Updated: 7:10 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - When Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis sat down with his local media here at the NFL scouting combine, there was a lot of discussion about free agency.
Including the potential of his own, a topic that took on warp speed Friday when Lewis hinted that there are issues of power and control involved in his contract negotiations as the Bengals attempt to extend the reigning NFL Coach of the Year beyond the 2010 season. Lewis revealed the Bengals approached him in the middle of last season's run to the AFC North title and after the Wild Card loss to the Jets.
"There were things that when I started this job in 2003 that were important to me; we can't change those," Lewis said. "They have to stay on track and I have to make sure we're continuing to progress that way and those are the things are as important to me as anything.
"I'm talking about structure. I'm talking about decisions on how we do things. How I have the ability to do things to give us an opportunity to win football games."
Lewis wouldn't elaborate on his own situation, only to say he hopes it gets done. But he made it clear as the NFL heads into a season without a salary cap and no collective bargaining agreement for the 2011 season that the Bengals have no plans to get involved in free agency and are going to put their resources into keeping their own.
"We're going to work to sign our guys back and then go from there," Lewis said as he alluded to the Vikings signing quarterback Brett Favre last season. "There have been very few teams that have been big in the free-agency market and won any games. There was one free agency impact player last year. Right? And (Favre) signed in August and went into a system that he could play in. The thing is you want to keep drafting and training our guys and doing it the right way, and hopefully, like we just talked about, extend the right guys."
Those guys are no doubt cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph, center Kyle Cook, and maybe running back Cedric Benson, young players that aren't up for at least another year. Lewis also indicated he'd like to keep a pair of aging but reliable free agents in right guard Bobbie Williams and tight end Reggie Kelly, both 33.
"He's beaten the averages as far as age. He had a really productive season last year and he adds a lot of stability up front," Lewis said of Williams. "Hopefully we can get Bobbie back with the football team."
Lewis guffawed when asked if his own lame-duck status would impact the club's ability to add players.
"Two things settle free agency – opportunity and money," Lewis said. "In the NFL? Come on. An NFL player wants to sign for one year and then get cut the next."
Former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton was the first free agent Lewis signed back in those giddy days of '03. Now working the combine for Cincinnati radio station WLW-AM 700, Thornton said it's not uncommon for a guy like Lewis with seven seasons under his belt to be flexing his muscles. Only Tennessee's Jeff Fisher has been coaching an AFC team longer.
"A lot of coaches that coach for a long time, they want guarantees as far as choosing roster, staff, it could be anything," Thornton said. "I think it will get done. Everybody in the league is almost a lame duck because there might be a lockout. It's not as bad as it used to be. I don't think it's a bad thing now with the state of the league. I think a lot of the teams are holding back."
When Lewis took the job in wake of a five-year stretch in which the Bengals were 19-63, he and Bengals president Mike Brown presided over a top-to-bottom transformation that encompassed everything from budget to structure to staffing to personnel.
The landscape has certainly changed since the Bengals signed Thornton to lead a high-priced free-agent class and added coaches before Lewis took the Bengals within a game of the playoffs in his rookie season. The economy is considerably different and like Lewis, the players and owners don't have a deal in 2011.
"The most important thing is what we do in 2010 on the football field whether I have a contract beyond this year or not," Lewis said. "That's the most important thing for those 53 guys we end up with and those other coaches I have.
"There's a lot of things that go into (the extension). The direction of things we're doing and how we're doing things. All those things are important to me."
Lewis stopped short of saying that management has cut back on his '03 mandate or his influence with the roster, where Brown has the final call. Lewis also has a final say of sorts:
"I think we've made progress. I think we fundamentally have built a pretty strong foundation at this point," he said. "I'm pleased about that. We've made a transformation to guys who love to play football, that love to compete and that's important."
Lewis, 56-57-1 in Cincinnati with two division titles and no playoff victories, will tie founder Paul Brown in second place in club history with 115 games coached in this year's opener, 17 behind leader Sam Wyche. Both Brown and Wyche coached eight seasons, but whether Lewis gets to that ninth season appears to involve more than a salary that reportedly puts him in the $4 million per year neighborhood.
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the offensive captains, said Lewis' contract won't have an impact on the players.
