Updated: 9:10 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS – All the signs of a team drenched in headlines and sautéed in question marks were served at Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' breakfast table Tuesday morning here on the last day of the NFL's annual meeting at the coaches media period.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated, double platooning it with a Sirius radio microphone. Clark Judge of CBS Sports. Vic Carruci of NFL.com. They were all there to greet Lewis, all wanting to know about quarterback Carson Palmer.
But you already knew. Lewis is boldly plowing ahead like Palmer is going to retire and he even took one more step to declare it is 2003 all over again. Eight years after he started his Bengals career by drafting Palmer No. 1 overall, Lewis is mulling quarterbacks again with the fourth pick and pronouncing the rebooting has officially opened. He says it is like '03 again, but with the mettle of a team that is 15 months removed from winning a division.
"I think attitudinally we're a different team than we were in '03; they were afraid of putting their toe in the water," Lewis said. "They didn't know if it was going to hurt or not."
If Lewis is hurt by Palmer's walk in the woods, he's not showing it. He's staking his clean slate on the energetic blast from new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's back-to-basics fundamentals that gave rise to a top 10 defense two years ago.
"The circumstances and situation are what they are," Lewis said. "We're going to have to move forward and be excited about it. I'm excited about the direction on offense with our new coaches and so forth and that's good. I'm excited about where things are at defensively. It's not the ideal thing if I can write the script but I can't."
But Lewis is doing a great deal of editing and it's starting with Gruden, the first-time NFL playcaller who brings the pedigree of seasoned football lifer. If he doesn't come back and an epitaph on Palmer's Bengals career is written, it is how the Bengals weren't able to generate an average of three touchdowns per game in his last 37 starts for one of the most talented arms in the game.
So Lewis has charged Gruden with overseeing better coordination between positions and plays while making the run game look like the pass game and vice versa, along with reintroducing play-action. He calls Gruden, the younger brother of Jon Gruden, "a football fanatic and junkie."
"The biggest thing I'm excited about is our ability to mesh the run and pass together. Put pressure on the defense by attacking. We have people that fit that very well," Lewis said. "He brings great energy to that room. He brings a great feel how every position is going to be coached and critiqued without being one of those that micromanages. The installation of the offense with our coaches. You're talking about someone who wants the right guard to step this way, the right tackle to step this way and on this play this is going to be the quarterback's read, the receiver's adjustment, the back's track. To go through it that way and thorough and then disperse it to the position coaches."
Wide receivers coach James Urban, the newest position coach, shares Gruden's Andy Reid roots. Urban worked directly with Reid in Philadelphia the last seven seasons while Gruden's brother ran Reid's type of West Coast Offense. With Gruden a former quarterback at Louisville and an Arena League MVP and Urban off two years of coaching the Eagles quarterbacks, the position is going to get a lot of attention.
"Jay was a quarterback. He sees the offense through that guy's eyes. To me that was a big plus to offensively put it in and install the offense through the eyes of the QB," Lewis said. "With the addition of James Urban, he coached QBs in Philadelphia, I've added two people who mesh well together and help the other coaches know right away this is how it's supposed to look and what the real critical coaching points are now."
Lewis says the quarterback need is bigger than the receiver need, but not enough to take a quarterback with the fourth pick in the draft.
"I believe we have to make sure not necessarily at quarterback as much as get the right value at that pick," Lewis said. "If it's a quarterback or that player. We're going to do our due diligence because right now we're going to take one of the first four players to come off the board."
Lewis may be saying it is like 2003, but he could use a veteran bridge quarterback like he had with Jon Kitna, allowing him to sit Palmer for a year. But Lewis is making noises that if Palmer stays in the woods, this team is better suited to carry a rookie quarterback.
"I think we have some great toughness; nobody questions the toughness of our team," Lewis said. "When we started in 2003, things were different. I think now everyone knows what to expect that way. I think we have a very solid base defensively. We have great leadership from Andrew (Whitworth). We have a guy on the come in Andre (Smith) who's trying to get this thing right and wants to be known as a great player, not just a good player. He wants to achieve status of a good player. Until we got shut down here, he was trying to work his tail off. I think you're excited about that.
"I like where we are with special teams. We had a setback last year with Mike (Nugent)'s injury but things have looked good. We know where we are with our punter. Kevin (Huber) is a very talented kid who's got to come back and have a great year. He didn't have as good a year as we all expected, but he can and he'll work at it. It's exciting where we are with all those guys. We've got to look at our players and get them retained and all that. We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but it's what we do."
Yes, the Bengals can't trade Palmer during the lockout. And, yes, Bengals president Mike Brown is so adamant about not dealing Palmer that Lewis says it's not only not an issue, but that no one is surprised Palmer has been denied. Lewis said there's no showdown between where Brown and Palmer are going at it.
"Nobody is going at anything," Lewis said. "One guy spoke to the owner of the football team. He was told where his stand is and that's where it is. Everybody knew where things were going to be. That's the way it is. You make those determinations. So there's nobody going at anything."
But it sounds like Lewis would be up for trading a future draft pick to get a player, which would probably be that bridge QB. It is looking more and more like trading a 2012 draft pick is the only way to get something in 2011.
"I think you do what's best for the team for the next two years," Lewis said. "You don't worry about where the pick is in 2012, you do what you can to strengthen the team for '11. Whatever move you make you make it not for one year, but for two, three years. I don't buy that you wait until you know what the pick is. If you feel like you need to do it, you do it and 2012 takes care of itself. You're doing it to play in the Super Bowl in 2011. Then you worry about going back to the Super Bowl in 2012."
Lewis, who says he last talked to Palmer the first week of February, has a pretty good idea where Palmer's mindframe is. He indicated he had a sense during the season that the frustration was eating at the quarterback like it had never before. But he didn't show it.
"No. Carson was very good the entire season," Lewis said. "Even at a point when we were 2-6, he said we're going to run the table and be 10-6 and get in the playoffs. One day whoever we lost to that week, I had him come in and talk to me and see how he was doing and so he stuck to that mantra all the way through. Even the next week. The last four games, two we won, but the Pittsburgh game was not his best game. Yet it was him trying to do too much."
Now, Lewis may be looking to make sure a rookie quarterback doesn't have to do much at all.
He thinks he's got the team and the coordinator to do it.
At least, that's how he told it to that national breakfast club.
"I'm excited where we are offensively no matter what occurs," he said. "Jay can come in and take some snaps if he has to. He's going to find a way to win. That's the important part. We need to find way to win games And do it right away."
Other Lewisms from Tuesday:
» He thinks the communications blockade with players during the lockout has hurt the Bengals evaluate the health of right tackle Andre Smith as he comes back from his second foot surgery in as many offseasons.
Even though Smith is listed as a guard-tackle on the roster, Lewis says he's just a tackle and that he's not as mobile as starting guards Bobbie Williams and Nate Livings.
» He believes SAM linebacker Rey Maualuga is mentally ready to make the move to middle linebacker in his third season and that right end Michael Johnson is an option at SAM after working there all of the last training camp.
» He says wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is "still under contract," but he's not counting on him making the Sporting KC Major Soccer League team during this week's tryout. "What has he ever done that he's completed? What circle has he ever connected?"
» He's for defensive players being held accountable for launching and making dangerous hits. He blames some of the rise in those plays to the lack of coaching at the younger levels.
» He's for the change in the kick return even if it is tweaked before it goes to a vote Tuesday in front of the owners. The ball will remain kicked off from the 35 instead of the 30, but the touchback would remain at the 20 instead of the 25 and the two-man wedge would be intact and not abolished. Lewis still thinks it will have a tough time getting passed.