Updated: 7:40 p.m.
"It's not here, it's here ... but that much is so big," Lewis said, fingering just how close the Bengals are to a winning hand. "But we've seen the other side. We know what it looks and feels like. A lot of teams go through that. ... We had the book tour last year."
The fifth chapter of Lewis' run as Bengals head coach begins next week at training camp with a team he thinks is now mature enough to handle the rave reviews and in Tuesday's joint interview with Bengals.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer he put the onus on his offense and best players to step up in big games in an effort to "widen the margin of error."
But Lewis revealed something even wider.
His won't-back-down optimism.
"We have good enough players and great coaches. We have everything we need to be one of the best teams, if not the best team, in the NFL and that's our goal," Lewis said. "There's no reason why we can't. We have to understand that."
Lewis also revealed he doesn't know if he'll take middle linebacker Odell Thurman to camp if he's reinstated and Lewis said he knows of only one person that can put him on the hot seat.
"Mike (Brown) determines that," Lewis said. "I don't know. I don't write it. I just answer the questions."
Lewis preferred to deal with scope rather than specifics Tuesday. Asked if he'll take Thurman to camp next week if he's reinstated, Lewis said, "I don't know."
Thurman expects to hear this week or early next if his year-long suspension for violations of the substance abuse policy is over or not.
"If he is reinstated it would be after a phone call from the commissioner to Mike and myself," Lewis said. "Whatever the stipulations, and I (wouldn't have) talked to Odell ... there's no reason to speculate."
And as for the status of injured players, Lewis said he'd talk about them at camp.
But Lewis didn't mind talking about the proverbial Hot Seat. If he won't admit it's a decisive year in his coaching career (his one division title is accompanied by three 8-8 seasons), he will say it's "big." If there is anything that galls a coach, it's the tag of "underachieving" that got velcroed to the Bengals after losing the last three games of the season when one win would have put them back in the playoffs.
"The best compliment ever paid was to Michael Jordan when he was called the hardest working overachiever," Lewis said. "That's what you want to be called is an overachiever.
"We underachieved because we didn't make plays when we were in position to make them. There are 25, 26 teams I would imagine that people would say the same thing and we're certainly one of them."
One staple of a Lewis' offseason is the constant pounding of the teamwork theme. That's why he brought up the book tour mentality of defending champions, which he feels hurt his club last year in the wake of the AFC North title.
"You see teams that win the Super Bowl and then the next year they win five games because a lot of people think they had a bigger hand in why the team was successful than they had," Lewis said. "We had the book tour last year. It all hurts you. It's all people talked about was going to the Super Bowl. They didn't talk about winning the division, beating Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland. Everybody was going to Miami. Hell, we've got to beat those people."
In that vein Lewis brought in last month former NFL wide receiver Cris Carter, the Middletown, Ohio and Ohio State product, to speak to the Bengals. Carter, second only to Jerry Rice on the all-time receiving list, told them he would give up all the yards and catches for a shot to win a Super Bowl.
"It's gone and you can't get it back," said Lewis of the last three games. "You have to ask, 'What can I do to make my team better?'
"We have some players over the last four years that have had some success on the field, collectively and personally. You can't lose sight of how that came about. It came about through a team. Sometimes you have to put your personal goals, achievements, and beliefs behind you."
Lewis doesn't agree with some players who think he ran "a tighter ship" this spring, he just thinks he has to deal with fewer problems because they're used to him. But there's no question he's always trying to find the right locker room chemistry and he seemed to have wide receiver Chris Henry in mind.
It's why he likes new defensive tackles Michael Myers and Kenderick Allen. "They're used to playing through rotation guys, but they're good pros, you know each and every day they're going to be there in practice and working and knowing what to do," Lewis said.
Lewis says he hasn't changed his approach after four of the most exciting, heartbreaking, and traumatic seasons in Bengals history. He says he continues to break the game down in small parts, and now that they've watched a season implode because of a few individual plays ("You're kidding me," he says of the 67-yard Steelers touchdown on the last snap of the season), "I have more people listening to me. More attentive people."
