In Cowher's footsetps

6:45 a.m.

In those giddy, school-girl giggle first two years, one player called him "Black Jesus." The starved fans gratefully coined on bed sheets, "In Marvin We Trust." Marvin Lewis went into his third season as head coach of the Bengals with not one contract extension, but two.

Yet, this is the year he has hit his stride. This is the season he has found his groove. This is the year he is at ease enough in the job to be his hard self with everyone else. This is the year of great expectations, where some players have quietly groused about the tougher regimen in a season that began with a coaching staff shuffle and is now in a stretch where the media has been shoved to arm's length. This is the year of no stone unturned, when Lewis ordered fried chicken for a flight home after one game and then told strength coach Chip Morton it just wasn't good enough.

Off to the second best start in franchise history and with a chance Sunday to take a commanding 2.5-game lead in the AFC North over the dreaded Steelers, Lewis fittingly looks across the field at the Pittsburgh sideline and sees the hard-driving style that has willed the Bengals back into playoff contention and blue-ribbon chicken.

Steelers head coach Bill Cowher not only gave Lewis his first job in the NFL as linebackers coach in 1992, he reinforced his belief on how to get the most out of 53 men to realize one goal. Lewis had his greatest days as an assistant coach under Ravens head coach Brian Billick, but isn't it turning out that he's more Cowher than Billick on the intertwined AFC North coaching vine?

"Yeah, that's probably right," Lewis admitted after practice one day last week. "At the end of the day, yeah. That's the personality of our team. That's the personality I have. I try to convey that on both sides (of the ball)."

Lewis agrees a lot of it has to do with where he's from. He and Cowher have known each other since Lewis was in 10th grade at Fort Cherry High School in McDonald, Pa., and Cowher was a junior about 30 minutes away at Carlynton High School in the hard-work-tough-football-town-All-The-Right-Moves setting of Greater Pittsburgh.

After each win this season, Lewis has smiled when asked about the next week of preparation: "It's going to get tighter. We're going to keep going."

"East Coast defense," they used to call it in Baltimore, where Billick brought the white-collar West Coast offense. Lewis has absorbed much of Billick's ample organizational skills and his fingerprints are all over Paul Brown Stadium. But Lewis brought Cowher's edgy, physical style on to the practice field and the weight room. Well, actually, as he has found out in his three seasons as a head coach, that's his style.

"It's a defensive mentality more than anything," Lewis said. "And we've got a young team. You can't be loose. We're too young."

Billick isn't loose, Lewis insists. Billick has much of the same philosophy, it's just that he has a different approach to get the same results. After all, he is the only one of the three that has won it all.

Morton and assistant strength coach Ray Oliver have been on the ground floor of Lewis' rehab project. The weight-room regimen. The exhaustive menu that ranges from off-season snacks to post-game meals. This year's revision of the training camp schedule.

Morton, who worked in Carolina with former Cowher assistant Dom Capers and in Baltimore with Lewis and Billick, finds similarities to the hard-driving Capers.

In fact, when Lewis showed Morton this year's training camp schedule, he thought, "This is like what we did in Carolina."

"They tried to say it was going to be an easier camp because it was shorter (by a week),' said wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "But they were saying that for us psychologically. It was a harder camp. That's the thing about him. On the field, there's nothing nice about Marvin."

Billick's philosophy of not pounding his club physically got a lot of play during their Super Bowl season of 2000, but that was a much older club than the one Lewis has now.

"He's got the boot on our neck," Houshmandzadeh said. "I think it's always been like that since he came, but, yeah, he's been working us hard this year and hasn't let up."

Talk to players and coaches and there seems to be an edgier Lewis this season. Maybe it's as subtle as a box of chicken, but it's there. Practice on Wednesdays and Thursdays are supposed to end at 4 p.m. No one can remember any this year that ended early, and they usually don't come off the field until 4:10 or 4:15.

Same with Fridays, which are scheduled to end at 1 p.m. With the Steelers 48 hours away this Friday, they came off at 1:20. And, whether it's quarterback Carson Palmer and his wide receivers (count running back Chris Perry in that group), or special teams coach Darrin Simmons and his punt catchers, more and more guys seem to be staying on the field after Lewis dismisses them.

"I think he's the same, I just think it's more urgent," said defensive tackle John Thornton. "It's his third year and I think it's like anybody else who's been on a job for awhile.

"We're going to stay out there on the (practice) field and get it right."

Morton saw it in the first staff meeting a day or two after the 2004 season. The message came through loud and clear. 8-8 would not fly again.

