Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who has spent the month pleading for his team to come up with unscripted plays on both sides of the ball, spent the last day of the month Wednesday going off script.
He uncharacteristically called out two of his players to exert more leadership as quarterback Andy Dalton's offense looks to regain the big passes of September and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga's defenses tries to eliminate the huge chunks of October. Future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning zip-opens November in a 1 p.m. Paul Brown Stadium game pitting his 4-3 Broncos against a 3-4 Bengals team that could right a lot of wrongs with its first-ever victory over Manning in their eighth meeting.
Call it the Halloween Address or the Marvin Manifesto or the Fireside-and-Brimstone Chat. But it says as much about what Lewis has learned in his 10 seasons as a head coach and the plight of his team needing to do what it has never done under Lewis and finish strong while in playoff contention, as much as it says what he expects from Dalton and Maualuga.
"It wouldn't have been said if we weren't where we were. Maybe it's the fire we need," Dalton said when Lewis gave him the chance to respond after practice Wednesday.
Lewis also gave Maualuga a chance to respond ("I guess it's time to be a jerk, time to get in the middle of that defense and start spicing things up," he said), underscoring just how passionately he feels about it. Lewis may also be wondering if he could have helped other seasons backed up against it with a simple blue flame.
"A quote that (Lewis) gave me … 'The rate of the pack is determined by the speed of the leader,' " Maualuga said. "The quicker I get things going, the quicker I get things riled up, the more people buy into it. And the more we can get things going; I like the opportunity and the challenge."
Lewis has been down this road before. A promising season choked off by injuries or lack of leadership, or poor play, or all of the above. He indicated he's has had it with the same old same old. Maybe he realized if he tried to light a fire under the old locker room, the immaturity would have burned it down instead of used it.
"We've wallowed around here in mediocrity. Let's go. That's the thing we've got to do. These guys that have it, they've got it and they've done it," Lewis said. "Andy has a great deal of confidence, self-confidence, internal confidence, confidence in the guys around him, but at some point you step out of your skin and you go. And it's time to go. It's time to step out of our skin, both places, all throughout."
It was a bit stunning. How often do you hear an NFL head coach say his guys have to basically act more like jerks? Remember a few years ago back when that's all the Bengals had in the locker room? There is a Jerk Line on Game Day in PBS on Sundays. Do they need one Monday through Friday during stretching?
But Lewis is looking for Dalton to act more like Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. Maybe not so much jerks. But grouchy and cantankerous perfectionists.
When asked if Dalton is playing with confidence, Lewis said, "We're looking for our quarterback and our middle linebacker to take hold of our football team, and I think that's important for us. I think both guys are such good people, that you've got to be a little bit of a (jerk). You do. That's what these guys we're talking about have. That's part of it."
The Bengals are also looking for that deadly efficiency on offense and defense. That's why Lewis semi-called out Dalton on Monday when he said the common denominator for winning in the NFL is quarterbacks that don't turn it over. With Peyton Manning looming Sunday, Dalton gets that.
"That's why you play the game, because you want to be the best, you want to win games, you want to win the Super Bowl. I mean, if not ... you've got to have the passion to play this game," he said. "And for me, I've got to be more consistent playing out there. I've just got to play my game, do what I'm capable of doing. I feel like I can get there. I'm going to put in the work; I'm going to put in the time. Hopefully I'll get to that point.
"Everybody says (Manning) is a coach out on the field. So I'm sure he's putting in a lot of hours to figure out what's going on, how he's going to attack defenses and things like that. That's what it takes to play quarterback."
Since they broke 3-1, the Bengals have been consistently at the bottom of the NFL in the third-down conversions. Their big-play receiver, A.J. Green, disappeared in the season's biggest moment last week against the Steelers. The yards per catch for the weapons surrounding Green have dipped sharply.
"We joke that these guys were all said to be great playmakers three weeks ago, and now all of the sudden they have gone dry a little bit. They just have to go back and go do it," Lewis said. "But as coaches, it's our responsibility to create it as well. We have to create the opportunity, then in that opportunity—quarterback, receiver, running back, offensive line—we've got to make it happen. We've got to have those plays. When you create those opportunities and make good on them, then you feel good about everything."
Guys like left tackle Andrew Whitworth think the answer is rather simple when asked why the Bengals can't recapture the Sunday they destroyed the man-to-man Redskins defense back on Sept. 23.
