) and (Antwan) Odom weren't on the field at the same time at end hardly ever last year. I think one or two games. Then with Tank (Johnson), he will help upgrade the interior part. Pat Sims got his nose wet at tackle last year. He understands what it's all about. He's had a really good offseason. He's excited about the opportunity to show he can be an every down player.
GH: One of the big questions on defense is third corner. There's not much depth behind Johnathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
ML: We're better than we were because we've got David Jones. He played the entire year. I don't know how you go backwards. David Jones started (seven) games for us and we won the (last three) games. We know how tough he is. He's played hurt. He wants to play. Can he continue to progress and develop?
GH: Does the depth there worry you at all?
ML: Geoff Pope had one bad play for us all last year. Other than that he played very well, practiced very well. You feel good about that. We drafted a guy in Morgan Trent who will be a good NFL corner. At some point you have to play the guys that are there. We may add another guy, but you're just adding a guy to compete, which is fine. It is what you should do. We have two corners most people don't have. We've already spent our lot on two No. 1 picks at corner.
GH: Safety seems very intriguing for you.
ML: It may be the most competitive spot on the team.
GH: How did Roy Williams look to you this spring?
ML: He's done great.
GH: Can you rebuild on offense with the same coaches?
ML: You can restructure, you can retool. At the end of the season, you end up a little different than you were. That's always the case. When we (first) had Carson Palmer, no one thought we would have a back that rushed for 1,400, 1,500 yards. But you have to in order to win games, particularly in our division. Had the offense finished 20th or 15th, we would have made the same changes but it wouldn't have been a big deal. But because we finished (last) in the rankings ... it brings more attention to it.
Which was really not (because) of the offense but some of the people that were executing the offense ... we would have made the same changes regardless. We need to make adjustments no matter where we finished in offense to make sure we use the people we have.
GH: After the final game in Miami in '07, you said you were going to clean out all the files and freshen up the playbooks. You did it on defense when you hired Zim a few weeks later.
ML: We never got a chance (on offense) because our quarterback got injured. Our running back (Rudi Johnson) decided to sit down on us. ... We had some things occur at the beginning of the year we didn't foresee happening. We weren't able to get to that. You were just trying to survive and get enough points for our defense to win the game. When you turn the ball over like we did at the start of last year you end up losing the game for everybody.
GH: Is this what you had in mind for the offense after the '07 season?
ML: Right. It just took a littler longer than you hope.
GH: Is this the year you have to do it?
ML: Ever year is the year you have to do it. No coach is going to say we're going to give up this year for next year. That's not how coaches operate.
GH: Every year they put you on the hot seat.
ML: I don't worry about that. The goals have to be the same every year. They are what they are.
GH: Can this team be as good as the '05 team?
ML: Every team can be as good as any team. That's why it's called a football team. It's a matter of making plays in critical moments. Don't make critical errors. That's how teams win.
GH: You've talk about how this team is more emotionally prepared than your best teams.
ML: Maybe more of a lack of big emotion, which is a good thing.
GH: You talk about Chad. If he gets back to his mindset of '05 and '06, he's still a pretty big-time receiver, right?
ML: His mindset has just got to be each and every time he goes out there that he runs the route at the right depth, the right break and he gives the quarterback an opportunity to go to him. If the ball doesn't come to him that time, just know that by consistently doing it the right way chances are it is going to get to you sooner or later.
We've really done a good job of always trying to help eliminate the double teams and make it effective. If there is going to be a double team on one side, we want the quarterback to go away from the double and the rest of the players have to be patient that sooner or later your time is going to come.
GH: Chad has been using Twitter at a record rate and wants to know if he can use it during games.
ML: He's having a good time having fun. He knows the nature of the business, the letter of the law. He gets everybody's attention every time he says something and people just keep playing into it. As long as people keep following every word he says, he'll continue to keep giving them stuff to hang on to. ... Obviously he's not allowed to do it during a game or at halftime.
GH: Are you worried about him on Hard Knocks?