"His jaw was set. You could tell by his demeanor it was going to be a little different," Morton said. "He was going to drive the players and coaches to reach the potential he thinks we have. He raised the standard. It's a hard-work ethic type of program. The littlest detail wasn't going to go by."

It's not that Lewis hadn't been a detail guy in the previous two seasons. Like backup quarterback Jon Kitna said, "That's who he is. A half a step means a lot to him." But, like Kitna also said, "I don't think he's changed much in being a disciplinarian, or the need to explode on people every now and then. That hasn't changed much. But he's got everybody in the organization going in his direction now. He doesn't have to be as hands on."

There is a comfort to it all. With a win Sunday, Lewis will have more games than any of his three predecessors with 22. "When you're 5-1, everything is comfortable," Kitna said.

But maybe that's why they're 5-1.

"You can be 1-5 and be comfortable, too," Kitna said.

Lewis' staff has undergone few changes in three seasons, the biggest move coming 48 hours after last season with the surprising dismissal of defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, followed later by the promotion of defensive assistant Chuck Bresnahan.

Some Bengals' insiders have argued that move immediately sent a flame of urgency through coaches and players.

"I can just talk about my area," Morton said. "He's a guy that's always refining things. He's worked under a lot of great coaches and taken things from everybody, and he's always working at it. He's always been intense and passionate. This year's there been a little more, oo-omph-it's-time-to-get-it-done type of thing."

"He's a smart man," Oliver said. "When you can see your goal in reach and you're getting closer and closer to it. . ."

Just like Lewis said he wouldn't run and hide from a big game like this one, Lewis openly embraces Cowher's blueprint of smashmouth, tough, physical football. Run the football, defend the run, don't turn it over and, yes, he hopes he can do it in Cincinnati for 14 years like Cowher has in Pittsburgh. Earlier this week, Lewis was confident enough to say his team that same kind "of brand."

"We bring players here who can handle that challenge and are up to that challenge," Lewis said. " We are what we are. I think it's difficult to stay at our pace and guys find ways to shake themselves out of here."

Has he finally figured out that he's at his best as a-hard-you-know-what?

"I don't know about that," Lewis said. "I would say demanding."

He doesn't ask just a lot from his players.

For one of the trips back home, Lewis wanted to give the players a treat. Something different, he told Morton. A little fun. A lot of guys like fried chicken. But it didn't pass the Lewis Gaze. After the trip, he told Morton, "A little hard to handle."

Translation: Fix it, Chip.

"So the next time we put it in boxes instead of bags," Morton said. "And I made sure there were a lot more napkins. The presentation wasn't right. It's a small thing, but when it goes over into every aspect, they add up to a big thing. It's hard work for him and everybody else. It's come at a price for everyone."

Lewis doesn't stray far from his guys' backs. "Tie your shoelaces," or "Tuck in your jersey," are constants. There is also the well-placed needle that draws blood because it has a deeper meaning. There looks to be more needles out this season. As Palmer walked by, Houshmandzadeh joked loudly, "He doesn't say anything to Carson."

"He'll give you crap, but he's cool," Houshmandzadeh said. "As a coach, you have to be close to your players, but you can't get too close because he has to discipline them and that's how he is."

His blunt style reinforced under Cowher has also washed over into off-field gamesmanship. Both guys love to gather their teams in the bunker at defining moments. Lewis has already saluted Cowher for taking the blame for last week's loss to Jacksonville.

"He's rallying the troops," Lewis said, and when asked if that sounded familiar, Lewis laughed and said, "I had to learn it from somewhere."

And Lewis met Cowher in the bunker last week when he didn't permit his team to do any interviews outside the Cincinnati media, although he did allow former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason of CBS to enter the family circle of wagons.

"I can see where he's coming from on that. I understand it," Thornton said. "No one wanted to talk to us last week after we lost and there's going to be, what, all those extra people here? He wants it to be the same every week."

Which proves you can have a bunker mentality at 5-1.

It will be interesting to see what movie clips the head coaches showed to their teams on Saturday night. Once before a game at PBS a few years ago, Cowher showed his slumping team the "I-can't-take-it-any-more" scene from "Network," and was rewarded with an Oscar-winning rout in all phases over the Bengals. Lewis has been known to show everything from "Patton," to "Rocky," but like he indicated in his news conferences this week, he thinks his team is past the underdog stage. So don't get on "Rocky."

"They're in their foxhole," Lewis said with a smile. Told it looked like he was in one, too, Lewis said, "Right, but my point is, we can't get all bound up about beating the Steelers. We have to approach it like we've approached all the rest and try to put our best foot forward."

They just happen to be Cowher's footsteps.

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