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'New season' opens Nov. 8

Marvin Lewis

Posted: 12:20 a.m.

That orange-and-black striped chip the Bengals have had on their shoulder during this 5-2 start?

Head coach Marvin Lewis has had it since March at the NFL owners meetings.

"For whatever reason, even though we have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, we were kind of written off this year," Lewis said Thursday in a bye week conversation with "I knew it as soon as we have that opening video at the owners meeting. It's never us. We're not even in it. We're an afterthought."

No more. In the 20 seasons since the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, 74 percent of the teams that started 5-2 made the postseason, which puts the first-place Bengals squarely in any video documenting playoff contenders.

But as far as Lewis is concerned, and this may end up on a T-shirt, it is Sept. 12 and the record is 0-0. He is calling the Nov. 8 game against Baltimore the opener. It's why he reintroduced the numbered jerseys at practice this week.

"It's a new season," he said. "We don't have to worry about nine games. Only one game. We have a nine-game schedule and we open with Baltimore. We only get to play nine games this year."

Other topics Lewis hit in a conversation with's Geoff Hobson:

» The formula of a strong running game had its roots in last year's 0-8 start, when Lewis and his coaches looked at teams that were 6-2 and 5-3. The Bengals are 9-5-1 since. Since the NFL went to eight four-team divisions in 2002, 24 teams have finished with 10 victories and a total of 21 have made the playoffs.

» The biggest surprise to Lewis this year has been the play of the offensive line as well as the defensive line, but he says the secondary has to play better if the Bengals are to finish the playoff run.

» Lewis takes the blame for that 0-8 start because he says he failed to prep the team well enough for the loss of quarterback Carson Palmer.

Here are the best snippets of the interview: GH: When you win in this town, it's pretty good.ML:
They love their football here. They're very passionate about it. They want to enjoy their Mondays at lunch, in the coffee room, around the water cooler. They look forward to that and our team has given them something to talk about every Monday and it's been good. It's not always as good as we would like, but for the most part it's been entertaining and we've got a lot of football left and we're going to keep it entertaining and we're going to keep on track and keep it going. But I understand being a fan of the NFL has its challenges.

GH: Like you said the other day, the league changes from week to week.ML: Not many weeks are there games like this past one with widespread scores. For the most part the scores are close.

GH: As a head coach, did you have to adjust to the constant ebb and flow of the league?
ML: The biggest thing is the pulse of the team. That's what my job is. To not let it get out of hand one way or the other. For whatever reason, even though we have one of the best quarterbacks in the league, we were kind of written off this year.

GH: Why do you think that was?
ML: I don't know. It's interesting. I knew it as soon as I was at the owners meeting (this past March). I know where the sentiment is. I know how the schedule is going to come out. I know who is going to be more on national TV. I know as soon as they have that opening video at the owners meeting.

GH: What was it this year?
ML: It's never us. We're not even in it. We're an afterthought. I sit there and laugh with Katie (Blackburn) now about it. Well, we can get ready to play 1:00 games.

GH:  Is that where you got the idea for this year? The chip on the shoulder?
ML: That's a reminder. You know it going in. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league, we have two of the better receivers in the league. We've got four very good receivers. We've got some good players. Good young corners.

GH: You sound amazed at the lack of recognition. One guy who did say something at the end of last year was  (CBS analyst) Bill Cowher. He said, watch out, the Bengals were going to be a surprise team.
ML: Bill understands where we were at and what we began to do. People that know football and understand football, they understand what you have to do to win games. We were able to get to that formula (run the ball with defense), albeit in a small chunk, but we were able to figure it out with guys on the sidelines with injuries, guys stepping up. The Dennis Rolands and the Anthony Collins and the Nate Livings. Guys like that played at the end of last year and we were able to win those last three games.

GH: Doesn't that say something about coaching and personnel, about the organization?
ML: We have a very tight-knit family. We take pride in how we do it and go about it.

GH: As you know, it gets ripped.
ML: It got (ripped) in Baltimore until they won a Super Bowl. There was no credit given until the team won the Super Bowl. Then it was, 'OK, that's how you do it. There are the draft gurus.' I know that they were grinding just like we're grinding. They were working just as hard and as well when they weren't winning games there as they were when they were winning games and the same thing here. Sometimes injuries occur and things get out of hand and you can't make up for it. You don't go out and get a new quarterback just like that.

