Posted: 11 a.m.
Marvin Lewis, who steered his second-chance roster through sudden death and relentless doubt to the Bengals' first-ever division sweep, was named NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press on Saturday.
Lewis joined franchise founder Paul Brown as the only Bengals coach to win the prestigious award in the 53 years of balloting.
In 1970 Brown led the Baby Bengals to their first division title in just their third year of existence. Nearly 40 years later Lewis won another division title at 10-6 with one of the league's youngest rosters, and with 20.5 votes won with relative ease over the Saints' Sean Payton (11.5) and the Chargers' Norv Turner (9) in voting by a panel of 50 leading sports media figures.
"They get fired the next year?" joked Lewis earlier this week when told he had joined elite company. "It's flattering to me personally, but I think it's in recognition of our coaches, our team, our organization. I appreciate the honor, but it really is in response to what our team has done and what our entire staff has done, and our players. They should take their hat off and be proud."
Lewis was a distant runnerup in the voting to New England's Bill Belichick in 2003 after his first season when he took the Bengals from their worst-ever finish at 2-14 to 8-8 and went into the last game with a shot at the playoffs.
Lewis often talks about being the help-out coach at Jones Junior High, the mythical place in anywhere and everywhere USA where he sees himself ending his coaching career that began as a graduate assistant at his alma mater of Idaho State in 1981. On the field of Jones Junior High is where he lets his guard down and talks about his philosophy.
"People think we're doing something different here in the NFL and we're not. I probably learned that when I first got into the NFL. Coaching and teaching is still the same whether we're coaching 28-year-olds or eighth-graders. It's all the same," Lewis said. "You've got to find your niche. Even that day. Where are you helping out that day? You might be helping the left guard. You might be helping out at the right cornerback spot. Or the right gunner. You've got to be the best guy you can be that day helping out. Every day it's a different spot.
"That's what this job entails because that's what I get to do."
The Bengals came into Lewis's seventh season off a 4-11-1 season courtesy of an elbow injury that shelved quarterback Carson Palmer for 12 games and he wasn't the only one that had questions surrounding him in the spring. Palmer's offensive line had four sports manned by new players and three of them had been cut at least once. His running back, Cedric Benson, had gone from the No. 4 pick to the waiver wire in early 2008.
On the other side of the ball, safety Roy Williams and tackle Tank Johnson ended up in the Opening Day starting lineup after the Cowboys gave up on them. SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga, the nation's Defensive Player of the Year at USC, was spurned in the first round and took it out in a run defense that reached as high as No. 2 heading into the last game of the season. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who came off the street early in the 2007 season to lead the Bengals in tackles the past two seasons, kept defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's unit together in a season it reached No. 4 for the Bengals' first top five finish in NFL defense since 1983.
"It didn't matter your pedigree," Lewis said. "Pedigrees didn't matter. How you got here didn't matter. What mattered is what you did when you got here."
With Lewis pounding the chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, the Bengals took off on one of their most improbable runs in history. Palmer pulled off seven last-drive touchdowns or field goals that either put them ahead or into a tie.
The Bengals sent all of Cincinnati through a weekly stress test in the remarkable AFC North stretch from Sept. 27 to Oct. 11 when Palmer threw a touchdown pass with 14 seconds left to beat the Steelers at home, a touchdown pass with 1:55 left to force overtime in Cleveland, and a touchdown pass with 22 seconds left to beat Baltimore.
But the triumph came with terrible tragedy.
In September, a tsunami in Samoa affected the lives of several Bengals players with ties to the area. In October, Zimmer suffered the sudden death of Vikki Zimmer, his wife of 27 years. In December, wide receiver Chris Henry, on injured reserve with the arm he broke Nov. 8, died in a pickup truck accident near his fiancée's family home in Charlotte, N.C.
"We just had to make sure we gave people space," Lewis said. "We talk about it all the time. Faith, family and football. We kept those priorities straight. Putting it all other together helped us through those tragic moments. Different things that players individually and collectively faced."
Turning to instinct, Lewis used his enormous ability to communicate with his players in the most difficult of times.
"It's easier to be a people person when you are a people person than if you're putting on airs to be a people person when tragedy strikes," Lewis said. "Then you're a phony and people see through you. It's easier when you know the players to that extent already. We lose babies during the season. We have babies. We lose parents. We lose aunts. We lose uncles. There is a lot of unfortunate loss during the season and then we had what we had on top of those things. You just can't turn that on when those things occur if it's not there."
Lewis not only joined Brown this season with a Coach of the Year, but also with his second division title and passed him by a win on the all-time club list with 56 victories.
Lewis is heading into the final season of the five-year contract secured when the Bengals won the '05 North title. He said earlier this week that he "would imagine" Bengals president Mike Brown and he would talk about an extension but he didn't elaborate this week.
"My situation is not a situation," he said. "It's got nothing to do with anything. I'm not talking about my situation. Let's let it all go by. My situation is not a situation."
Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, the only Bengal who played here before Lewis arrived in 2003. wasn't surprised Lewis was named someone's coach of the year.
"You hear about coaches losing teams and that just never happened with Coach Lewis. He always reeled us in," Ochocinco said. "That's the question that eveybody keeps asking me. No one thought we were going to do anything. 'How did you guys do it?' Coach Lewis is the guy. He kept it together."
The votes had to be in Jan. 4, the day after the regular season. Last week as the Bengals prepared for the Wild Card game, defensive tackle Domata Peko was asked about the prospects of Lewis getting such an award.
"He's been like a father figure to us, a mentor," Peko said. "I hope he gets it. He deserves it."