Here comes Marvin Lewis again playing a game for first place in Baltimore this Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) just like he did back on Dec. 7, 2003 when he brought his longshot Bengals back home. But in one of the stunning rarities of the Not For Long NFL, he does it with a roster that has no players that were on that first one that day the Ravens broke the Bengals four-game winning streak.
"I would say that is unchartered waters," says Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, his friend and mentor. "I think it all started about three years ago when he played young guys that they drafted and they're reaping the benefits of it. Guys like Michael Johnson, (Pat) Sims, (Geno) Atkins. If you can go with those young guys for two or three years and develop them and survive, you're usually going to be OK. There's a patient owner in Mike Brown and it looks like they've found a quarterback."
Like most everyone else, Newsome praises Brown's deal last month that brought him a first-round pick and second-round pick for Carson Palmer, but when asked if that's because Palmer, 9-4 against the Ravens, is now out of the AFC North, Newsome laughs, and says, "Yeah, but now this new kid is playing pretty well."
And just like in '03, Lewis is making a strong coach of the year run. In a sampling of six voters that fill out the Associated Press ballot, Lewis is running a strong second to 49ers first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. Sound familiar? In '03 Lewis was runnerup to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick after the Bengals finished 8-8 following a 2-14 season when Corey Dillon was one of his running backs, Chad Johnson was one of his wide receivers, and one of his cornerbacks was Artrell Hawkins, whose brother Andrew, 17 years old at the time, is now one of his wide receivers.
Lewis finally got the award in 2009 and the sampling suggests if he doesn't win again, he'll finish second among the panel of 50 voters. On Sunday, Lewis goes against Harbaugh's brother, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, and he's got a 3-3 split against him in what has been a grinding set since 2008.
There is also some sentiment for Brown getting Executive of the Year votes with the Bengals already two games better than last year's 4-12 while getting rookie of the year seasons from quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green as well as a top five season from their defense and a dominating one from special teams.
"Harbaugh has to be No. 1 because they're a late field goal away from being 8-0, but Marvin is next and it still has to play out," says Peter King of Sports Illustrated. "What Marvin did that I really admire is in a year where there was so much uncertainty because of the lockout, he said we're going to take chances and change the thing even with a new coordinator, rookie quarterback, rookie receiver with no OTAs.
"And the other thing he did is make a bold move with Jay Gruden at offensive coordinator. Others might have hired a UFL guy as a position coach, but not as a first-time coordinator right away and looked how that move has worked out."
Another thing that has worked out is the locker room.
"He doesn't have the knuckleheads," Newsome says. "I think he found out you can have them, but you can't have a lot of them."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the offense's de facto captain, says Lewis has always had a good feel for his team, but now it is more of his kind of guys.
"He's got it. That's what makes him happy and makes him feel like he can be successful," Whitworth says. "It's different. I don't think he has to police as much. He doesn't have to whine about little things. He used to have to get on guys to clean the toilets after they used them. Just silly stuff that he used to have to do. Key is leadership. Take that stuff away, so now he can just go coach football."
Not only did Lewis decide to do away with permanent captains, but since there are no more captains he's also ditched the weekly Thursday lunch meetings where the captains would discuss locker-room issues.
"He decided not to have anything like that and it's because he trusts us to take care of things," Whitworth says. "All of us are captains and I think he knows he's got that maturity in here now that can handle that. We know we can go to him. He's always been accessible. I've knocked on his door plenty of times. Haven't done it in a while. But I have and I will; any of us can."
Jarrett Bell of USA Today, another AP voter, is impressed with how Lewis is succeeding with a third generation roster beyond the teams that won the North in 2005 and 2009.
"Right now I think it's between Marvin and Harbaugh, but it's obviously too early to say," Bell says. "But no matter how they finish, no one thought they'do what they've already done."
Lewis says his coaching has benefited from his position on the NFL Competition Committee and interaction with execs like Newsome and Colts president Bill Polian, and coaches like former NFL head men Jeff Fisher and Mike Holmgren.
"You find out how other people do things," Lewis says. "From handling injuries to how much you practice to even writing contracts."
It is on the committee where Newsome has seen Lewis's growth.
"He's so much more knowledgeable about the game and the rules and how it should be played," Newsome says. "He's become so well-rounded. Marvin's always been a good teacher, a guy that really knows how to get the best out of his players, and now he's just added so much to what he has learned."
Newsome says Lewis speaks highly of how defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has made such an impact on his staff and how much he has been able to rely on him. Plus, the steady familiarity of special teams coach Darrin Simmons, the only special teams coach Lewis has had, has always been a plus.
"He's known Darrin since he was a ball boy in Cleveland," Newsome says.
If this is Baltimore, this must be his roots, his football home. This is where Lewis built the NFL's greatest defense that won the Super Bowl a decade ago and where the AFC North formula lives. The Ravens are the old Browns for whom Newsome toiled during his Hall of Fame career as the most prolific tight end in history.
"It's been like this since the late '70s in the old AFC Central," Newsome says. "Stop the run and run the ball. And if you look at how this team is built, that's what is. They've got that young defensive line that's very athletic and the offensive line has experience with backs that can run the ball. If you do those things, you're always going to competitive in this division and that's how Marvin has done it. Really, this year is no different."
It is eight years later. Another game for first place. Back home. The Ravens are going to gear up Ray Rice on the ground. The Bengals are gearing up Cedric Benson. Dillon and Jamal Lewis are long gone. It is left to Marvin Lewis and Ray Lewis.
"Mike Brown has to get some Executive of the Year votes for the Palmer trade and where they are," says Clark Judge of CBS Sports.com. "And Marvin, I would say is right there behind Harbaugh. Harbaugh is going to be tough to beat, but I really like what Marvin has done. Say what you want about Marvin Lewis. He does his best coaching when no one gives him a chance."
No one is giving him much of a shot Sunday, either.
"That's OK," Whitworth says. "I think Marvin and everybody else like the way it's going."