Lewis breakfasts under the radar

Marvin Lewis

PALM BEACH, Fla. — Marvin Lewis scans the beehives at the other tables gathered at the AFC coaches media breakfast here Tuesday and smiles.

There aren't many guys left from that first orange juice at The Arizona Biltmore in 2003 as he becomes the first Bengals head coach to enter a 10th season.

"Just Bill," Lewis says of Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "And John (Fox) was coaching a different team."

Now Fox is coaching Denver and Peyton Manning instead of Carolina and Jake Delhomme, and his table is festooned with cameras. So is the table of Tim Tebow's new coach, Rex Ryan of the Jets, who 10 years ago was Lewis's defensive line coach in Baltimore.

Lewis, who enjoys being under the radar with his team, must really love Tuesday's oatmeal. No more than a handful of people stop by his table at once while his division counterparts fend off a throng of dicey questions. The AFC North isn't exactly Oz this offseason:

» Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, who was coaching the Tampa Bay DBs in 2003, says it was his call to remove offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and not owner Art Rooney II.

"I hired Todd Haley as well, which is your next question, which is another funny one to me," Tomlin says.

» Baltimore's John Harbaugh, who was the Eagles special teams coach in 2003, is saying that Anthony Allen, a seventh-round pick last year with three NFL carries, is the No. 1 running back if the franchised Ray Rice doesn't show.

"I don't even know if we have a full complement of linemen to be on our 53-man roster right now," Harbaugh says when asked about upgrading the offensive line.

» Cleveland's Pat Shurmur, who was the Eagles quarterbacks coach in 2003, is asked if he has a quarterback one year and 11 months after Cleveland drafted Colt McCoy. Shurmur says McCoy is the guy, but the eggs are served with the news that Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill is going to make a pre-draft visit to the Browns.

Meanwhile, Lewis is answering a question about Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco for The Boston Globe, wondering if he's surprised that The Ocho seemingly can't run the simplest route for Tom Brady.

"It would because I think Chad has the ability to do and learn whatever Chad wants to do and learn," Lewis says. "He has the ability to learn things and grasp things, but I really can't speak to (that). He's not my player."

Lewis thinks his current players know exactly where they're going and that's why there is no buzz around his table and no pending crisis in Bengaldom. This bolt of normalcy is why Lewis thinks last year's youngest team in the AFC has a chance to do what his best team couldn't do and secure back-to-back playoff berths in 2006.

"The fact that the four guys went to the Pro Bowl tells me where we are," Lewis says of that group where everyone is younger than 25. "They are young. You could put them in those four chairs and they're not going to say a word. That's just the way they are."

Not only does Lewis think his club has the right leadership to make it work, he thinks it may have more talent. Once he starts thinking about it.

"It's hard to determine," he says. "I think we're better in the secondary and up front. We're a lot better defensively and we have a chance with (new left guard Travelle) Wharton to be a lot better on the offensive line. Whatever development we have at receiver will be there. (A.J. Green) is so much better than everybody else that it doesn't matter. The stable of backs is probably a better group. ... The quarterback is exceptional playing quarterback."

Quarterback Andy Dalton may not have the pure passing numbers of the towering Carson Palmer coming off his first Pro Bowl season heading into 2006. But Lewis loves how Dalton's savvy play accomplished an NFL quarterback first: a Pro Bowl and a playoff spot.

"He doesn't look like Carson. He's not 6-foot-5. He's going to do nothing but get better because he is going to be bigger and stronger this year," Lewis says. "He might have thrown two balls all year you wish he didn't throw."

That was not the case, he recalls, of Palmer's first season in 2004. Get Lewis talking about that stretch early in his run and there are a couple of other things he thinks are different.

"This team is much better because your leadership are stronger character guys. They are humble players and you are being led by the linemen," he says, referring to defensive tackle Domata Peko and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "We had guys beating their chest that they had arrived and then the Pro Bowl was the most important thing, not the Super Bowl. This group understands the most important thing is the Super Bowl."

