**Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis returned to Paul Brown Stadium Monday after he planned 'to sleep in a cave," last week. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, and special teams coach Darrin Simmons are now heading up their staffs' evaluation of players and schemes before heading to Mobile, Ala., in two weeks to coach the North in the Senior Bowl .
In the past, the Bengals usually sent most of their coaches to scout this week's East-West Shrine Game in San Francisco. But the coaches are staying home this week to work in the office while most of the scouts handle watching the college all-star practices.
Before Lewis went into hibernation, he kicked around some lingering issues last week with Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com.**
GH:** Do you plan any changes on how you did things in your first year? Such as with the team, dealing with management, scouting, anything at all?
ML: Change is a word I'm not comfortable with. We're going to continue to pursue to win more games and win a championship. I think everybody is on board with that. I don't know anything in the future that has to be drastically changed. I'm happy with how we did things. We will be better at everything we did last year. I hope to be better. Our coaches and our staff have a better idea what kind of player we're looking for, and that's the most important thing. **
GH:** Going 1-3 in the last month was obviously the last thing on your mind.
ML: Right. We said we wanted to win the month of December. **
GH:Did you hit a wall?
ML:** I don't think we hit a wall. We lost to Cleveland, and Baltimore beat them. Baltimore beat them at home and we lost to them at home. They did what we couldn't do.
GH: Why? Is it because of the way they're constructed? Physical running game, good defense. . .?
ML: They made plays down the stretch to win games. They came back and beat Seattle. They beat us, they beat San Francisco. For a time, they went on the road and didn't play very well. They found it again and finished strong.
They threw the ball against Seattle and won the game. They threw the ball against Pittsburgh and made first downs, they threw the ball against us to make some first downs. When they needed to throw it and be confident in Anthony Wright, he did an excellent job. **
GH:Did you watch the Steelers-Ravens game the Sunday night after you lost to Cleveland?
ML:** Only a little bit. We lost, so. . .
GH:Now that you've got a year under your belt as a head coach, might you get more involved on one side of the ball over the other?
ML:** We have to get better in every area. So I have to coach better. I spent a lot of this last year trying to be the head coach and I would get involved second-hand defensively, and I've got to evaluate and talk with Les, Bob, and Darrin, and just know I want to try and get more involved in defense. But it's difficult, because if Les is going to call the game, he's got to call the game. That's the thing we're going to have to balance out.
GH: Is Leslie still going to call the game or might you call it?
ML: Les is going to call the game. We've got to give our players a better shot at being successful. We've got a foundation. We have to go back and check it out, and make sure we don't have any leaks in the foundation. **
GH:** So you might be more involved in defense, but Leslie is still going to call the game?
ML: Yes. We're going to look at everything. Offense. Defense. Special teams. We need to improve in all areas. **
GH:** Given your expertise is defense, it had to hurt you more the way the defense played down the stretch when they struggled and had some key injuries, particularly in the secondary.
ML: It all hurts the same. It's all equal. There are three phases of the game and defense is just one of them. **
GH:The defense played pretty well to begin the season, except in the opener. Can you put your finger on what happened in the latter half of the year?
ML:A lot of it was third down. We had different guys in there than the ones we started with. We had one particular core group playing on third down and by the end of the year we had a bunch of different guys, almost completely different than what we had the entire training camp. Now your safety is playing cornerback (Kevin Kaesviharn), or your safety is playing nickel (Mark Roman at corner). It's a little bit of a difference. You're not as familiar with what the opponent is doing. Our communication isn't what it needed to be.
GH:Is there anyway to prepare for that?
ML:It's my fault because when you don't play well, it's the coaches' fault. It hurts whether it's offense, defense or special teams. But I do know how to rectify the situation.
ML:I don't want to respond to that.
ML:It's a combination of everything. The core of our team in 2004 is here, just like it was here in 2003. The nuts and bolts of our team are in this building and they're excited as hell for 2004 and when we get started on March 22. They know how to prepare for what is in front of us. We'll have some new players. We'll have some new guys. The core of what we're doing is already in this building.
GH:Your salary cap would suggest you can't be as free as you were last year in signing free-agents.
ML:** Don't worry about the cap. It's not an issue. Because the cap has a lot of people in it that might not be in it. The cap is a floating number that changes every day.
GH: Could you be as active as you were last year?
ML: I don't know how active we were. We went out and did some things with some people. .
GH: You got five new defensive starters.
ML: I don't know. Maybe we will. It's not only up to us, it's up the guys we're trying to sign and if they can fit. I don't know if we need five defensive starters.
GH: Some would say the team's priority has to be cornerback and safety.
ML: I don't know. We've got a lot of needs. I don't now where those guys are going to come from. We have some free-agent safeties (Roman and Rogers Beckett), and we need to re-sign them or look elsewhere. **
GH:** Will you try to re-sign them?
ML: Our players are always better for us. Your players always have a chane to be a little better for you.
GH: You've got some free-agent starters on the offensive line in center Rich Braham and right guard Mike Goff. **
ML:** We would like to keep our guys. We would like to keep the offensive line intact.
GH: You were happy with Richie even though he's getting up there (33) in age. **
ML:** Richie did a hell of a job. I'm really happy with what Richie did, not only playing but also leadership. Mike did an outstanding job moving back over (from center) and competing at guard.
GH: You want those guys back? **
GH: Chad Johnson had a heck of a year and is going to the Pro Bowl. I know you'll probably remind him about the stretch. (In the losses to Baltimore and Cleveland, Johnson had six catches for 44 yards.)
