Updated: 7:55 p.m.
LewisINDIANAPOLIS - It took just one year for Marvin Lewis to go from coaching the up-and-coming Bengals to the underachieving Bengals and he acknowledged Friday that "I'm on the hot seat," as well as every other cliché the media fired at him.
"It's a big year for Marvin Lewis," he said as the Cincinnati reporters egged him on at the end of his annual news conference here at the NFL scouting combine.
"The honeymoon is over," he said with a smile but he knows that three 8-8 years in four seasons is serious business. So serious that even though he lost only wide receivers coach Hue Jackson he proclaimed a new coaching staff.
"We're starting over. We've got new coaches. We're a new staff," he said as he vowed that the league's No. 30 defense would be better in every phase.
Lewis allowed the obvious Friday when he observed that the Bengals draft is tilting toward defense, left guard Eric Steinbach is expected to leave via free agency, the $8.6 million tagged on franchise free agent Justin Smith is taking the Bengals out of any high price tags (read Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas) when the market opens a week from Friday, and they probably won't draft a player with a pending court case.
Plus, Lewis reiterated what he said three weeks ago in a post-Super Bowl sitdown when he said he has no plans to take over the defense, and with an eye to strong safety Dexter Jackson said free agency can offer volatility in team chemistry.
"We found out last year in adding a player with Dexter at times of adversity these guys don't know us, we don't know them," Lewis said. "There's going to be maturation. There's going to be some struggle, there's going to be some venting. We don't need that anymore. That's going to get in the way. ... When the feet get in the fire and the going gets tough, some characteristics come out."
But Lewis, who usually leaves the guarantees to Chad Johnson, uncharacteristically took a page out of Ocho's book and predicted the defense would be better in every phase.
The heat is on a defensive guru.
"We will be a better defensive football team, write that down," said Lewis of a unit that has finished No. 28 or lower during three of those four seasons. "We'll put it better together. We will call it better. We will practice it better. We will play better on Sunday. We won't give up big plays. We won't miss tackles. Our corners will crack replace. Our guys will cover better, defend the run better."
With no changes to the coaching staff, Lewis saying not to expect him to replace defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan, and with no major veteran additions on the way, Lewis was asked how the defense would be different than the one that gave up nearly 400 yards to the Colts, a 99-yard drive to the Broncos, and a 67-yard touchdown pass to the Steelers in the final three games.
"We have to do a lot differently," Lewis said. "We're excited about the opportunity to get our guys to understand the responsibility of playing better defense day in and day out. The responsibility of understanding our plan and understanding our opponent's plan. When it's third-and-goal, don't give up the score. When it's fourth-and-goal, don't give up the score. Keep them out."
Continually asked about his guru status reached in Baltimore, Lewis allowed that the Ravens had a lot more first-round picks on defense.
"Your players allow you to do more things or less things. In some people's cases less is better," Lewis said. "Look at first round, first round, first round. That makes a difference."
ThurmanOne player who could make a huge difference on defense is middle linebacker Odell Thurman, and Lewis also uncharacteristically talked compassionately publicly about a player he has been very hard on in the media. Thurman, who admitted to being an alcoholic a few days ago when pleading no contest to a DUI, is eligible to be reinstated July 11 from his year-long suspension for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy.
But Lewis, who said he has visited Thurman, isn't planning on him as a football player and said the club is trying to get his life straightened out first.
"It's more than football. We're trying to help a young man. We hope to fix his life. That's the key element," Lewis said. "We don't want Odell to fix himself in football. If he fixes himself in football, it won't be fixed very long because football doesn't last very long.
"My biggest concern with Odell Thurman is he gets the help he needs for the rest of his life. Football could be a part of it. It may not be a part of it."
Lewis said the reason he may have sounded more harsh about Thurman's problems than wide receiver Chris Henry's four arrests is that while Henry broke the law, Thurman violated NFL policy and the league handles legal matters.
"That's the difference to me," he said, "and, frankly, one is dealt with quicker (drugs) than the other (arrests), and that's an issue."
Lewis is adamant that the team's legal hassles won't continue with players that come out of this draft because he said the major change is the Bengals won't take players who have legal problems. He said the DUIs of Steinbach and cornerbacks Deltha O'Neal and Johnathan Joseph couldn't be foreseen but the problems of USC defensive end Frostee Rucker, last year's third-rounder, were well advertised. There was a charge of battery hanging over his head during the draft and he was formally charged a few months later.
"You know that Frostee has a chance of another suit and we still did it," Lewis said. "So we probably don't take that guy. You just don't take a guy that you know has something pending. That way I don't have to come downstairs (to the post-draft selection news conference) and you guys already have the sheet ready for me and I have to answer the questions. Don't expect me to have to go down there and answer the questions come April-whatever."
The questions that are coming March-whatever (actually March 2 with the start of free agency) are much more cut and dried. Forget Thomas, the double-digit sacker the Ravens didn't franchise. With Lewis looking at Smith's $8.6 million salary, he said the Bengals can only afford to re-sign valued role players like tight end Reggie Kelly, safety Kevin Kaesviharn, and third down running back Kenny Watson.
An NFL source did say Friday that a Watson deal is all but done.
"It's not going to be like we're sitting at the starting gate," Lewis said of free agency. "We're waiting to go into the first turn a little bit."
Agent Jim Steiner said Friday that client Justin Smith has no problem with the franchise tag that takes him off the market but wouldn't say if he'd sign it in time to participate in minicamps and training camps. Lewis said he expected Smith to be there and that he's fine with the tag but he had some advice for Smith so the club could get some salary cap space.
"We've tried to negotiate (a long-term deal) for a while and it's not happening," said Lewis of the ongoing talks. "I think if it were me I'd figure a way. I think he'd probably get a little bit more and extend the years a little bit. I hope we can work something out because it would enable us to go do some other things."
If Smith doesn't have a long-term deal by July 15, the Bengals can't sign one with him until after the season and the $8.6 million counts for the entire season.