10-11-03, 12:45 p.m.
It always seems to work this way in the NFL. George Halas and Pete Rozelle have handed down eternity's greatest scriptwriter, from the '58 playoff game to Max McGee, to Broadway Joe to Kurt Warner.
A week from Sunday, the scriptwriter takes another shot. The marquee isn't as big as the playoffs and the billing isn't as expansive as the Super Bowl.
But Marvin Lewis coaching the First Must Game of his head coaching career against the Baltimore Ravens is about as compelling as the NFL can get in October.
Oct. 19 to be exact. Paul Brown Stadium. The 1-4 Bengals against what could be the 3-2 or 2-3 Ravens depending what happens this Sunday in the desert with old friend Jeff Blake's Arizona Cardinals. It was six years as the Ravens defensive coordinator where Lewis found his greatest influences. There was Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome as his personnel guru and still a confidant. And, any organizational planning or event (such as Game Day captains, hotels the night before home games) Lewis has brought to Cincinnati, it usually has some genesis from the notebook of Ravens head coach Brian Billick.
Billick pick-pocketed that notebook from his days with Dennis Green and Bill Walsh. Told of some of Lewis' first meetings with Bengals' players and staff and his approach to road trips, Walsh chuckled softly out there in San Francisco.
"Well, then it's come full circle," said Walsh, the former Bengals assistant coach from the early 1970s who went to the Hall of Fame after leading the Niners to three Super Bowl titles. "Most of my organization I learned and took right from Paul Brown. "Very detailed. Surrounding yourself with good people and giving them specific jobs and including them in the process. When it came to players, Paul always went first class."
So, in a way, maybe the Bengals have hired Bill Walsh 27 years after Paul Brown opted for Tiger Johnson as his successor instead of Walsh.
"A couple of weeks ago before our game we were on the field watching the Bengals and Jacksonville on a split screen," Newsome said the other day. "We were saying, Our alumni is having a pretty good day.' Marvin got his (first victory) and Jack (Del Rio) didn't get his, but it was going to the wire.
"Marvin has been exposed to a lot of influences," Newsome said. "You have to remember those four years in Pittsburgh, but when he came here he got the Denny Green-Bill Walsh stuff, too."
The Bengals' Lewis vs. The Ravens' Newsome and Billick. But it won't be strange for The Wizard of Oz who performed enough magic on the lakefront to go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One more Lombardi Trophy and they'll have to put his bust in the executive wing and his shoulder pads in the players' alcove.
"We've gone against Marvin before when he was at Pittsburgh," Newsome said.
The University of Oz is a pretty good place to matriculate. Under the direction of Newsome and Billick, Baltimore has built a Super Bowl champion, torn it down, and is in the process of building another contender. They have done it all by winning at least seven games in each season since 1999.
"You have to have a plan," Newsome said. "Marvin has a plan. He's been able to take it from a lot of people. It takes time to build a winner and to get your system, your way of doing things into that program. It's going to happen. But winning is always the last thing that's going to happen."
When it comes to Lewis, Newsome doesn't want you to forget those days in Pittsburgh when Lewis worked for Steelers head coach Bill Cowher. Cowher broke in under Marty Schottenheimer in Cleveland and later with Kansas City when Newsome was with the Browns.
He agrees. Organized like Billick. But attacks the game like Cowher with smash-mouth ball control and time of possession.
"I'm sure he gets a lot of organization from what we did here when he was with us," Newsome said, "but I know he's going to give that team mental toughness and that mental toughness comes from Bill Cowher and Marty Schottenheimer."
Newsome hasn't studied the Bengals as much as he'll study them next week, but there was no question that he felt the Bengals had a Marvin Lewis draft back in April. Particularly Rounds 3-4-5 when the Bengals went with three straight gifted athletes who had big question marks. Wide receiver Kelley Washington was coming off a neck injury, cornerback Dennis Weathersby had been through a shooting, and linebacker Khalid Abdullah was coming out of Division II.
