12-31-03, 5:30 p.m.
We need another end-of-year awards show like Chad Johnson needs another letter from Paul Tagliabue, but welcome to the first annual Marvins.
Head coach Marvin Lewis had nothing to do with these Bengals awards selected by Bengals.com, but we think the name is the best way to honor the man who should be the consensus NFL Coach of the Year.
(It's the best coaching job, not the best record. The Patriots went 14-2, but they won the Super Bowl two years ago. The Cowboys were 5-11 the past three years, but they've won three Super Bowls since the Bengals last went to the playoffs. Lewis transformed a locker-room culture, energized a fan base, and wiped away a national stigma.)
Not a bad year.
BIGGEST OFF-SEASON QUESTION: The Marvins Show always begin looking ahead, and it starts with running back Corey Dillon. The divorce looks to be final with Lewis now not making any attempts publicly to change Dillon's mind about wanting out.
"No comment," Lewis said this week before embarking on a few days off.
For his part, Dillon read Willie Anderson's "adios," quotes and felt he was out of line.
"I've never said one bad word about Willie Anderson in my life," Dillon said. "I can't understand the hate, but that's what I've had to deal with here, and, like I've said, no one can take away my joy. Willie just ought to go over to the Pro Bowl, chill, and not worry about Corey Dillon."
Dillon's home is on the market and he's pushing for another trade.
"I see where Marvin might try and get Champ Bailey," said Dillon of the Redskins' free-agent cornerback. "I've got a nice house for him when he gets here."
Stay tuned. Don't expect a trade until the Rudi Johnson contract gets resolved and that most likely won't be until about a week before the draft. Can they get a first-day draft choice for Dillon? Many say no, but we think yes because there will be a team that won't want to lose him if he gets cut and loose on the open market, his $3.3 million salary in '04 isn't gross, and, yes, he can still play. **
MOVE OF THE YEAR:** Bengals President Mike Brown, with an assist to club vice president Katie Blackburn and director of business development Troy Blackburn. Brown hates it when someone other than players and coaches are honored (check out his stance on owners going into the Hall of Fame) because he thinks it should be all left on the field.
So he won't like this on a web site he owns, but he also lets people do their job. Which is why his hiring of Lewis as head coach back on Jan. 14 has turned out to be the best decision any NFL executive made last offseason.
ASSISTANT COACH OF THE YEAR: If Lewis is the no-brainer NFL Coach of Year, then special teams coach Darrin Simmons is Bengals' Assistant of the Year, nosing out tight ends coach Jon Hayes and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese in a tight race.
Rick "Goose," Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, who has been putting together the NFL's definitive special teams stats since 1980, is calling Cincinnati's teams turnaround maybe the biggest in history. He won't produce his 2003 version until a week after the Super Bowl, but Gosselin already knows the Bengals finished in the top 12 in punt coverage and punt return, and kick coverage, and kicker Shayne Graham pumped in the league's third-best field-goal accuracy at 88 percent.
"Last year, the Bengals' rankings added up to 499.5, by far the worst of all-time," Gosselin said. "This year, they should finish somewhere between 10 and 20 in the league."
And you can argue that teams won two games, with Peter Warrick's 68-yard punt return against the Chiefs for a touchdown and Rudi Johnson's recovery of an on-side kick against the Niners.
Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski also has to take a bow during the show. He had to plug in three new assistants on his staff and still produced the best offensive season in six years with a No. 13 ranking, and proved Hayes, Zampese, and receivers coach Alex Wood were worthy hires.
Hayes, a 12-year NFL tight end, asserted himself immediately and won the respect of his players with toughness and knowledge of the league. For years the Bengals have failed to produce at tight end and it wasn't the fault of coaching because the depth was never good. But Matt Schobel (24), Tony Stewart (21), and Reggie Kelly (13) combined to have the most catches at the position since 1995.
Hayes' guys were also a huge reason why the team went from having the second-to-worst red-zone touchdown percentage in the AFC in '02 to third-best this season with their blocking. One of the reasons for the success of the power running play keyed by the pulling of left guard Eric Steinbach is that Steinbach was able to get to the block without being picked off by penetration (thanks to the tight ends, which was a factor in the '02 failures on the goal line and inside the 20.