"That's his business," Whitworth said. "Our line coach (Paul Alexander) didn't have a contract but we improved as the season went on and we were proud of what we accomplished."
Reports say that Alexander has since signed a three-year deal, as has defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. In an effort to take Zimmer off the market, Brown gave him a deal that is believed to make him the club's first seven-figure coordinator.
LEWIS' TRANSCRIPT WITH LOCAL MEDIA
Q: How important is it to re-sign G Bobbie Williams?
"Bobbie has really done a good job since we added him to the team. Now I guess we're going to this a third time around. He's beaten the averages, as far as age and everything, and had a really productive football season last year. He obviously adds a lot of stability to everything upfront. So hopefully we can get Bobbie back on the football team."
Q: Has the team approached you about a contract extension?
"We talked about it on October and we talked about it again after the season. We'll see what happens. Hopefully it'll be something that gets worked out. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Q: Is a contract extension important or unimportant to you?
"I guess things are important. There are a lot of things that go into that; the direction of things that we're doing and how we're doing things. All those things are important to me. There were things that as I started this job in 2003 that were important and we can't change those. They have to stay on track and I have to make sure we'll continue to progress that way. Those are the things that are as important to me as any."
Q: Do you approach your situation equally to a player with a one-year contract?
"It's not to that extent, but can't worry about it. I'm not going to worry about those things. The most important thing is what we do in 2010 on the football field. Whether I have a contract beyond this year or not, that's the most important thing. That's the most important thing for those 53 guys we end up with and those other coaches I have."
Q: When you say "important things" what are you referring to?
"I'm talking about structure. I'm talking about decisions on how we do things, how I have the ability to do things that give us an opportunity to win football games."
Q: How much has the organization progressed in terms of where you want it to be?
"All of that's really private to us, but I think we've made progress. I think we fundamentally have built a pretty strong foundation at this point. I'm pleased about that. We've made a transformation. We've made a transformation to guys who love to play football and love to compete and that's important."
Q: With the salary cap uncertainty of next season, is this year's draft preparation any different?
"I don't think it'll effect the draft really at all. The draft is an opportunity to improve your football team for the future and you really have to look at it at that point. To me it's not important in the draft to fill every seat, but to fill every seat as best we can, with the best football player that we can. Every football team is put together a little different and have their star player at this position and their very good player at that position. So you want to make sure you continue to use the draft that way. If you draft by need, you take a lesser player. When you take a lesser player, in two years he's still a lesser player. He doesn't maybe get better. You want to take the best players you can take and you do the best job fitting the other guys around him and do the best job of coaching the entire group; to really upgrade the talent level of your entire football team, not just to be pleased that I got 11 guys."
Q: Can a tight end be a chunk-yardage player?
"I think a tight end can. I think we're in a unique situation because we took a guy last year we feel really good about in Chase Coffman. We have a guy who's been a great pro and a very good blocker in Reggie (Kelly) who's coming off of injury and is a free agent. It's in a difficult situation and the guys that played for us last year did a great job. They gave us every fiber of their body, each and every snap. So yeah we have an opportunity to possibly get better through the draft or however it may come. We want to have competition. But I think he can.
"The thing that people realize is that guy's ability to block people on the line of scrimmage, particularly, in our division, is a no-joke job and it takes a man. You've got to be able to do that. That's why nobody in our division has one. You see what I'm saying? It didn't work. There was one picked very high and it didn't work and he's no longer there, because it takes a man to stand up and play the six division football games against the teams we'll go play six times."
Q: Are there any players in this draft that can help you immediately?
"I think they can help you right away, you don't know where they're going to be. I think the fun thing for me is to track the guys that have come out the last three seasons that we haven't quite gotten to, that have gone two or three picks before us, and see how well they've done in the NFL, who had similar characteristics, similar ability and to see how they're impacting the game right now. That's how you do it and you understand that you can look down the road and say, 'OK, that's what this guy can be in a year-and-a-half or six games into the season.' But you know what? He's not going to be there in Week 1, but in six games. So how do we get him through Week 1 to Week 5, to where we make him a threat and maybe make them have to adjust a little bit, as he learns the other nuances of having to step up and play NFL football?"
