Lewis eyes another dragon

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His first win came against Tim Couch, the last overall No. 1 pick of the '90s.

His 99th win came against Johnny Manziel, a first-round-draft pick born in the '90s.

By the time the Bengals gave Marvin Lewis his 100th victory in a win over Peyton Manning last week, NFL teams had changed head coaches an average of 3.8 times since the day he stepped to the microphone in Mobile, Ala., on Jan. 14, 2003 and became the Bengals' ninth head coach.

The hair is shorter and grayer and when you check on Lewis in his office six hours after the win over Manning, he puts down the reading glasses he didn't have 12 years ago. But the one thing that hasn't changed in focus is the grind every win takes.

"I think it took (four) weeks to win the first game and you never know you're going to win a game before we won in Cleveland," Lewis says. "There have been a lot of football games since then and that just talks about how difficult it is to win a game in the NFL week in and week out."

Sunday's Wild Card Game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) in Indianapolis will be all of that and more as Lewis grapples to lift the Peyton Manning of stigmas off his back. As coach of the Bengals, Lewis has slain more dragons than Peter, Paul, and Mary and here's the biggest.

It's his sixth post-season game as Bengals head coach and at 0-5 a loss on Sunday would tie him with Marty Schottenheimer, Jim Mora and Steve Owen for most consecutive coaching losses in the playoffs. With 231 games, Mora is the only man to have coached more regular-season games than Lewis (192) without a playoff victory.

Even Lewis has joked on occasion ("I'm less patient than most people") that Bengals president Mike Brown has more patience than him and he might have been inclined to pull the trigger long before now. It was Brown's loyalty and commitment to stability that allowed Lewis to get a second wind.

Lewis recalls a conversation with Brown after he signed a three-year extension in the wake of the 2005 AFC North title.

"After the '05 season, Mike was very quick to say to me, 'What you've done is great, but you have to realize there are going to be harder times and you have to be patient throughout that,'" Lewis says. "At that point everything was moving forward. Then we missed the playoffs in '06 and Carson got hurt in '08."

But as Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer points out, Brown's patience has led to one of the NFL's most successful runs of this decade.

"That's the good thing about Mike. When he sees something good in people, he's going to stick by them," says Zimmer, Lewis' defensive coordinator for six seasons. "It's an instant gratification world now. If Mike didn't stick with Marvin, who knows where the Bengals would be? They'd have a new offense and defense. Instead, what is it? They've been in the playoffs five of the last six years. You can stack his record up against anybody's. To me what he's done there in the last five years or so is amazing."

Only four teams have been to five of the last six postseasons, the Bengals, the Patriots, the Colts and Packers. Since 2012, the Bengals are tied with San Francisco at 31-16-1 with the NFL's fifth best record behind Denver, New England, Seattle, and Indianapolis. Since 2011, quarterback Andy Dalton has the fifth best winning percentage among active quarterbacks at 40-23-1.

Some want to put Lewis on the hot seat Sunday. But there are some who consider Lewis a coach of the year candidate even if the Bengals go one and done.

Despite a rash of injuries that claimed their best defensive player (Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict) for most of the season and their best player period (Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green) for five games, the Bengals had a shot to repeat as AFC North champs as late as 3:51 left in the season Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

Playing a schedule of eight playoff teams and six of the NFL's top 11 quarterbacks, the Bengals rung up 10 wins.  They won four straight on the road without starting wide receiver Marvin Jones and starting tight end Tyler Eifert all year, and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins slowly coming off an ACL tear with the fewest tackles and sacks since his rookie year.

Plus, Lewis lost his offensive and defensive coordinators to head coaching jobs even before the season started.

"One thing that Marvin does well is he's never worried about who he doesn't have," Zimmer says. "He didn't have a quarterback when Carson quit and we found Dalton. He doesn't have this and he doesn't have that and he just goes about his business. Can't worry about it. He's done a great job about not worrying who he doesn't have and figuring out how to get the guys he does have to play well."

Ray "Rock," Oliver, the University of Kentucky basketball strength coach who has worked under both John Calipari and Rick Pitino, spent six seasons here under Lewis and head strength coach Chip Morton wondering where Lewis got the bottomless work ethic.

"I came up for the Denver game and when I left about 1 in the morning, I checked his office and he was in there," Oliver says. "He was watching the Steelers. I'm thinking, 'Go home.' But that's him. He's such a professional and he does a great job with the players. A lot of these guys, when you look at where they come from, he's the first professional they've ever been around. I haven't come across a better teacher."

One of his coaches says that Lewis has the innate ability to mesh a leadership position with accessibility. The Bengals have high regard for Lewis' affinity to get the ship sailing in one direction while keeping internal strife at either a minimum or out of the public eye, or both. Spend about 10 minutes on profootballtalk.com and you can see how hard that is for many teams.