Quarterback Jon Kitna often said this season that it was the most well-prepared he's ever been for games and gives a lion's share of the credit to Zampese. Kitna responded with numbers that were career-highs, and the best around here since Boomer Esiason went to the Pro Bowl in the late 1980s.
Something must also be said about running backs coach Jim Anderson. He took a rookie fullback in Jeremi Johnson, an uknown running back in Rudi Johnson, and a less-than-100-percent Dillon for the first 10 games, and the rushing game still finished No. 13. **
BEST SUPPORTING ROLE:** Chip Morton and Kurtis Shultz, strength and conditioning coaches. Lewis' hiring of them marked the most visible and effective change of management's efforts to break the cycle of losing. The Bengals were the last NFL team to put a player on injured reserve, didn't lose a starter for the season until the next-to-last game of the season, and didn't make those fatigue-related mistakes in turning the 2002 plus-minus turnover differential from minus-15 to plus-2 in 2003.
This by a team that got ripped by their opponents for being out of shape (Cleveland in the 2000 opener), and then by their alumni in the media (Dave Lapham, Joe Walter, Boomer Esiason) after the 2002 Opening Day debacle against Denver.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER:** Kitna was immense on and off the field as a player and leader. He kept himself and his team together at 0-3, and brought both off the trash heap that the league had assigned them. He read the motivational book "Wild At Heart," the week he began the 8-5 finish, and found himself while the team found a quarterback.
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: He's cocky. (He guaranteed the Chiefs' win.) He's good. (He led the AFC with a team-record 1,355 yards and joined Carl Pickens as the only Bengal to catch 90 balls in a season.) He's rich. ($26 million for the rest of the decade.) And isn't nice to finally have one of the league's most visible and charismatic stars in Cincinnati in the person of wide receiver Chad Johnson?
(As long as the VH1 celebrations don't cost them a game, bring them on.)
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Co-Marvins to ends Justin Smith and Duane Clemons. It was a curious year for a defense that got worse as the season went, and Smith had a career-low five sacks while Clemons got three of his team-high six sacks in one game. But they seemed to have the most consistent seasons when it came to getting not only sacks, but also hits on the quarterback while still staying physical in the running game. **
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR:** Kicker Shayne Graham. From 1999-2002, Bengals' fans rubbernecked at the sight of the field-goal team and it always wasn't the fault of the kicker. Injuries to long snappers and holders and a tough home field also contributed to a 66-percent mark during those four years.
But along came Graham, off waivers no less, to make a team record 88 percent of his field goals, with his only misses coming from 54, 52 and 48 yards. The 52-yarder hit the left upright and the 48-yarder was rushed to beat the play clock. **
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:Left guard Eric Steinbach. Look at how well they ran the ball before he got hurt in Week 14 and then after. They think they have their first Pro Bowl guard since Max Montoya and believe his athleticism is about to put him among the elite.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR:* Wide receiver Peter Warrick. In the previous two seasons, he lost his punt return job with fumbles at his own 5-yard line and had to endure the can't-make-a-big-play-in-the-pros whispers. But he responded by winning the Kansas City game with long touchdowns on a punt and a pass in the fourth quarter, and set career highs with 79 catches, 819 yards, and seven touchdowns. Plus, this year they finally got him the ball a creative career-high 18 times on the run, and he averaged pretty much a first down at 8.7 yards per carry.*
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD:** Center Rich Braham. With 10 years invested in the club, he has been here the longest and probably enjoyed the break-through season more than anyone. And he was always there when the new regime needed to get rescued.
When they couldn't secure a center in free agency and didn't draft one, they signed him as a backup on April 30, three weeks after Lewis' first camp. When the move of Mike Goff from right guard to center didn't work, Braham, 33, the second oldest player on the team, went back to center in Week Two and won the respect of the new guard with his vintage brains and toughness. **
CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD MARVIN:** Right tackle Willie Anderson. He formed the Friday lunches for the offense. He encouraged the rookies, pumped-up the veterans, got in sync with the coaches, and was at his locker after every game win or lose to answer the questions. His first Pro Bowl selection in eight seasons is his second best contribution to the team.
