INDIANAPOLIS — Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis heads into his 10th season as a lame duck, but he sounds free as a bird when talking about what he and Bengals president Mike Brown have planned as a 2012 encore for the AFC's most surprising team in 2011.
After he faced the national media here at the NFL Scouting Combine on Friday, Lewis told the Bengals press that he and Brown are working off the same page and the issues that stalled an extension before the disastrous 2010 season were resolved when he signed a two-year deal with the fire still smoking from the 4-12 finish.
"I think we made those changes and I think it's reflective on where we were last season," Lewis said. "We made the revisions of things I thought were important. I think Mike agreed on those things, that those things were important.
"We agree on that kind of vision. I think that's important."
Brown and Lewis may not agree on an indoor practice facility, but they do agree on the concept of free agency. The Bengals just aren't going to go nuts, especially with two first-round picks, and they're going to continue to develop through the draft.
There has never been a stauncher supporter of signing veterans than Lewis. But he seems to be more receptive to the kids than at any point in his tenure after they played a big role in the Wild Card run. On Friday he talked about how third-year man Taylor Mays and 2011 fifth-rounder Robert Sands have earned their shots at safety even though they have barely played from scrimmage. Same with third-year man Otis Hudson and Clint Boling, drafted the round before Sands, indicating they are going to get their chances at the guard spots.
Why, Lewis is even ready to give wide receiver Armon Binns a shot right now. He stunned everyone in earshot Friday when he said his coaches wanted to start Binns down the stretch. The 6-3, 210-pound undrafted rookie from the University of Cincinnati was on the practice squad until the final regular-season game, when he was inactive. But the coaches love the way Binns runs routes and competes for the ball.
"There's another player that we identified last year during the draft, after the draft, and said this guy is a good prospect," Lewis said. "We're not afraid to play young players. Those guys have made a transition to not be afraid to do that if he can hold up and do it."
So, no. It doesn't sound like the Bengals are going after Mario Manningham or any other big name free-agent wide receiver to team with A.J. Green on the other side.
"For whatever reason, people beat us up. Aggressive free agency, tell me what aggressive free agency the Pittsburgh Steelers or Baltimore Ravens have had?" Lewis asked. "Yet Pittsburgh has been in how many Super Bowls in the same time frame? You win by developing your own players and not overpaying for a guy you're not sure how he's going to work out until six, eight, 10 games down the road, and maybe not then. That's what's been proven. There have been very few guys that have done that and it's worked out to be productive."
Lewis says the Bengals have only 42 players under contract, which means they've got to sign somebody. It will just be their own.
"I believe we have to continue to draft. Do we need to supplement that with players? Yeah, and we're going to try to do that," he said. "But what does aggressive mean? Aggressive doesn't mean overpay and get stuck with both a bad contract and an average player. It doesn't fit what we want to do. To me, that's what's hard for the fans to understand. We need to have a guy who fits what we want to do. We want a guy who wants to practice 16 weeks, wants to be part of the team that's winning. That's got to be important or else it doesn't work. It doesn't work for us as a football team because they stand out like a sore thumb."
If you think Lewis sounds like Brown, it's because he does. He said Brown wants him to extend his deal and "it's more my fault (it hasn't happened yet) because I don't ever like to talk about it. It's not something that I'm comfortable talking about with anybody, frankly. I'm not. It's just not my nature. I didn't get into coaching that way. I took jobs without knowing what I was going to make, at times. You've got to learn once."
Lewis is learning this team is less complacent than the teams that came back from the two AFC North title winners. The albatross he needs to get off his back is the 12-20 record the years after a playoff run and he thinks this team is young and fresh enough to do it.
"It gives us an opportunity to move beyond some other things. We've got guys who like a Carlos Dunlap who know how disappointed he was in his season," Lewis said. "You've got (Jermaine) Gresham and A.J., who scratched the surface. You've got Bernard Scott who is dying for an opportunity to play fulltime. You've got a Chris Pressley who got to be a starting player. You've got a (Domata) Peko who is telling them how it works. You've got a (Rey) Maualuga who wants to be looked at as a good player. Leon Hall, who has to train like a villain to get back.
"There aren't any banquet circuits. They're not going to beat their chests. We sucked then, we sucked now and we have to move out of that."
There are issues of course. For instance, Lewis sounded like he was giving running back Cedric Benson a lifetime achievement award instead of a new contract.
"I think we want to improve our running game and if it includes Ced, it includes Ced," Lewis said. "We need to have more explosive running plays. Ced has had a fine career. He's a physical player and been a big part of our success."
If that's ever a see-you-later, there it is. So start checking out those second-round running backs.
And Lewis does want to sign free agents like safety Reggie Nelson, defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Jon Fanene, and kicker Mike Nugent.
But except for Rucker and Fanene, Lewis is talking about pillars. And they aren't the guys whose contracts are up.
"We know who the quarterback is. We've obviously moved forward at wide receiver. We know the pillars of the offensive line and what they did for us, the pillars of the defensive line and what they did for us," Lewis said. "We moved Rey and brought in Thomas Howard. We went and got Taylor Mays. We drafted Sands. We got Nate (Clements). We got some other guys we did on one-years who we'll be OK with. We saw the Fanenes and the Ruckers come forward again and do what we expected out of them. We saw what Geno Atkins did. Kyle Cook continues to have another fine season."
And since Lewis saved his biggest praise of all for right tackle Andre Smith, forget about moving him to guard. Besides, as the estimable former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton says, it's easier to find a guard than tackle.
You want big money free agents?
As Smith heads into his contract year, the Bengals could be faced with juggling huge contracts for Smith, Dunlap, Green and quarterback Andy Dalton as 2013 turns into 2014.
"At this point last year he was kind of nebulous," Lewis said of Smith. "I see better than I hear. I was hearing things. I was hearing what he wants to tell me but I've got to see it. Just like Gresham and other guys I've talked about, he's probably the guy I should talk about. Him more than anybody about his future and about how excited he is for the opportunity because he wants to be a guy that comes on as a Pro Bowl player.
"He made a transition mentally to being a pro. He became the guy we hoped we drafted."