Happy New Year

1-14-04, 7:40 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis celebrated Wednesday's one-year anniversary of his hiring just like the first 365 days.

Trying to make his team better.

"We're no longer playing for respectability," Lewis said Wednesday as he took stock of The Year of Marvin Lewis. "We're playing to be a champion. There is a certain aura of ineptitude that has been erased. People don't ever have to have that perception ever again. We have great quality people here. We no longer have to worry about that. We don't have to work quite as hard just to get back to even."

After going 8-8 in a fan favorite season that will probably yield Lewis the Staples' Coach of the Year Award since he led the voting most of the way, getting over the hump now means, "winning the Super Bowl." Not making the playoffs in '04 "is going to be a disappointment just like it was this year."

Lewis calls it a "whirlwind," since that day the Bengals introduced him at a hastily-arranged news conference at the Senior Bowl at the Grand Resort on the outskirts of Mobile, Ala. Shortly after Lewis pulled on public relations director Jack Brennan's Bengals' polo jersey, the club introduced the winner of a coaching derby that included Tom Coughlin and Mike Mularkey. They were formidable candidates who got their own teams this offseason and validated a short list the Bengals' brain trust crafted in the ruins of a 2-14 season.

Since Jan. 14, 2003, in no particular order, Lewis has overseen a virtual clean sweep of the coaching staff, additions in the personnel department, a $250,000 renovation of equipment and philosophy in the weight room, the best attended off-season workouts in more than a decade, a No. 1 pick signed before the draft, a heads-first effort in the community, Friday West Coast trips, indoor practices, five home sellouts and a game to decide the playoffs on the last day of the season.

More?

Lewis charged back into the community Tuesday night at a black tie dinner, and on Wednesday he had a meeting with his people on the Marvin Lewis Community Fund.

A player's view?

One of the team leaders, right tackle Willie Anderson, calls the year a bolt of electricity.

The national media's view?

Peter King of Sports Illustrated calls what Lewis did this year, "the most impactful season," of anyone in the NFL.

As if to underscore how far the Bengals have jetted back into the NFL picture from those bad, old days, Lewis returns to Mobile next week with his football staff that is winging to the Senior Bowl in a 50-seat Comair charter jet to coach the North squad. An organization that was once perceived as fly-by-night is now flying first class. The jet is one of the examples Lewis has to show his relationship with Bengals President Mike Brown is taking off.

"That's one of the reason it's been a god fit. Whatever it takes for us as an organization to win within reason, and that's what is important," Lewis said. "He wants to do what's good for our team. Somebody has to make those decisions and that's under his watch. The things under my watch, he wants to know I feel it has to be done and I think that's good."

Lewis makes it clear that the two biggest questions heading into Year Two _ Corey Dillon and the quarterbacks – are very much a part of his watch. He says the call between Jon Kitna and Carson Palmer is going to be a coaching decision, saying "That's not what I signed up for," to be told who is going to be his quarterback.

And, he has no reaction to reports that say at least three teams (Cowboys? Redskins? Patriots?) are interested in trading for Dillon, but only for a mid-round pick. Plus, he indicated the team has yet

to decide if they are ready to tell Dillon's people they are willing to exchange him for compensation.

"Corey's got a contract. There's nothing to talk about right now," Lewis said of a deal that ends after the 2005 season. "Hopefully he understands he's still part of this football team."

Lewis knows the QB decision is "important for our future and we have to look at the pros and cons of each," but he won't elaborate beyond that. He did say it's big enough that once he made the decision, he will also discuss it with each of them before going public."

If he could have peered a year into the future that day in Mobile, Lewis doesn't think he would have been happy because they didn't make the playoffs.

"But I do think based on how tough it is to win games in the NFL, looking back on it, you have to understand how far we've come," Lewis said. "Maybe what walls or barriers we broke down, make things a little easier for the future and I think No. 1 that is being an attraction in free agency."

Anderson remembers how optimistic he was a year ago. His instincts were right. As he compared notes with Takeo Spikes after he defected to Buffalo and Spikes told him of the greener grass, Anderson kept telling him, "But you should see it here."

"We were ready to buy in because he had been so successful," Anderson recalled. "And as it went along, everything he told us become true. He said we were going to change the perception of the team, we were going to win a lot of games, and we were going to be in the hunt until the end. It's not his fault we weren't in the playoffs."

SI's King said in any other year, Lewis would have been Coach of the Year.

"Call it an off-the-field Player of the Year Award," King said. "He made the single most difference than any player, coach, or GM who joined a team last year in changing the psyche of an organization. Obviously, it was a brilliant hire. He took them from a laughingstock to a team that everyone in the league thinks is going to be a contender next year."

In the year since that Grand day many thought Lewis' success would translate into more African-Americans getting head jobs in a NFL in which the players are 70 percent black. Until Wednesday, only the recycled Dennis Green had been hired and Lewis admitted he is disappointed with the numbers in a landscape in which minority coordinators like Greg Blache, Ted Cottrell, and Lovie Smith, don't seem to be getting the play of their white counterparts.

But a year to the day, another defensive coordinator who had come up through the ranks, Smith of the Rams, was named the head man in Chicago.

And if anything, before the Smith hire was announced Wednesday, Lewis was hopeful. It's the first full year of the league's minority guidelines in which teams must interview at least one minority for a head-coaching job, and while hardly any new faces have surfaced (Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and Smith have had nine of the 16 minority interviews), Lewis says it might be different next year.

"Does it matter if it's one this year and five next year?" Lewis asked. "It's a good thing because it will get more guys in front of more owners."

But Lewis has noticed a disconcerting shift in hiring practices.

"I don't know if it's black or white, but there seems to be a different standard on how guys are hired," Lewis said. "Some guys are hired that have never done certain things, never called a play, never installed an offense or defense, and get an opportunity to be a head coach. Some other guys that have been coordinators for a lifetime and their teams have had a high level of success, and don't get the same opportunity. Yes, I think some minorities can be put (in that category). I don't know the reasons because I don't hire head coaches. It's an interesting trend."

Lewis' staff doesn't figure to change very much. Reports have receivers coach Alex Wood leaving to take the offensive coordinator's job in Arizona, but he won't comment on his successor. Lewis has said he wants to become more involved in the defense, but that coordinator Leslie Frazier is still going to call the plays. He has also said there won't be many changes, but that the biggest one is in the players themselves.

"The next step is we become a team that fixes its own flat," Lewis said. "That we're a self-coaching football team. That we can fix it from the inside out and policing the locker room.

"Our guys are excited," Lewis said, "because they know what it takes to prepare and how to go about it."

Lewis sighed.

That should make Year Two an easier year, but. . .

"I'd just like to be able to clear of my desk," he said, still in the whirlwind.

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