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Bengals bank on stability


A word on stability in the wake of another tumultuous week in an AFC North town.

When you lose, stability becomes the dreaded status quo. When you win, stability magically becomes the reason you win and with four playoff appearances in the past five seasons the Bengals are in step with an NFL-wide trend that rewards patience in an environment that fosters panic.

Despite Cleveland's six different hires, the Bengals hail from the division with the fewest head coaches in the 11 years since Marvin Lewis became head coach. And in those 11 seasons that stability has helped translate the AFC North into an NFL power as home of the most AFC playoff berths with a total of 18. The only division with more since 2003 is the NFC East with 19 postseason bids.

And, like the AFC North, the NFC East has an impatient crew in Washington, where former Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden becomes the fifth head coach in 11 seasons. But with the Eagles and Giants each relying on one coach for much of the decade, the NFC East, as well as the AFC South, has the second-fewest coaches over that span with a dozen.

(In Lewis's 22 games against the Browns, he has faced 13 different starting quarterbacks and beaten the Browns with each of his four QBs while compiling a 15-7 record against Cleveland.)

Stability also offers a road map for the offseason and hints about impending moves in Cincinnati, where the Bengals front office has been together as long as its head coach. Empowered by three straight playoff runs and five consecutive critically-acclaimed drafts, it's believed the Bengals have started reaching out to players scheduled to become free agents or heading into the final year of their deals in an effort to "keeping our own" in free agency.

Stability has become a watchword in the last 48 hours since the Browns dismissed CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi after barely a year on the job. Coming on the heels of the firing of rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski, the Browns are staring at their third head coach-GM combo in the past 14 months.

But not only that, Chudzinski is one of three head coaches lopped at the end of last season who had served for just three seasons or less. Of the clubs that made the moves (Cleveland, Tennessee, Tampa Bay), the most recent playoff appearance belongs to the Titans in '08.

The Bengals are still searching for that first playoff win under Lewis and are banking on stability to give it to them. They promoted from within to replace their offensive and defensive coordinators and Lewis says the club is sticking with the same systems.

On the day he tapped running backs coach Hue Jackson last month to run his offense, Lewis outlined just how important he thinks continuity is.  

"I think it makes a big difference. I think it's good for our players. As long as we feel the person is qualified," Lewis said. "That's the first thing. The No. 1 thing is that our obligation is to have the Cincinnati Bengals be world champions. That's the first thing. From there it's how do we do that? And, did we put the right people in place? In this case, we had people in place that way and I feel good about that. Sometimes we're going to have to go outside, but in this case I feel really good about the ability to do that."

Just as important has been the lack of turnover in the personnel department, a must in the highly-competitive AFC North. Since Lewis came on in '03, the scouting staff has stayed largely intact. Director of player personnel Duke Tobin heads into his 16th draft with the club in a division that doesn't see much scrambling in the war rooms.

Against the backdrop of the frequent purges in Cleveland, Ozzie Newsome has been general manager in Baltimore since the Ravens moved from Cleveland at the turn of the century. That's about how long Kevin Colbert has been with the Steelers and he was pretty much at the point of personnel matters even before he was named Pittsburgh's first GM in 2010.

Throw in the fact the Ravens and Steelers have each had just two head coaches each in the Lewis era and the numbers make sense.

Since '03, the Ravens have been to the postseason seven times (with one Super Bowl title) and the Steelers (with two Super Bowl titles) have been six times. The Bengals, with five postseason berths under Lewis, join the Patriots and Broncos as the only AFC teams to make the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.

The AFC North, with 11 coaches since '03, has been to the playoffs 18 times in that stretch. The NFC East and AFC South, with 12 coaches each, have been to 19 and 17 postseasons, respectively, to lead the NFL. The bulk of that success comes with 10 years of Andy Reid in Philadelphia, nine years of Tom Coughlin in New York, and eight years of Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.  

That kind of stability provides some clues on what is going to transpire in Bengaldom the next few months. ESPN reports the Bengals had the NFL's highest-paid defense at nearly $70 million last season after they re-signed or extended seven starters and regulars, so look for the Bengals to keep trying to re-up their homegrown talent.

With the network reporting the Bengals have about $15 million to spend under the salary cap, it's going to be tough to sign both right end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins, but they'd like to get at least one of them. Tough because the Bengals are also looking at extending some existing contracts, plus at some point they've got to fit wide receiver A.J. Green's massive second contract, whenever that may be.

Figure the Bengals are probably going to tender their restricted free agents for about $5 million, keep about $5 million free for draft picks, and keep about a $5 million pad for injuries, and the room is going to get eaten up rather quickly. It comes after a season the Bengals are believed to have spent nearly $140 million, third-most in the NFL at about $16 million cash over the $123 million salary cap. Outside signings? Only backups and role players, if any.

Free agency starts March 11, which means the draft board is going to be buffeted for two months before the May 8-10 draft.

Bengals president Mike Brown chairs a draft roundtable that synthesizes evaluations from the personnel department buttressed by reports from the coaches. As the organization has moved from a coaching-centric draft process, Lewis has praised Tobin's work in building a draft board where the Bengals have become comfortable sticking to grades and opting to take the best player available regardless of position and needs.

As last year proved, the Bengals don't like to give up draft picks. With the status of unsigned starting right tackle Andre Smith staring at them as the second round began, they chose to re-sign him instead of taking a tackle with the 35th pick. That opened the door for North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard, an NFL Rookie of the Year candidate.

What will be this year?

Who knows? But stability has handed out a road map.

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