But they all had Lewis' pre-requisites of speed and play-making ability. Players make plays. When the Ravens beat the Bengals last year in Baltimore, a 2000 sixth-round pick in defensive end Adalius Thomas scored a touchdown on an interception, a 2002 sixth-round draft pick in running back Lamont Brightful returned a punt for a touchdown, a 2001 fourth-round draft pick in linebacker Edgerton Hartwell had two sacks, and a 2002 first-rounder in safety Ed Reed had two interceptions.
Lewis lobbied for those kinds of guys before he left. Hard. Lewis is one of the NFL's great all-time lobbyists. And Newsome didn't mind.
It all helped they came together in 1996 in the first year of the franchise in Baltimore. One of Newsome's top scouts and now his main man, Phil Savage, came from a coaching background. So did Newsome as Cleveland's former assistant head coach. Bright young assistants like Lewis and offensive line guru Kirk Firenz also arrived together.
In an effort to rid the organization of the powerful separation between coaches and personnel department, Newsome brought them closer together. He wanted the coaches' feedback because he had some good ones.
"Oh yeah," Newsome said. "Marvin would be right there, but that's OK. We've got a lot good lobbyists, but you can't listen some of them. I listened to Marvin because he told me why they fit and how he would use the player, and then it make sense because you knew what made Marvin such a good coach was he can take a guy and use him the way he thinks he should be used."
Sound familiar? That's the thinking that has been used in moving linebacker Brian Simmons from the middle to the outside and Kevin Kaesviharn from cornerback to free safety. He also knew what he had in mind for Abdullah when he drafted him. A special teams demon all the way.
It's also a reason he signed punter Kyle Richardson this past week, an inside-the-20 ace Lewis knows from his days in Baltimore. Richardson doesn't hit cannon shots, but he set a NFL record in '99 helping out Lewis' defense with great field on a league-record 39 punts inside the 20.
Lewis has a great say in who he wants on his roster, which is why running back Kenny Watson is here and not Ray Jackson. This isn't the first time Lewis has sold management on people and ideas.
:"He was very adamant about Peter Boulware," said Newsome of the Ravens Pro Bowl sacker that Newsome had identified as maybe the best player in the draft that previous September. "When he was coming out of college, we had a guy like (defensive end) Michael McCrary, but here's a guy Marvin still stuck with (on the draft board) because of the things he would have him do or thought he might be able to do at linebacker. And he did it. If there's a chance you're going to get fired, you better have the right to say who you want playing for you."
The lesson wasn't lost on Lewis.
Never pass on a great player.
"It's like what he's done with the Browns," Newsome said of the Bengals owners. "I'm sure he told them if he could do these things with the weight room, he'd get players to work there in the offseason. And from what I read, you had the biggest turnout ever. He proved what he could do."
Now Lewis has to find a way to block Boulware next Sunday. Newsome loves it. Win or lose. Folks in Cincinnati concerned about his student's clock management?
"Hey, it's an old fashioned AFC Central game," said Newsome, who played in plenty of those. "If they beat us, it's just one game. When Marvin started running the defenses, he learned about personnel groups and game situations. He learned. I don't know what they're saying, but I know Marvin is going to be a better head coach a year from today than he is now."
Out in San Francisco, Walsh hears about Lewis' trips to the West Coast on Friday and how the Niners went out on Friday to the east, and how they hardly ever lost on the road in their heyday. He hears how Lewis is demanding the best and getting it on and off the field.
"We got a lot of work done on the road when we went to play. It was all football and that helped the focus," Walsh said. "It was like Paul Brown said. It's a business trip. Paul used to say, 'It's 50 against 50,000."
Quite a day next Sunday at, naturally, Paul Brown Stadium. A little PB. A little Schottenheimer. A little Cowher, Walsh, and Green. A lot of Oz and Billick.
And, at 1-4 in what is turning into the old AFC Central when 8-8 could win it, Lewis comes full circle on a day his team starts the long run.