BALTIMORE - Sunday's year-ending 13-7 loss to the Ravens might have been a microcosm of the most disappointing Bengals season in history. But for a nostalgic Marvin Lewis, it had a whiff of his favorite moment coaching the Bengals the last eight seasons.
You remember. It was his first season. Nov. 16, 2003 when the 4-5 Bengals wedged themselves into first place for the first time that late in the year in 13 seasons with a 24-19 win over the 9-0 Chiefs at Paul Brown Stadium to begin a club-record skein of 57 sellouts.
"If you played physical football and make football plays, it doesn't matter about any of the other stuff, and it takes everybody pulling together, not worried about whatever else is going on around them," a wistful Lewis said in a weird This-Is-Your-Life postgame news conference. "I thought the spirit of the game that Sunday was kind of like today."
But this Bengals team is a lot more talented than Lewis' first one and for another Sunday they underachieved and won half the games that '03 team won in front of four non-sellouts. The Bengals had the ball nearly 10 more minutes than the 12-4 Ravens on the road Sunday. They gained nearly 200 more yards, stopped the Ravens on nine of 11 third downs and sacked them four times while not getting sacked. The numbers said they should have swept the mighty Ravens two straight seasons.
But they turned it over five times for the second time this season and finished at minus-8 in Lewis' precious turnover differential category that he made relevant in Bengaldom, the worst since he arrived. Lewis called it the "missed opportunities the story of our season," and that's the backdrop in which Lewis sits down Monday with Bengals president Mike Brown without a contract.
It's not a given that Brown is going to offer another one, or that Lewis would take it. Brown apparently has yet to make another offer after Lewis supposedly turned down a deal following last season's division title. On one side, the 4-12 finish with what many called the most talented Bengals roster ever reportedly has Brown steaming. On the other side, Lewis apparently wants to hammer out issues beyond his salary and indoor facility, which could focus on staffing for coaching and personnel.
"This has been ongoing since the bye week last year, and we haven't gotten things settled, and now we're at the end, and I don't know," Lewis said. "It's going to be something that both sides need to sit down and talk about and agree upon. And I need to go away and sleep on things, just like I did initially."
That may be a long winter's nap or a catnap. For two guys who have been talking every day for eight years, it would seem improbable they could narrow their differences in two days. But they are used to each other, which means a lot to Brown.
"I don't know when anything will be decided, just because there's a lot that goes into this, with me, with everybody," Lewis said. "I think I said the other day, for myself where I am right now, my coaching career, and we're at a different point than we were eight years ago. And I think that's big. And I think this football team is a lot different than it was eight years ago. And that's good. As I said, the guys in that room should know that, the leaders. And we're in a good spot. It doesn't have to go backwards."
While Lewis dodged specifics, he did make some news. He said the building of an indoor facility isn't an obstacle because he says Brown knows one has to be built with the advent of an 18-game schedule.
"It's something that's on his radar," Lewis said. "He realizes that if the season goes to 18 games, we'd have two more weeks left. We already saw a couple of weekends ago, with what happened to the Minnesota team and the Chicago team, the Vikings, the Giants and that kind of stuff and Green Bay getting travel and that kind of stuff with what the NFL is going to be up against. Let alone for games, let alone for practice, it's a difficult thing. But Mike's aware of that and talks with me about that. It's not something they can get done overnight, and I don't think anybody's expecting that."
If Sunday's loss was a microcosm, it was also a barometer of how far Lewis has taken the Bengals. They used to be a soft foe in a hard division before he arrived. The locker room in the Paul Brown Stadium Spa and Health Club was a country club that cruised late through losing seasons.
But look what the Bengals have done since they came into the Pittsburgh game at 2-5 on Nov. 8 when their shot for a winning TD failed at the Steelers 4 with 34 seconds left. The next week they fumbled inside two minutes at the Colts 25 and trailing by just six. On Dec. 5 they lost a three-point lead to another playoff-bound team with 34 seconds left, the Saints, and Sunday, a week after blowing the Chargers out of the playoffs, they played a vintage AFC North game on the road and were two yards and 10 seconds away from knocking off another playoff team.
Lewis' legacy? In his 48 division games, the Bengals are 26-22. In the 48 division games before he arrived, they were 14-34.
"To me, coming here to play, the game doesn't get any better than this, coming here, coming to Pittsburgh, coming to Cleveland. It doesn't get any better than that," said Lewis, who coordinated the Ravens defense for seven seasons. "That's all I know about the NFL. For 18 of my 19 years in the NFL, I've been coming to these places and playing these games. For me it's fun. And obviously coming here to a place that's so special to me, with people over there, not as many of the players anymore, but the rest of the organization. It makes it so special to me."
His view of the Bengals organization (and its view of him), isn't as clear. The players are in the middle and are staying out of it.
"I haven't had any discussions with him about this," said quarterback Carson Palmer. "He has been extremely focused on each game week to week. We know he is a great coach. I really don't know what will happen. I've seen some crazy things happen in this league. This was an emotional loss for everyone because it was our last game. As players, we can't let the coaches' status affect us, but it does.
"None of us have any idea. Everyone in that locker room wishes we knew what was going to happen, but we can't really change it, or let it affect us. We are all anxious to see what is going to happen."
WILL linebacker Brandon Johnson, crushed by a superb but losing effort in which the Bengals' pressure forced Baltimore to max protect and take running back Ray Rice out of the game in the second half, shrugged.
"It's none of my business," Johnson said. "I'm a hired hand."
Left tackle Andrew Whitworth is watching and waiting.
"I'd love to have him back, but I don't put everything on coaches and I don't put everything on players," Whitworth said. "It's a collective effort. Guys have to find a way to do whatever it is they've got to do better. And I think that involves everyone."