Where I failed (last year) is I didn't adjust. I didn't get our team to adjust quickly enough without Carson. Everybody still had the sense that Carson was going to come in and save us. But you know what? We figured it out without some guys.

GH: What's been the biggest surprise to you this season?
ML: The most pleasant surprise has been the execution of our offensive line group. The second most is the execution of the defensive line group. Those are two areas that coming into the season were going to be big for us. The other areas were pretty well settled. We had to do it through competition and depth with those two groups and those players have gone above and beyond to build a bond between themselves and a sense of toughness, a sense of spirit and just toughness, grit that is their battle cry.

GH: What group has to pick it up if you're going to make a run at this thing?
ML: Our secondary has to play better. Our perimeter on defense has to get back to how they played and finished the season a year ago.

GH: It seemed like they started pretty well.
ML: No, we didn't start very well. We gave up a play in the first game that went 87 yards.

GH: That wasn't a fluke?
ML: It doesn't matter if it was a fluke or not. It's not supposed to be given up. We expect more out of them.

GH: You've rebuilt a team twice in the same place. That's pretty rare for an NFL head coach.ML: Jeff Fisher has done that. Bill Cowher did it a number of times. Others have had to go do it somewhere else. That's been the good part is that we've been able to keep most of our staff intact and revamp what we do and how they do it.

GH: What was the biggest key in turning it around?
ML: It was a matter of utilizing the core people and personalities we had and building on them and using their abilities to play football, their toughness; their grounded foundation, add people that accentuate them. Add people that thrive on them. It's makeup, it's ability. It's allowing the key personnel to let their personalities, their abilities thrive.

GH: You're talking about guys like Carson…
ML: Right. I'm talking about guys like Domata (Peko). I'm talking about guys like Robert Geathers. Leon Hall. I'm talking about (Chris) Crocker. The guys that helped turn the rudder last year. We built on them. Guys like Ced (Cedric Benson). They've been able to help drive the rest of the guys.

GH: Does it say something about the ability of this team to find players?
ML: We've been fortunate with the ability to find players.  You have to have some fortune. You have to have some luck, but we've been able to find some good pros through the waiver wire and through unconventional means. Dhani (Jones) is in that group. Roy (Williams) is in that group. (Kyries) Hebert is in that group. A lot of guys in that group.

GH: You've talked about this before. That you're comfortable with these guys.
ML: I'm comfortable that they are hard-work guys.  They're wrenches.

GH: You're kind of a wrench, right?
ML: Hopefully.

GH: You're a grinder. People that know you have said that you've learned through trial and error the type of player you are comfortable with.
ML: We've been able to build this team through performance on the field, and that's a good way because I think it gives everybody the sense of accomplishment, gives everybody a sense of investment and opportunity. And when you give competitive, professional people opportunity, the cream should rise to the top.

GH: Do you feel like this team is built for November and December?
ML: Yeah, I think we have a team that prides itself in being tough up front and a team that has ability to make plays on the perimeter. And it's a matter of that ability showing through. When teams start to go one direction or the other, let's make sure we're going in the correct direction.

GH: The next two months are about being physical.
ML: This is where it's all about. When we sat down at the mid-point last year at 0-8, we looked at the teams that were 5-3, 6-2. The one thing they could do is they could run the football. And that's the big difference.

GH: You said that in the locker room after the finale in Miami in '07. You were going to tear it up, but it never took hold. What you wanted to do in '08 is what you wanted to do now.
ML: I thought we had it, but we didn't. I thought we had a new player in Rudi Johnson, a rejuvenated guy, but we didn't. Didn't have it with Chris Perry and we didn't fall into a running back in the draft and Kenny (Watson) didn't make it back. We just didn't quite address it as well. We had to adjust. You had to take the ability to run the football and change the structure offensively. And you had to defend the run defensively, and we've done it.

GH: What has defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer brought that you didn't have before?
ML: He sees the entire picture.  As Ozzie (Newsome) would say, soup to nuts. Front to back. And we see it out of the same eyes. We can have a conversation on the sidelines during practice, the game, during halftime, whenever it is, I don't care, during the quarter, during a possession, we see it through the same eyes. That's helpful because it enables me to do the other things I end up doing. And if we see it differently, he's thorough enough to convince me this is the way he would like to do it and when I say, 'OK'  here we go.