Q: **How much has the spread offense in college football burdened the task of developing traditional tight ends and fullbacks?
"There's not as big as an abundance. I think basketball has taken guys, because they start playing basketball and get recruited in basketball so early. It's a much easier thing to do to go play basketball than get your head kicked in. From another standpoint, it really enables you to see one part of the game that I can't coach and that's the athletic ability."
Q: Is it safe to say you will not be looking a possession receiver in the draft?
"It's really hard to say; I don't really know what a possession receiver is. You're evaluating guys that are coming off college tape. Their quarterbacks are different, everything's different. If you added a receiver early, you want a guy you know you can count on early in the football season and enhance our football team in the passing offense."
Q: What are your thoughts on local college products, Mardy Gilyard and Tony Pike?
"I've seen very little of them, other than what I watch on Saturday TV or Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night TV, with the way the NCAA does it now. We're all about academics in the NCAA. I think both guys are exceptional. They're very good pro prospects. Hopefully they're relishing this time. They're going to work their tails off and have an opportunity to play in a pro-style offense, which will is going to help them come to this level at their two positions and really showcase their abilities. It'll be fun to see them. I have not met either guy, so I'm anxious to meet them."
Q: Do you see a need to draft a defensive end or do you feel good about the guys who have now?
"I don't know. I haven't looked at enough tape to tell you who's worthy of anything. I like where our guys are. Antwan (Odom) is coming off an injury, but he kind of got his feet wet a little bit and got a little taste of what he can do as a football player. He's excited about that. He's got all that in his control, to get himself well, better and kick the season off right."
Q: What about the other starting defense end, Robert Geathers?
"Robert played a lot of snaps, played tough and played through injury. That's what happens. Hopefully with Antwan, we feel we'll be in a better position and we'll get through the season without a lot of injuries."
Q: What do you think about Jonathan Fanene's play last season?
"I thought Jon did a good job for us. Jon really has continued to progress each and every time he's gotten an opportunity. When we took Jon from Utah, he played very little football so we knew it was going to a learning thing and he was going to keep learning and coming. To his credit, he's done that. He stepped in very admirably and did a good job for us and played tough, played strong and played with injuries. He's doing everything we've asked him."
Q: With all of the speculation going around, is Buffalo Bills WR Terrell Owens on your radar at all for next season?
"Well T.O. belongs to the Buffalo Bills. So that's their player."
Q: Have there been any extension talks with RB Cedric Benson?
"That's part of the whole thing with our management group. To do that, you've got to look at the players down the line. They have always done a great job of looking at the future and the future brings. I think that's important to continue to work to extend young players, to keep them under contract."
Q: Is it more difficult so sign players to long-term contracts with the uncertainty of the collective bargaining agreement?
"Yeah, it'll be a more difficult year. Again, we don't know what it is and we're not allowed to talk about it, so it's a good thing."
Q: Do you view free agency as something similar to college recruiting?
"Two things settle free agency – opportunity and money."
Q: Does your contract status affect which free agents might sign with the Bengals?
"In the NFL? Come on. An NFL player wants to sign for one year and then get cut the next. Come on (laughs). We're going to work to sign our guys back and then go from there. There have been very few teams that have been big in the free-agency market and won any games. There was one free agency impact player last year. Right? And he signed in August and went into a system that he could play in. The thing is you want to keep drafting and training our guys and doing it the right way, and hopefully, like we just talked about, extend the right guys."
Q: What are your thoughts about getting a fifth preseason game?
"I'm excited about it. It's something I've been talking with people up there about for three years now. It's finally worked out. It's a good thing for our fans; it's a good thing to go back to the founder of this football team in Canton, where Paul Brown first started coaching. It's a neat situation for us. We won't adjust a great deal to start training camp. As far as coming in – we won't come in that much earlier, maybe a day earlier than we would've planned if we'd been playing them the next Friday. The most important thing for me is that we get to the start of next season as healthy as we can, for the real season. But I'm excited, we're playing a great football team with a lot of good players and a coaching staff and Wade (Phillips) who I have a great deal of respect for as a coach. He's been a great friend of mine and a mentor to me, so I'm excited about that."