His strength is building relationships. Oliver wasn't very surprised one morning two weeks ago to look up at his brother's visitation and see Lewis accompanied with wife Peggy even though it was the travel day to Cleveland and Oliver has been gone from the Bengals for nearly five years.

 "It's an exclusive club. You have to earn your way in," Oliver says. "But once you do, he's a loyal guy. So is Mike Brown. I think they're a good match. Both guys want to win so badly." 

 Lewis looks at 100 wins, all the coaching changes, and thinks of his quarterbacks. His record of 100-90-2 stands in comparison to the 55-137 in the 192 Bengals games before he arrived. And he's done it with largely two different quarterbacks, getting 46 wins from Carson Palmer and 40 from Andy Dalton with Jon Kitna (10) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (4) getting the rest.

"If you look at the current day coaches that have (a lot of seasons), there's been a consistency at quarterback for them. That's the key element," Lewis says. "You need quarterbacks that are efficient, take care of the ball and you have to have some luck. Carson got hurt (in 2008) and you saw how quickly you can fall. Andy, knock on wood, has been very durable that way."

But Lewis and the organization have also evolved since 2003.

With the emergence of director of player personnel Duke Tobin, the Bengals' drafting process is more centered on the personnel department when it was once more coaching-centric. They've gone to more of a best-player-highest-grade approach, as exemplified by the second-round pick of current sack leader Carlos Dunlap in 2010, the fifth-round selections of future starting wide receiver Marvin Jones, and starting safety George Iloka in 2012, and the first-round selection of tight end Tyler Eifert in 2013.

 While Brown still wants his coaches heavily involved and consults regularly with Lewis, Tobin's influence and the input of the scouts have broadened during the last several drafts that have produced four straight winning teams.

And Lewis has responded the past few seasons by being more willing to play younger players. Free-agent veterans such as safety Dexter Jackson and defensive tackle Sam Adams that populated the previous decade have been replaced by the Ilokas and Brandon Thompsons, a 2012 third-round pick even though the Bengals had taken another defensive tackle, Devon Still, a round earlier. The grade won.

Gone, too, are the days when Lewis took over the defensive play-calling duties, like he did for a game in his second season. He's more inclined to let his coaches coach now, while still exerting influence.

"He's got a great way of suggesting things without being overbearing," Zimmer says. "He's involved with all the aspects and I think he's got a great feel on game day."

Indeed, one of the many things Zimmer found demanding this season in his first year on the job is being responsible for so many things that took him away from the daily football grind. He's impressed with Lewis' knowledge of the rule book and thinks it got the Bengals a win when Lewis threw his now famous flag last month when Tampa had 12 men on the field in the final two minutes. For years Lewis has been criticized for game management. But on that day they were chanting, "Marvin, Marvin," in every Bengals' bar across the land.

"If he doesn't do that, they may not win the game and who knows what happens after that," Zimmer says.

He looks at the 40-23-1 run under Dalton since 2011 and goes back to the 4-3-1 finish under Fitzpatrick in '08.

"We weren't prepared enough to say, 'Fitzy is our quarterback. What does Ryan Fitzpatrick have to help us win games so we can be Ryan Fitzpatrick's team and not Carson's team?' That was a lesson to be learned and it not only set the table for '09 (an AFC North title) but it helped set the table for 2011 without Carson. We were going to be different without Carson."

Lewis also points to the disastrous 2010 season as a watershed. The Bengals were coming off a season where they ran the ball into the playoffs and got stoned, 24-14, by the visiting Jets in the playoffs, and then went 4-12.

"In 2010 everybody wanted us to be a finesse team, throw the football, and that's what was going to be the way to get us a championship and we found out it wasn't," Lewis says. "We ran the ball, but it wasn't good enough. We lost to the Jets. 'We have to throw it better.' That's what I should have known. I already knew it wasn't necessarily what we needed and it was proven.

"We had to be better at throwing the football, which you do, but how do you get that way? You can't just put the running game aside. You still have to be creative at how to do it."

Jay Gruden, his new offensive coordinator in 2011, wasn't the biggest proponent of the run game, but Lewis liked how his team has responded.

"The mindset has just changed to be more physical and regardless of whatever is going on, we have to continue to be creative to run the ball,'' Lewis says. "To me, that's been the biggest difference (since '11). We've become more physical."

Live and learn. Give and take.

"I had high regard for him before," Zimmer says after his first run, "but to do this 12 years, he's pretty dang good."

Slay some dragons. A hundred wins is nothing to sneeze at since he's only the 37th man to do it. Vince Lombardi has 96 and Jon Gruden has 95.

There have been three division titles. A win in Pittsburgh to make the playoffs. A win over Peyton Manning to make the playoffs. An undefeated home season. Wins on the West Coast. Wins against the division. Wins with rookies.

But doesn't the biggest dragon lurk in the swamp Sunday?

"There's one bigger than this one,' Lewis says. "In my mind there's a bigger one than this one. But you have to get this one before you get to that one."

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