"The truth of the matter is," Whitworth said, "you can cut things down any way you want, it is all about making plays. To be honest, it's going to execute and making the big plays. It's because they threw the ball into tight coverage and someone went up and made a play on the damn ball. It's the game of football and gets broke down into stats but it's down to making plays."
Green and Dalton say it may be as simple as throwing Green the ball more even if he's covered. He's not A.J. Green for nothing.
"Give me a chance. I think that's what we're going to do. I'm going to get my shots in the game, I just have to go make the play," Green said. "I think we're going to do it. I just have to make the play."
Dalton knows there are times he may be eliminating Green—and other options for that matter—too early in his progressions. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to make sure Green gets more than the six targets he got in last week's game against the Steelers. Gruden and Dalton are also walking that line of his terrific and quick release and letting things play out.
"Some of it was just some of the designs of the plays. And I could probably have thrown the ball to him a couple of times. Just kind of how it was," Dalton said. "It's knowing when you hold onto it a little bit longer. Maybe on third and a little bit longer where you have to hold onto it longer to try to get the first down. I'm still going to play my game; I'm still going to get the ball out of my hands quick. It's just knowing when you can hold onto it a little more, and there were times when I could have done that. It's good to go back and watch those times to know to let things develop a little more."
Maualuga and the defense has been more of a mystery. He is at the bottom of grade-based web sites that look at pass coverage and missed tackles, but we know what defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer thinks about media grades.
Maualuga has been under much more fire than Dalton from fans, and the blogs have blamed him for a lot of the Bengals problems trying to stop offenses carving up the middle of the field against them.
But Lewis and Zimmer have fought the urge to move rookie WILL backer Vontaze Burfict into his natural position in the middle and are sticking with Maualuga.
"I've always felt I had Marvin's support and Zim's support with things that have been going on throughout the season; it's things that are very correctable," Maualuga said.
Both Dalton and Maualuga indicated they believe Lewis is looking for more out of practice and is asking them to set the tempo.
"Not too much was said. He just wants us to practice better, wanting us to be perfect in everything we're doing. That's the way it came across," Dalton said. "You've got to expect a lot out of yourself. And demand a lot out of your teammates. That's what he was trying to get across."
Maualuga said he's not looking to jump all over his teammates and rip them publicly.
"I'm just making sure everyone is on the same page and we can practice at the same tempo and not get down on one person or two guys," Maualuga said. "I think everything will work itself out and we'll get it going this week."
Nice guys always, Dalton and Maualuga said what they were supposed to when challenged about the challenges.
As for jumping out of his skin into being a jerk, Dalton says he has to pick his spots.
"You have to know when you can do it, and when is the right time," he said. "He wouldn't say something like that if he didn't know that we could do it. He wouldn't expect something we couldn't do. It's part of it. We'll take it as a challenge. He just wants us to get better."
Lewis envisions the ultimate team leader, the guy he broke in with the Ravens all those years ago.
"We just have to keep pressing that. You have a good player; you can keep pressing the envelope with that. (The Ravens) did that with Ray Lewis," Marvin Lewis said. "Don't go to the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl and have a good time. You go and you suck the knowledge out of everybody there. You have good young players that have the opportunity to learn from that and be a part of that. You have to take advantage of that and it spreads throughout the football team."
When Lewis sent him the message on Monday about quarterback play in the middle of a season Dalton is on pace to throw a Bengals-record 23 picks, Dalton says he got that, too.
"You can't turn the ball over; I've known that," Dalton said. "There's been some kind of fluky things that have happened. But you can't turn the ball over. That's what it comes down to. If you win the turnover battle, you win more games than you lose. For me, I know that. I've definitely taken a look at that and I'm going to do a better job of that."
In his conference call with the Denver media Wednesday, Lewis said he also realizes the picks aren't all Dalton's fault.
"Those picks haven't come down the field. His interceptions haven't necessarily been actually a product of Andy. A couple of them have. I think he has seven or 10, whatever he has," Lewis said. "A couple of them have but he has not forced the ball in the coverage and we don't want him to change that. We want him to keep doing within what he's doing and keep going that way. But he had three in one game and one of them was really his interception so we have to keep, even though they're up, we have to keep him playing within himself and don't panic."
What he's saying is that Dalton has to walk the line. Just like holding on to the ball and getting rid of it. And being a jerk and being a team leader.
"I don't have any doubt that I've got everything that will please him in whatever was said," Dalton said. "He's expecting a lot out of me and Rey and the leaders on this team. It wouldn't have been said if we weren't where we were. Maybe it's the fire we need."