Not so distant mirror

9-4-03, 8:25 p.m.


The similarities are as stark as the Super Bowl memories of Green Bay's power sweep and Baltimore's swarming defense.

Both men became head coach of the Bengals after the locker room unraveled into anarchy.

Both men restored order with roster purges that showed them who was boss and with the help of a Super Bowl ring won elsewhere that showed players it had worked before.

Both men were virtual outsiders to the organization.

Both men are destined to coach their first game for the Bengals at home on a Sept. 7, the birthday of Bengals founder Paul Brown.

Twenty-three years to the day of that debut, a 17-12 loss to Tampa Bay at Riverfront Stadium, Forrest Gregg plans to tune in the television and maybe the mirror Sunday to watch Marvin Lewis lead the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

"He's not going to be able to wave a magic wand. It's going to take time," Gregg said this week from, of all places, his new home in Colorado. "But from all the things I've been reading him say, it looks like he's headed in the right direction."

It was Paul Brown who hired Gregg after back-to-back 4-12 seasons in 1978 and 1979 that were marked by a lack of discipline and direction. When the '80s arrived, so did Gregg's ferocious brand of coaching. He brought them respectability in 1980 at 6-10, an AFC title in 1981, and a four-year record of 34-27 that is still the best mark of the eight Bengals' head coaches that came before Lewis.

Lewis' first Roster Cutdown on Aug. 31 sent a Gregg-like message that caught the locker room cold. Four players got cut after they didn't play 48 hours before in the pre-season finale and one coach joked, "I hear they're getting ice to go down there." Throw in the loppage of some bonus-heavy veterans and the 2002 second-round pick, and quarterback Jon Kitna raised an eyebrow.

The team that hates dead money sent $1.8 million of it into next year's salary cap with just the lopping of Lamont Thompson, Steve Foley, and Reinard Wilson alone.

"If there was anybody who doubted that Marvin was in total control," Kitna said, "that sent the message."

Gregg says he never cut anybody to send a

message, but he did send plenty of missives in his day. Gregg filled the room with his big, Hall-of-Fame offensive lineman presence, and the idea was discipline.

"Paul didn't tell me a thing. He just hired me to coach his team," Gregg said. "I think he knew what I was going to do. That's why he hired me. You have to have a philosophy. A way of doing things. Without discipline, you don't have a team.

"We had a lot of darn good football players that had been on winning teams in Cincinnati," Gregg said. "We just tried to build on that. I think they were tired of losing."

If it sounds familiar to you, it sounds familiar to Jim Breech, the kicker who arrived in Week 13 of that 1980 season and joined the team in the midst of a five-game losing streak.

"Forrest was screaming," Breech said. "I mean, he was telling these guys, 'You guys who have been starters here for a couple of years, all that's going to change. Some of you aren't going to be here and it might be before the start of the next season.' And he had already been purging guys before that.

"I get the feeling that Marvin is more mild-mannered, but if you look at what he did to the roster, when you cut a couple of high-round draft picks, someone has a plan in place and those guys aren't included."

Gregg doesn't think he made his players so uncomfortable that they couldn't perform. He simply told them what he wanted.

"You give them expectations," Gregg said. "You tell them they have to perform in a certain manner. I think any coach worth a plug nickel is going to try to get the best out of every player. They might not love and you might not love them. But there have to be rules and they have to be consistent and they have to apply to everybody."

Maybe Lewis isn't in the Hall of Fame, but all his players in that meeting room know he did a Hall-of-Fame coaching job with the Ravens' defense three years ago. He may not fill up a room physically, but he does what others haven't done around here in years. He brings the units together to watch tape, and while he calls out individuals on special teams in front of the offense and defense, don't worry, he'll get to you.

Gregg has Super Bowl rings from I, II, and VI. He wore them, not to make a point, but because, hey, he just wore them.

"I think that helps," Gregg said. "They know it's someone who has been there before and they know that maybe you can help get them there."

Dave Lapham, the Bengals' radio analyst who played for Gregg, calls it, "instant credibility." He believes Lewis walked into that first team meeting flashing the ring, and enough was said. Lapham knows it worked for him 23 years ago.

"Oh yeah," Lapham said. "You got a guy up there who won Super Bowls, played for Vince Lombardi, and all that. Her had our attention."

But it didn't happen right way. Indeed, that '80 opener was something out of Lewis' 03 preseason.

How about this? The Bengals had a 12-10 lead with two minutes left and punter Pat McInally standing at his 10. McInally fumbled the snap, the ball went out-of-bounds at the 5, and two plays later quarterback Doug Williams threw a touchdown to Jimmie Giles to give Tampa Bay the win.

"I'm going to have to give McInally a hard time about that when I see him again," Gregg said. "You know, it's so long ago, I just don't remember it like that. If you ask me about Pat, I'd remember some of those great punts and catches."

People don't want to hear it, but sometimes losses lead to something better. That's how Gregg remembers McInally. Later that year in the last game of the '80 season at home against a Cleveland team headed to the playoffs, McInally got carried off the field on a stretcher after Browns defensive back Thom Darden gave him a brutal forearm to the helmet in the first quarter.

But McInally returned in the second quarter and the Browns needed a 22-yard field goal by Don Cockroft with 1:25 left to win it, 27-24.

"That was the game I felt like turned it around," Gregg said. "We had nothing to play for and they were going to the playoffs. And Pat could have stayed out, we weren't going anywhere, but he came back. I just felt like we had really come together as a team even though we lost."

You have to play hurt sometimes. Kitna knows his teammates have noticed Lewis' aversion to players camping in the training room.

"He made it pretty clear," Kitna said, "if you're going to let nagging injuries keep you from getting on the field, we can't have it."

Gregg knows Lewis' biggest challenge. He lived it. He met it.

"He's got a team that hasn't won in 10 years and the hardest thing to overcome is to convince them they can win," Gregg said. "You have to encourage them and let them know that they can. That doesn't mean you leave it up to them, but they have to believe it themselves."

Gregg and Lewis have never met, but they will some time this season because Gregg plans to come to a game. Like everyone else, Gregg longs for a return to the good old days.

"I was at a golf tournament with about 15 of our guys (recently), and they all liked what they saw," he said.

One of those guys is Lapham. He sees history repeating itself.

"We were 6-10, but we could have been 10-6," Lapham said. "We were in every game and I think that's the way it's going to be with this team. We learned to win the close ones in the fourth quarter and look what happened. We went to the big show."

Lewis likes gazing into that mirror.

"I would be so lucky," Lewis said.

A Mile High, Gregg knows it can be done.

"I'll be watching," Gregg said. "We'll be able to see it. We're looking forward to it."

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