Posted: 2:45 p.m.
If he coached in New York or Miami or had the star on his hat or had a network blazer in his closet, the Bengals' Marvin Lewis would be the chic candidate for NFL Coach of the Year.
Coming off a four-win season with the most inexperienced roster in the league and just four players left from his first team. A defense coping with tragedy. A new offensive playbook. A quarterback on the mend, a rookie punter, and a paint-by-the-numbers offensive line.
Letterman hasn't called, so Lewis has to be content on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium to look across the field at the Baltimore team where he learned the ropes knowing his first-place Bengals have a chance to take control of the AFC North with a victory that would sweep the series, push them to 6-2 and drop the dangerous Ravens to 4-4.
Call it MarvBall. A version of AFC North smashmouth. A brand that is more hardcore than his Steeler-Lite and Raven-Lite teams of 2003-06.
"Marvin's done a good job with that team. I think at some point he realized that less is more," says Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens general manager and Lewis' mentor on all things NFL. "Of course, he's always done pretty well when Carson Palmer is healthy, but Marvin has also learned and adjusted along the way and do what good coaches do. I think he has realized that simple is best."
Brian Billick, Lewis's old head coach at the Ravens, just calls it good coaching.
"They're running the same plays. They're doing the same things with Carson Palmer," says Billick, now with NFL Network. "It's just now they have a better defense. You play to your strengths. You control the ball, help your defense, play field position."
Billick knows how hard it is to do what Lewis is doing. Tear up a franchise twice and rebuild it twice. That takes years and that's tough to do in a league where 18 of the 32 coaches are in their third year or less with their teams.
"You've got to have support and obviously Mike Brown has stuck with Marvin," Billick says of the Bengals president. "As long as you have the same head coach, you can really do anything you want in terms of making changes (on the field)."
Only the Titans' Jeff Fisher and the Patriots' Bill Belichick have more service with the same team in the AFC than Lewis' seven seasons in Cincinnati. Only Andy Reid in Philadelphia and John Fox in Carolina have more in the NFC.
He is just five wins from passing Bengals founder Paul Brown on the club's victory list. With 103 games, he has coached more than the combined work of Tiger Johnson and Forrest Gregg, the two winningest coaches in team history. His 51-51-1 regular-season record can be knocked for its mediocrity in the hands of a Pro Bowl quarterback or praised for its resiliency in the face of a shattering number of injuries during the previous two seasons.
Lewis' contract is up in 2010 and if you think you can't get him to talk about injuries, try that one. One more season and he ties Brown and Sam Wyche for the longest coaching stint in Bengals history.
John Thornton, former Bengals defensive tackle turned media personality, is already pushing an extension, saying he's earned it. Mike Brown loves stability and would probably like to strike a deal. The club and Lewis have already agreed on three extensions, but where is Lewis at age 51 with 51 wins compared to three years ago?
"I don't think about my future," he says.
Palmer gets the sense the fit is good here for Lewis.
"You've got to realize, he knew when he took the job we weren't going to play on Monday night every other week," Palmer says. "It's a very small-run organization. He knows there's not a lot of glitz and glamour to it. He deserved a job. He wouldn't have taken this one if he didn't think he could bring in his his own philosophy and do what he wanted to do."
While all that is debated, Brown has stood firm behind his coaches after an 11-23-1 drought and Lewis has responded with an impressive opening run of four victories coming against teams with winning records. The Bengals have won on the road, they've won coming from behind, they've won protecting a lead and they've won after they've lost. All the things they hadn't done since losing the last three games of '06 when they needed just one win to go to the playoffs in back-to-back years.
"It's been a great job; under the radar," says Charley Casserly, the former Redskins and Texans general manager and current CBS analyst. "You don't get a chance in this league very often to do it twice in the same place. It's tough to do when you've got the same voice talking to players. But Marvin's got the ability to understand people and he's got a great personality. It's one of his strengths. I know the story is about Marvin but something has got to be said about Mike. He never flinched. He sees the big picture."
Corner Lewis this week and he says he doesn't think he's changed as much as he is coaching different players. Buttonhole some players and they say Lewis is handling them differently than in the past. By instituting a captains meeting every Thursday with Lewis, they say he's more in tune with their outlook on how things are done.
Palmer, for one, is impressed with how Lewis has taken input on the practice schedule. Long criticized for his punishing approach, Lewis has apparently backed off.
"He's changed that mindset. Whether it's been bad luck or riding us a little too hard, he realized it hasn't worked," Palmer said. "And he's listened to us a little bit about when to take the pads off and when to not and not going nine-on-seven and pounding each other during the week when you've got three division games in a row. He's more apt to listen to us, but we have to have a valid point and it better make sense."
So they're both right.
One of those captains, left tackle Andrew Whitworth, arrived in 2006 at the height of a crime wave that racked the club with 10 arrests in 14 months. He had been impressed with how much Lewis took the time to talk about the importance of being active in the community and doing all the right things off the field and couldn't believe it when the arrests kept running.
"I'd never been around a coach who talked so much about being a good person and the things you could do," Whitworth says. "I think he's listening to us now because he knows we've got something worth saying. He's got guys that care about this team. He never lost this locker room. What happened before, I blame it on the players that were here. We've got classier guys. We've got more guys that care about winning."
Lewis will agree with that and he says not just he, but the entire organization, took home a lesson about sticking with riff raff that drained locker-room chemistry rather than added to it. At some point, intangibles and production had to count more than potential and talent.
"I learned you have to make harsh choices earlier, more cutting choices earlier," Lewis says. "You have to make them earlier in order to keep (the players') attention. It's the biggest lesson learned, I think, from an organization standpoint. I kind of had been that way, then you find a way sometimes to talk your way out of it."