ML: He's got a job to do. He's got to earn his spot and get back to the way he was playing. He has to have a really good training camp and he's poised to do that.
GH: What was the one thing you learned about Hard Knocks in Baltimore?
ML: I don't want to talk about *Hard Knocks. Hard Knocks *is not a big deal. All they're doing is documenting a football team. It has nothing to do with this or that. These guys have jobs to do.
GH: But you'll be the one team under their microscope.
ML: And next week there'll be another team doing something else. Something happens every week in the NFL.
GH: At the end of minicamp you talked about how you had avoided injuries. How did you respond to the injuries that have hurt you the last couple of years?
ML: This team has never not been in shape. My only point is this is the first time we go into training camp knowing we've got 80 players and probably no one on PUP. It's been awhile since we've done that.
GH: Have you made any changes in training camp in an effort to cut down on injuries?
ML: The guys we've lost in camp have been mainly hurt in games. We've got to practice. We're about as bare bones as you can be in training camp.
GH: As far as how much you've got them doing?
GH: Have you looked at practice time during the season? T.J. Houshmandzadeh was pretty open about always saying he thought they were on the field too much.
ML: We're on the field far less than most teams, which was documented and researched.
GH: They always say, 'Well, Marvin is a hard-driving Pittsburgh guy.'
ML: We don't practice like we practiced in Pittsburgh. We practiced much longer under Bill (Cowher).
GH: You agree this is the second rebuilding job?
ML:I don't think rebuilding. The team has been rebuilt. Rebuilding means it's in process. I think the team has been rebuilt and has to be ready to go Sept. 13. When the curtain rises on Sept. 13, there are no excuses.
GH: Do you feel differently about this team than before '07 or '08?
ML: No, I feel the same way. This team has better leadership. We know who our leaders are. I think that gives you a better feel.
GH: Is there anything you did to remake yourself? Did you change anything you do?
ML: I'll never say anything publicly to answer anything like that. The first time and someone says, 'Well, it didn't go that way.' The anti Rex Ryan.
GH: Hard to believe this is your seventh camp?
GH: How do you feel?
ML: Good. There's not the anxiety about some of the things there used to be quite a bit of anxiety about.
GH: Like what?
ML: Just things are going to come up and you have to deal with them as they occur. You know the unknowns are going to occur. You have to cross those bridges when they come. I think people know what to expect. Just like this whole thing with Chad. It's not a big deal for most people now.
GH: What haven't you seen, right?
GH: Do you feel frustrated, encouraged, what?
ML: As coaches and players, I think we're in a good spot. We know the direction. We know where the enemies lie. We know we've got to win on the road, we've got to win on the West Coast later in the year, and we've got to win in the division.
GH: You've said you want to get back to being physical and throwing long.
ML: Being physical across the board, making explosive plays, not giving up explosive plays, and in the middle win on third down and take care of the ball.
GH: You seem better equipped to do that than the last couple of years.
ML: We've taken the steps to handle those things. To get better at those things. When you evaluate what wins in the NFL you have to have chunk plays and you have to eliminate chunk plays and you can't turn it over and you have to get turnovers and you have to win on third down. Year after year, of your 12 playoff teams 11 of them are going to be excellent in all those areas. One might sneak in that may not be as good doing one of those things.
GH: You've got a lot of guys like Simpson in the sense you need to see them play. He may have trouble dressing on Sundays with the active roster.
ML:Jerome has a long way to go. But he'll get plenty of work this summer. We have to get them ready to go with game experience. It's like at cornerbacks.
We know what David Jones can do, but the guys beyond that? Those guys didn't play much and David has to continue to play. Jerome didn't play enough last year. (Safety) Corey Lynch didn't get to play enough last year. DeDe Dorsey didn't get a chance to play. James Johnson. Kenny Watson. Brian Leonard. There are guys like that that didn't play much. Roy Williams played hardly at all. Chinedum. Marvin White. They've to get back into it. It's a good situation to have rather than a guy that comes in and you can't put him out there.