GH: Can you get the sacks you lost with Antwan Odom?
ML: You're not going to fall into a five-sack game very often in the NFL. We'll get them. I thought Frostee (Rucker) did an excellent job in the last game and hopefully he feels good about that and can build on that. He did a great job as an inside rusher. We haven't had that as an inside rusher, and he did a great job in there this last game. Robert will assume the position and Michael (Johnson) will get some sacks before the year is out and we'll have to use some of our other guys.

GH: When you say, "He practices on Wednesday," that means even if he's got a few nicks and bruises, he still practices, right?
ML: Right. We've got a running back like that.  Our tackles are like that. We've got a defensive front group like that. That's good. You have to play as a team and practice as a team. We've got a wide receiver in Laveranues (Coles) who has been able to stabilize the position and he's making other people better.

GH: The critics get on Coles and say he's done, that he's too slow, he drops the ball. But guys like you and Carson swear by him.
ML: I see a guy that dropped two or three balls in the first game and has been good to go since and has done a nice job stabilizing the group.

GH: Laveranues always goes all out. Always blocks. Do you think that's a reason Chad Ochocinco is blocking more?
ML: I think the competitive spirit of Chad is winning out. He wants to be right, he wants to be competitive and he wants to play. If you're not going to block and do the things you need to be a complete player, then we've got other guys that will and can.

GH: How do you think he's blocking this year?
ML: Better. A lot better. He's working at it. He's trying and that's all we need to ask. He doesn't have to knock anybody down. He just has to tie them up.

GH: What happened? Why is he such a different guy this year?
ML: I always believed that inside him is a hell of a football player that wants to play football. And he's been able to sidestep some of the things that were distracting him. What I've always told him is playing and winning takes care of everything. If you do those things, the other things aren't going to occur. He was hurt last year. He wants to beat his chest and prove he's one of the best all the time.

GH: He also said he wanted to get out of here and he stopped that.
ML: As I've told him from the start, he's not going anywhere. He's the one that signed the contract.

GH: It looked like you were searching for a formula in '04 and '05 and this team seems to bear your stamp of a physical team with a good defense and a good running game. Like a good Pittsburgh guy like yourself. But it didn't work out that way until now.
ML: We weren't built that way.  We didn't have those good NFL veteran free agents we've been able to add on defense. We didn't have that foundation. The good thing is it's been built through a system that has changed a little bit, it's still a foundation of things.  But guys have understood it and Mike did a nice job of coming in here and learning the terminology of the way we were doing it and he put his stamp on how he wanted to do things and meshing the two together and we've been able to go forward without starting totally from scratch. Almost from scratch, but not totally.

And you had Domata and Robert and the corners and those people. The (corners) we had in '03 were at the end of their careers. And we had guys like Tory (James) and Deltha (O'Neal) that helped us. Still, it's the NFL, let's get some young corners, let's get some guys and build through the draft because you're hard pressed to stay at that level with the free agents through this era.

GH: You got your sacker, Odom, in free agency.
ML: We knew we had to upgrade the defensive line in one fashion or the other, and that ended up being Antwan.* *

GH: Your take on Chris Henry. Is he going to play more?
ML: He's playing almost 60 percent of our snaps, so I don't know how much more he's going to play. He's playing more in our regular personnel and he's playing in three wide receiver personnel.  People can look at the tape. He's been injured (quad), you've got to practice and show you can perform. GH: Some people say, "Marvin didn't want him so he's not going to play him."
ML: I'm the one that met with him to bring him back. I met with him in August. There is no rite of passage on this team. You have to earn your spot by execution, by blocking, by running the right routes at the right time. The only reason I do anything is what? To win games. My only motivation.

We've proven that. We play Dennis Roland. He starts. He's our best answer. Right now we're winning games with Dennis Roland and Dennis Roland is doing everything he's been asked to do, and that's all that every guy that runs out there and lines up on that field (is judged). Is he the best person for that spot right now? That's all we ask of anybody and that's all that really matters.

It doesn't matter how you got here. We've got an undrafted rookie free agent safety that gets five snaps a game - Tommy Nelson. I don't care how you got here. He displaced a draft pick (Corey Lynch). Guys have displaced guys because of how they're doing. Obviously Roland (a free agent) has displaced a draft pick (Collins) somewhat. The draft pick might have more talent, but it's what are you doing enabling us to win? That's been a change. It had to happen.

Otherwise, you lose the good guys. The Whitworths and guys like that who expect you earn your keep. Your draft position doesn't give you a rite of passage. What you do with your opportunity day to day is what gives you the right to be in the huddle with me because that's how I got here.

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