(There was also the blown extra point and Henry's touchdown called back on Chad Johnson's illegal procedure in Denver and the goal-line penalties and missed last-second field goal against Pittsburgh ... )
As he tries to glue those little shards of success, Lewis is convinced the team is better and more mature when he talks about the defense.
"Overall we're a better football team than we were," he said. "You have a team that's on the same page, that goes out and fights together all the time. The maturity of the secondary guys will be big. The level of play and maturity at linebacker. The returning guys played a lot of football last year at the end of the year. Robert Geathers kind of coming into his own.
And it is that every snap consistency that Lewis craves, something he felt his star-studded offense lacked, particularly in the middle of the season, "when they could have ran away with things."
"There is a sense we had this overpowering offensive football team and we scored how many points in Tampa?" asked Lewis of a game the Bengals lost, 14-13. "Against an average defensive football team at that point, minus some starters. There is a perception that has to be overcome. The only way to overcome the perception is by deeds. It's the same thing on the other side of the football. It's the same thing on special teams. Consistency and being an attacking football team for 16 games over 17 weeks is what you're striving for. Not the big sways of ups and downs."
Lewis knows the Bengals haven't had a 40-yard run in 37 games, that the long ball was harder to come by last year, and that the Bengals third-down conversion rate dipped from 42.9 percent to 35.8.
"We've got to run for more big chunks. We've got to create more big plays," Lewis said. "There's a perception. I went through it with Vinny (Testaverde) and that group in Baltimore. Threw for all those yards, but nobody looked at how many turnovers they had, not running the ball, third-down percentage. Those things you equate to winning and losing football games."
During the offseason, Lewis asked assistant public relations director P.J. Combs to research over the last five seasons how yards per carry impacted winning and losing. That came in reaction to the Bengals' stunningly low 3.7, their lowest in offensive line coach Paul Alexander's 12 seasons.
Combs found there wasn't much of a correlation but Lewis believes in order for the Bengals to succeed, they need to get it back to usual and counts it as one of his critical stats, along with "yards per rush on defense, third-down percentages are very important. Big chunk plays on offense and you always want to eliminate big plays on defense, which stems from tackling and assignment error."
Lewis isn't ready to crucify his defense, ranked 30th last season, because he feels the passing stats were skewed in games the Bengals had leads much of the way, such as the wins over New Orleans, Cleveland and Oakland. He looks at the 4.2 per carry they gave up on the ground and while not good enough, it was in the upper half of the AFC.
But he also called everyone out on the three-game losing streak that ended the season.
"Our best players have to play well at the end of the year," Lewis said. "If you want to be looked upon as one of the great players in the National Football League, it's what you do to finish the season is what people remember you by. It's another lesson. You don't want to let history repeat itself."
Lewis wouldn't be specific and called it "a collective effort," and it was. Carson Palmer threw a huge pick on the first series in Denver, Chad Johnson had about five drops in the last three games, special teams betrayed two Palmer last-minute TD drives, the defense let a rookie QB pull off a 99-yard drive ...
"It doesn't have to rely on Carson Palmer," Lewis said. "It's everybody in the building. 'Get on my back. Let's go.' Coaches. Everybody. Don't put it off on somebody else."
As for a window of opportunity closing, Lewis doesn't buy it.
"We certainly don't have an old football team," Lewis said. "I think we're going the right way with the influx of six, seven, eight (rookies) every year. Being in that kind of cycle is the only way to be successful. That way we can coach them like hell for those first four or five years and hopefully provide the kind of environment that wants them to re-sign and have them for seven, eight years. We keep making a bigger window and we've been able to do that from (the front office). We've kept the window pretty wide open. It's not a small window."
Lewis hopes his players open up another window, the one baring the margin of error.
"It's a tough balancing act of the NFL," Lewis said. "It's important to widen the margin of error and not to let everything (hinge) on one single play. Now that play comes and let's step up and knock it out of the park. But it shouldn't have to come down to that. Let's make sure we're doing things consistently and not to put us in that situation."