Changes waiting for win

9-23-03, 8:25 a.m.

Because Tuesday is the heaviest work day of the week for a NFL staff, Marvin Lewis and assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi celebrated their birthdays Monday.

Cioffi turned 30 on that inconvenient Sunday known as Game Day. Lewis became 45 Tuesday, still not quite believing that first victory as a NFL head coach didn't come at age 44. But as he poked at a piece of carrot cake all by himself after all his coaches had eaten Monday night, 0-3 was as real as the calories.

But this is what you have to do. You have to judge the term of a head coach by birthdays and not Sundays.

The record is the same, and the good people of Bengaldom don't want to hear about it being a process and taking time and baking a cake, and all that other give-it-time stuff that has worn thin after a dozen years of nothing.

But the record is the only thing that is the same. When you turn a country club into a YMCA, it takes time to sort out the membership.

On Sunday, Lewis sat down the Bengals' best receiver, Chad Johnson, because of discipline. Even if it was just for a series. On Monday, he chided his players for detailing to the press how there was a miscommunication on the Steelers' successful fake field goal that turned Sunday's game into a loss.

"What's done is done," Lewis said. "When we lose, it's my fault. I'll take responsibility for that. When they win, it's their fault and they did a hell of a job. That's the way we operate."

He told them it wouldn't happen again when there is snafu like that on the field. No finger pointing. No excuses. No nothing. Just go to the next game.

There may not be a win, but it isn't the same.

"He's got moré of a stranglehold on this team than you would think an 0-3 ball club would be," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who has been on four 0-3 teams. "If there's one thing veterans can hold their head up about and say it is different, we do have a commanding leader."

It takes birthdays, not Sundays.

"When you're trying to root out some of the negative things that have gone on around here in the past and guys who have been around it, that's a long process," said quarterback Jon Kitna. "It's a process. There's going to be some hurt, there's going to be some pain, and there are going to be some feelings that are going to get hurt. But in the end, the reward is far greater than the pain you have to go through."

Cioffi was in first grade on Long Island the year Bill Walsh became head coach of the 49ers. By the time Walsh went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Cioffi was a volunteer assistant coach in the NFL. Walsh had just one more victory than birthday that first season as he went from 47 to 48 and the Niners finished 2-14.

Lewis turned 11 years old two days after his hometown Steelers won Chuck Noll's debut, then

watched Pittsburgh not win another game the rest of the year. When Noll retired 22 years later with four Super Bowl titles, Lewis was the father of two about to become an NFL assistant after 10 years of college coaching.

Noll started his dynasty at 1-13. Walsh lost 24 of his first 32 games. It took Marty Schottenheimer, Lewis' Pittsburgh soulmate who turned 60 Tuesday with 166 victories, three years to get a winning record. Dick Vermeil won nine games his first two seasons in Philadelphia before winning nine in one year. Bill Parcells broke in with three victories with the 1983 Giants. Jon Gruden was .500 his first two seasons in Oakland.

The growing pains keep groaning. Transforming a culture instead of a mere playbook is more glacial than push-button. Ten years from now in the NFL's "White Book," of record and facts, there are going to be numbers next to Lewis and 2003. But there won't even be an asterisk about sitting Johnson on Sunday, which may turn out to be the most important moment of this season.

On Sunday, some of the veteran Pittsburgh scribes compared it to Noll running off the Steelers' best player, Roy Jefferson, that first year and sending him packing, although Lewis has no such plans here because he loves Johnson's enthusiasm and talent.

But Lewis reportedly told friends around the league, "You can't let stuff like this get away from you."

On Monday, he told the media "It's a message to everyone. There are certain things you have to do right. Not pick and choose what's good for you and what you think is favorable that day. We have to understand that. We have to be able to count on you all the time."

These are the things that change a team and take time to show up in a boxscore. On Monday, Lewis declared the Bengals are a better team than the one that took the field for the opener.

With Lewis, there is always a big picture view, and the appealing quality of poking fun at himself. When a reporter asked a question Monday by calling Bengals President Mike Brown, "Coach," Lewis laughed and said, "That's a Freudian slip."

It's different around here, now. But don't kid yourself. One thing the first three weeks have proven is that the Bengals may not have all that talent the personnel pundits always like to put at their feet, and this roster is still very much in transition. Knowing Lewis, he'd love to make a move right about now that would get people uncomfortable just like he did on Cutdown Day.

One look at the interior of the Steelers' offensive line on Sunday and the fact that three of the Bengals' top four guards and centers are free agents next year should tell you where one of next season's major moves are coming. They still need more athletes to stop the run, still need more guys like Steelers outside linebacker Jason Gildon who can make an interception by diving and picking the ball off the red-zone chalk.

"To start our season like we've started it wins and losses wise, that's bad," Kitna said. "It doesn't feel good and it starts to feel, 'Has it changed?' But it has. It has. When it comes, it's going to come in bunches because everybody believes. We just have to keep at it.

"It doesn't make anybody feel better in this locker room. It doesn't make anybody feel better outside this locker room, or that's sitting in the seats, or watching on TV. Nobody feels better about that because of what has gone on here the last 12, 13 years. The reality is it's going to change and it is changing."

The only problem is, there's no category for change in the standings.

That comes under birthdays.

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