ML: Your best players have to pick it up down the stretch. That's something we have to learn. That's something I can point to now. Because it's there for us to see. Now it's gratification. Before it was a wonder. Now they see it.
We have to find a way as coaches to keep our productive guys productive. If they're doing a great job taking Chad away with two people, then that means somebody somewhere else has to step up and get the football. Or, we have to run it better. Or we have to play better defense to get Chad more opportunities.
That was a lot of the problem down the stretch. We didn't play good enough defense to allow Chad to get his hands on it more.
The last (four) games and how people played him, that's what he has to look at in his future. Those last (four) games. People are going to look at those games, that's what they're going to see. So that's going to be the plan.
GH: Willie Anderson talked about needing the big dogs who play big in big games. He says they're here.
ML: They're here. They just need to come out of their hole. There's enough of them. It's a mindset. There is a confidence you've got to have, but to get that confidence is knowing what you need to know inside and out.
GH: Talking about how you handled things, it looked like you did as good as job as possible with the Corey Dillon situation after he went public with his displeasure in October.
ML: Corey had an up-and-down season with injury and frustration. **
GH:** The most popular question on e-mail besides Dillon and Carson Palmer has to be about rookie cornerback Dennis Weathersby. How come he didn't play? Did his gun-shot wound put him too far behind?
ML: You've got to be one of the best players to get on the field. There's no scholarship system. If you're the best guy out there, and I feel that confidence in you that good things are going to happen around you. . .You don't just get to play.
We know he can play. Just because you draft a guy doesn't make them ready for the NFL. You draft for the future. That's why we drafted Carson (Palmer). Kelley Washington. Every one of those guys is drafted for their longevity, not for tomorrow. If you draft for tomorrow, you're in the wrong position.
GH: What does he have to work to make an impact next season?
ML: It's nobody's business. He has to learn to play cornerback in the National Football League.
GH: Did he get behind the other guys because of the shooting? Did he recover?
ML: He recovered very well. I think it took him time for him to get his conditioning where the other guys were. He worked hard when he was here, but he was at a disadvantage and we knew that going in. We knew we weren't going to get much out of him this year.
GH: You didn't draft him to put him in the slot the last game of the year.
ML: If he was the best option, yes. He practiced well. He learned and he had a good year that way.
GH: When asked about the No. 1 quarterback, you said you are going to evaluate it. What is going to go into the decision before minicamp?
ML: No more comment to be made. I've said what I'm going to say.
GH: You have to like what Kitna did.
ML: I'm excited what Jon did and how he led this team. He was tremendous.
GH: It would be hard to see him not being No. 1 going into minicamp, wouldn't it?
ML: There you go. No comment.
GH: I know you'll comment on the fans.
ML: They were tremendous. They got into the fun of it. They came to the games expecting to win and to stay out in that parking lot and celebrate. That's the way it should be. We let them down a little bit that last game.
They talk about the change in Baltimore and how the hesitancy is gone. You can get rid of that with fans, too. We're getting rid of it in our players. And, as fans, you get rid of that, too, and they were great the way they turned up believing we were going to win.
I was confident the other 15,000 would come out. We have to give them a product they want to come out to see. We have that. I think they can be assured every Sunday that what they're going to see, they are going to go home and have something to talk about.
GH: You'd have to say you got a great year out of your special teams coach.
ML: Darrin did a tremendous job his first time flying solo. He inherited a group of guys who didn't have a lot of confidence as a group. He ended up going with two new specialists. He trained a punt returner (Peter Warrick) who maybe had lost some confidence in his own self.
Our cover teams did an excellent job. Where we weren't as good early in the year returning kickoffs, we got better at the end and it helped us win a game (in Pittsburgh).
In every area we improved as a group and I think we have a solid foundation into the future. The buzz at the end of preseason was, You're no better on special teams. I said no, we're a lot better. We haven't played our guys together. Because the way I wanted to play guys and give them the opportunity to earn a job through offense, defense, special teams, you don't always get that core group together as much as possible. Maybe that's something I have got to do better next preseason and make sure maybe I do treat Darrin as fairly as I do offense and defense. **
GH:Are you worried about the punting? Will you make a move there?
ML:** No. Kyle (Richardson) will get better having a full offseason with Darrin.
GH: Best moment of the year?
ML: Burris' interception in Cleveland.
GH: The one that sealed the first win. Just good to get that first one?
ML: It was great to win. Great for our team. It wasn't for me, it was for our team. Our team needed to win.
GH: Kind of wondering when, if. . .?
ML: No, you told me all about Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs (and the several losses to start their coaching careers) and I'd be all right.
GH: I was going to give you another month, anyway.
ML: That was timely.
GH: The worst feeling, the worst moment?
ML: Our loss to the Cardinals, and then to Cleveland. I felt like until the ball went over Matt's (Schobel) head (with 41 seconds left), we were going to win the last game. No doubt in my mind we were going to find a way to tie it (with a TD and two-pointer) and win the game in overtime. It would have been a fitting way to end our season.
The only way, no matter what would happen. To end the season on the last Sunday in the last second, and we were going to find a way to win.
Our guys believed that. That's why they were so disappointed. They had that feeling when the defense stopped them basically on four tries from the one, and held them to a field goal, and we were down only eight and had the ball.
And that's a good thing to have that kind of confidence. We can build on that.