Lewis says the old defensive guru, Gunther Cunningham once told him the key to his longevity was winning in the right years. But Lewis's legacy is starker and simpler. In his nine seasons, he may be under .500 at 69-77-1. But in the previous nine seasons the Bengals were 47-113 with 0.0 playoff berths. Lewis is seeking a third division title, a fourth playoff spot, and his first postseason victory.

"We've won the division a couple times, our team went back to the playoffs last season, a couple times we were a missed field goal away from getting into the playoffs," Lewis says. "We've had moderate success but not the success I would have liked to have."

Lewis has been around long enough to see three reincarnations. There was the Kitna-Kevin Hardy-John Thornton-Willie Anderson startup. Then came the Palmer-Chad Ochocinco-Robert Geathers-Bobbie Williams core that won two division titles. Now there is the Andy Dalton-A.J.Green-Geno Atkins-Jermaine Gresham kiddie corps Pro Bowlers that made the playoffs.

"We had the transformation with Carson and him becoming the starter to then just guys thinking they did more than they did and us not doing a good enough job of moving some guys along," he says.

"We took a little bit of a dip and got it back in 2009 (with the division sweep). The injuries to (David) Pollack and (Kenny) Irons hurt us in that '05, '06 run. Then there were Odell (Thurman)'s problems and Chris (Henry)'s problems. Those guys who we picked very high in the draft it hurt our progress. When you spend a high pick on guys and they're not playing you take a dip in ability."

A big part of Lewis's legacy has been his ability to recruit to what had once been known as an outpost in free agency.

No more. The Bengals spent more than the $120 million salary cap in cash last year on the way to signing three defensive starters and last week Ryan gave Lewis grudging congratulations when the Bengals beat the Jets to re-sign safety Reggie Nelson.

"I don't get outrecruited very often," is pretty much what Ryan told Lewis. The Bengals also picked off one of free agency's top running backs in BenJarvus Green-Ellis (earning another grudging nod from Pats owner Robert Kraft) and the press cornerback they wanted in Jason Allen.

Because free agency got started about two weeks later than usual, the crush came in the heat of the college pro days, where Lewis is a constant visitor. But he has been able to at least phone all the guys the Bengals have signed so far, except for Colts defensive lineman Jamaal Anderson.

The personnel department sets up visits in coordination with the coaching staff and there can be scrambling with the scouting process. But Lewis says he's able to use his position coaches, as well offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.

"They say recruiting. I don't know how much recruiting we're really doing. I think the opportunity and the compensation have to match," he says. "Some of the guys I'm already familiar with. Some of these guys we did a lot of work on (in the draft), the relationship is there. Or the relationship I have with their agents. When they choose to come visit us, that appeal is already there. I think they're always pretty aware of me. It's just maybe, 'Who is going to be my position coach?' and the meeting with Mike and Jay. In some cases I was there when Zim was on the road. It worked out."

But Lewis says the meetings on-site are only a third of it. There is the physical and what he calls signability. Whatever it is, Lewis and his staff have been able to sell it and he thinks they've sold it well enough in the last two weeks that the two picks in the April 26 first round are wide open.

"In signing the guys we've signed, we've made a commitment, but not overcommit," Lewis says. "And to really keep all of our options open when it came to the draft. And to have an opportunity where we draft to continually build the team through the young talent. We didn't want to overcommit in any area that would take us out of that."

While Lewis watches the breakfast mayhem, he's almost enjoying the peace. The Steelers have a new offensive coordinator. The Ravens have a new defensive coordinator. Meanwhile, Gruden decided to not even interview for a head coaching job and according to reports was rewarded with a three-year extension.

"Cincinnati as we know is a great place to live, great place to raise a family," Lewis says. "You don't get treated by anybody better than the way (Bengals president) Mike Brown treats the coaches. (Gruden) made a big statement."

The 10th breakfast ends. Belichick is still talking. Ryan is doing a standup.

Lewis picks up his bag and is off to wherever under the radar is.

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