John Thornton and Chris Crocker, two of Marvin Lewis' defensive leaders from play-off runs past, can't wait to see their old head coach call the defensive signals this Sunday in Baltimore and they wouldn't be surprised to see him go back to the system that brought them so much recent success.
As Lewis met with the team the Bengals announced Monday that they fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin and replaced him with Lewis after they became the first team in the Super Bowl era to give up 500 yards in three straight games in the wake of Sunday's 51-14 loss to the Saints that stands as the most points ever allowed in a franchise home game.
"I appreciate the hard work that Coach Austin has put into our football team, but I felt it best to make a change at this point in time, and I wish him the best," Lewis said in a news release. "I will be coordinating the defense from here on out and I am excited to do that. This football team has a real chance to get back to playing winning football so we can compete for the playoffs, and that is our sole focus."
Lewis, signed to head coach the Bengals in 2003 after reaching defensive guru status with the Ravens at the turn of the century, still has a former head coach and defensive coordinator on staff in linebackers coach Jim Haslett. Despite feeling the need to fire a coordinator in mid-season for the second straight year, Lewis has his Bengals in the hunt at 5-4. After the Bengals started 0-2 last season without scoring a touchdown, Lewis replaced offensive coordinator Ken Zampese with quarterbacks coach Bill Lazor.
But at 60 and in his 16th season as the head man, Lewis now appears to have his biggest challenge since he took over that 2-14 team in 2003.
Crocker, the versatile defensive back who helped coordinator Mike Zimmer shape a Bengals defense that was the backbone of six post-season berths, had just spoken to Lewis last week and was shocked but delighted at the word emanating from Paul Brown Stadium.
"This is good news if you're a Bengals fan. It shows how much he cares about this team and what he think they can get done," Crocker said. "The guy is taking the accountability and is going to drive it himself … Marvin knows situational football. Don't underestimate his ability to call games. He's one of the most respected guys in the league."
Thornton, a defensive tackle on Lewis' first six teams now an agent, believes Lewis has much more talent than he had then.
"You've got to remember," Thornton said, "if there is anybody that knows what this defense needs, it's Marvin."
Thornton played in what is believed to be the last game Lewis called, a 2004 game in Cleveland he took the headsets from Leslie Frazier that the Browns ended up winning.
"I remember he said something like it doesn't matter who's calling the plays and if you look at it, we just didn't have very good personnel," Thornton said. "I mean, in '06 we have up 42 points in the second half to San Diego after we were leading (28-7) at the half. Coach Frazier is still in the league and he's still a good coach. But it comes down to being comfortable with players and styles. Leslie came from Philadelphia and it didn't really fit with what Marvin wanted.
"The one thing I remember about that season is how hard it was for him not to make calls. I think it's that way when you get a job because of what you did on that side of the ball."
When Lewis fired Frazier after that 2004 season, he took the blame and didn't get it sorted out until he hired Zimmer in 2008. From that point the Bengals won three AFC North tittles and secured three Wild Card berths with Zimmer and disciple Paul Guenther running the scheme. When Guenther left to coordinate Jon Gruden's defense in Oakland back in January, Lewis opted for the highly-regarded Austin and he brought in his own system.
But the players never seemed comfortable with it and are on pace to be the first Bengals team to allow 500 points. They've never stopped the run (allowing five yards per rush) and opposing quarterbacks have racked up a 98.6 passer rating. After Sunday's game players spoke about "gray," areas in communication, still adjusting to a system new to everybody. Left end Carlos Dunlap said the systems are similar, but there are different calls and terminology. Safety Shawn Williams said the talent is there, "but we have to get on the same page."
Crocker, who came off the couch in the middle of the season three times to run Zimmer's scheme in the secondary, could see it again.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he did that," Crocker said. "Don't kid yourself about these guys. They've got the capacity to do what they've been doing for six, seven, eight years and going back to that after six, seven, eight months would not be that hard. Look what I did two or three times."
Thornton thinks Lewis is capable of changing roles in mid-stream.
"He'll just have to get his hands dirty and he does that," Thornton said. "I've been in there on an off day and he's sitting down with the coordinators. He knows exactly what's going on. The game has changed since he (called defenses), but the only real difference is back then they could say, 'Give me 17, 20 points and we'll be OK.' Now with the way teams are scoring, it's more like 25."