And Lewis believes the chemistry that has been stirred by guys like Palmer, Whitworth and right guard Bobbie Williams, has helped offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski's effort to revamp his playbook.
A lot of people didn't think the players would listen to a staff that had been around, for the most part, since 2001, and oversaw an offense in 2007 and 2008 that had fallen on hard times after the heyday of '04-'06. But Lewis knew he had different players and Bratkowski responded by ripping it up, particularly a massive overhaul of the running scheme.
"It's easier to make one change than two changes," Lewis says. "We had an offensive juggernaut that was not as good without the quarterback. Everybody understood that. Our coaches have an ability to adapt and to use our personnel in new and different ways. I think with Bob there's a respect that he commands with the players and he's got a great track record.
"And the influence of 'This is how we're going to do it and we're going to do it this way or you can do it on another team,' and that's the way it has to be. I think Carson is key to that. His buy-in, day-to-day influence on offensive players is key. Great leadership from he, and Whitworth and Bobbie Williams and guys like Cedric (Benson) are the workhorses."
It's been a tough stretch for the coaches, yet with everyone's job on the line, they responded.
"They've been coaching since January and have done a great job," Lewis says. "That's my job is to help them and push them to improve."
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer worked under all kinds of head coaches in Dallas that included Barry Switzer and Bill Parcells and he believes Lewis prepares his team as well as anyone.
"Marvin has a great feel for the players and what he has to do to prepare them," Zimmer says. "He's very organized, there's no question about that, and I really think he's good at managing a game."
It was the sudden death of Zimmer's wife Vikki last month less than 48 hours before the club left for Baltimore that underscored Lewis' deftness at keeping a team together with crisis management. Lewis and Zimmer said their "See you tomorrows" about 6 p.m. that Thursday and as Lewis was driving home about 45 minutes later he got Zimmer's unbelievable call.
Lewis turned his car around on Columbia Parkway and headed to Zimmer's condo, where he helped his devastated friend fill out a police report as several coaches streamed into the home to do what little they could. Deep into the night Lewis finally convinced Zimmer to spend the night at his home.
"Maybe the toughest thing that I ever went through, but our coaches were great and Mike Brown and the administration did whatever was needed," Lewis says. "And the players, of course. They were tremendous. They rallied and we all got a little closer."
Special teams coach Darrin Simmons has been with Lewis all seven seasons and says his ability to reach out has always been there.
"He cares about your family because I think he cares about his family so much," Simmons says. "He and his wife have been great with that from the first day, and when you see him go out and speak in the community, it comes through."
Defensive tackle Domata Peko says that comes through in the captains meetings, too.
"I've never had a head coach talk to me as much as him," Peko says. "Those meetings are good because it's a way the team can get to him and the way he can get to the team."
In the end, it all lifts the football and Lewis finally has that AFC North formula. He took care of the defense with the hiring of Zimmer, three straight first-round picks and a second-round pounder named Rey Maualuga. Bratkowski and Palmer have headed the transition team from wide-open offense that set up the run to a smashmouth mentality with the help of a running back by the name of Ced. At the top, Lewis is keeping the trains on time by alternating barks and bites.
"One thing about Marvin," Newsome says, "he knows how to push buttons on players."
"I remember going in there in the spring and Marvin telling me he wanted to get back to the way they had it a few years ago," Casserly says. "Run the ball being physical and throw the ball down the field and obviously that's what they're committed to doing."
"It comes down to trust," Whitworth says of listening to new ideas from old voices. "We trust the coaches and I think they trust us and it's a matter of executing it. We believe it."
Billick, who worked with Lewis for three seasons, says he's got that ability "to make players think that he's interested in them and he understands them. It's an important skill that he has."
It helps that he knows the game. Lewis and Newsome are on the NFL Competition Committee, where they have nurtured a friendship that began when Lewis joined the Ravens in 1996.
"He's got a grasp of the issues," Newsome says. "He really understands situations and what kind of players respond in those situations and what the coach has to do. I think, too, he understands the kind of player that he wants, kind of like here where we say, 'Play like a Raven.' ''
While the news this NFL season has been more about front-office disasters (Cleveland, Washington, Oakland, Tennessee), than on-field heroics, the Bengals quietly plug along with Lewis and Mike Brown calling a lot of shots that have hit home with the kind of players Lewis covets. Lewis understands that because of Brown's patience he probably has one of the longer ropes in the NFL.
"Some people want to have all the say-so, but in the end they don't want to take the responsibility and push the blame on somebody else. Obviously, that's not Mike," Lewis says. "I coach the football team. As far as players, ultimately it's his decision, but the good part is that we talk every day and he knows what's going on with the players. If he's down on a guy and I'm not, my job is to let him know why I feel better about this guy than the other guy. I think we've gotten a pretty good system over time."
It's like those captains meetings. If they make Lewis understand…
Lewis is all Pittsburgh. He grew up there. He coached with the Pitt Panthers. He broke into NFL coaching with the Steelers. Tough, stubborn, single-minded. When in doubt, just smash mouth it.
Just go to Bengals.com every Monday and Wednesday during the season and click on a news conference.
"He's stubborn, but he's also open," Palmer says. "He's stubborn to certain things we know he's not going to change. But you also want a coach that is not wishy-washy. He's not wishy-washy at all. He's stern about this, but he can be open about that. That's what you want. You don't want a coach where you say, 'Hey, coach, we don't need to practice all this, we'll show up on Sunday.' That's not the type of guy he is. He's that hard-nosed Pittsburgh guy."
But the Bengals go to Pittsburgh next Sunday. The Ravens are now. Finally, it seems, the Bengals are playing MarvBall against his old haunts.
Run it and stop it.
"It's what wins," he says, seven years, two rebuilding jobs and counting.