BEST SCREEN PLAY: Running back Rudi Johnson. He almost got cut in training camp, but Ray Jackson could never pop a big run. He couldn't shake a thigh injury early in the season, but he finally showed the coaches what he always knew he could do and that is move the chains and he did it in the fourth quarter of the Cleveland victory. The rest is Rudi, Rudi, Rudi, as he became the first Bengal running back to have three 150-yard days in the same season. **
RED BADGE OF COURAGE MARVIN: Left tackle Levi Jones. He took every snap in a 41-38 win over the Niners six days after arthroscopic knee surgery, and played the last three games of the year on it without once blaming it for problems he encountered.
BEST FREE AGENT OF THE YEAR:** Cornerback Tory James. The Bengals didn't have a guy cover receivers like this since Eric Thomas went to the Pro Bowl 15 years ago. It looked like he wore down the last month or so, but there is a school of thought that theorizes James was just plain gassed after playing so many games for a Raider team that went to the Super Bowl in a draining season he played on a broken leg. Still, his 18 passes defensed are the most by a Bengal since Rodney Heath in 1999.
BEST PICKUP OF THE YEAR: Kicker Shayne Graham. The Bengals made a snap decision when they decided to unload kicker Neil Rackers six days before Opening Day, plucked Graham off the waiver wire from Carolina, and lined him up for the first time with the team four days before the opener.
Simmons, fearing what such a drastic change would do so close to the season, opted to go for familiarity when he saw Graham's name on the wire. He had spent the 2002 season with him in Carolina and thought he showed great makeup when he signed with the Panthers to replace the injured John Kasay just before getting on a plane to Green Bay.
How about this? Graham's 88 percent was better than Kasay's 84 percent, although Kasay had 13 more tries.
Also getting called on to the stage here is strong safety Rogers Beckett. He could end up being the answer to a trivia question. Name the last starter the Bengals were able to claim because they had the worst record and the first claiming right on waivers. Beckett got scooped up on June 11 when the Chargers didn't think he fit their scheme, and he started nine games here while producing three sacks, two picks, and a forced fumble.
BEST PLAY OF THE SEASON: Kitna's 18-yard touchdown pass to Schobel with 13 seconds left to beat the Steelers, 24-20, for their first win ever at Heinz Field. **
WORST PLAY OF THE SEASON:Raiders cornerback Phillip Buchanon's 83-yard interception return for a touchdown with 3:46 left in a 13-13 game the Bengals appeared poised to take a 16-13 lead in a game they lost, 23-20.
BEST MOMENT:Nov. 16. Beating the undefeated Chiefs, 26-19, before a then-Paul Brown Stadium record crowd of 64,923 to go to 5-5.
WORST MOMENT:** A week later on Nov. 23 in San Diego. As the Bengals begin their 34-27 win, they watch their bid for sole possession of first place in the AFC North disappear on the scoreboard in Baltimore's miracle comeback over Seattle.
MOST ANTICIPATED OFF-FIELD MOVE: The unveiling of the new uniforms. Doesn't that figure to happen with the trial run of the black pants in the opener and finale? **
MOST ANTICIPATED ROSTER MOVE:** Lewis won't elaborate on this either, but he left the quarterback situation up in the air by not giving Kitna the No. 1 job until the position is evaluated with all the rest. That first minicamp depth chart will be a long sought after item.
BIGGEST '04 FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Rudi Johnson is a restricted free agent, so they will be able to keep him. Braham is unrestricted, but they should be able to keep him. Goff, free safety/cornerback Mark Roman, and defensive tackle Glen Steele are guys it would seem they need for depth and versatility. Nobody makes more plays with fewer snaps on this team than Steele.
MOST ANTICIPATED '04 HOME GAME: Lewis vs. Parcells. Sorry, that's the matchup. Not Stripes vs. The Star. Parcells-Lewis even beats out Spikes vs. Simmons when the Bills come to town.
MOST ANTICIPATED '04 ROAD GAME: Lewis vs. Belichick in Foxboro. The Bengals play both guys who could beat out Lewis for Coach of the Year.
FREE AGENT NAMES YOU'LL HEAR THE MOST: The cornerbacks. Champ Bailey in Washington, Chris McAlister in Baltimore, Bobby Taylor in Philadelphia, all with a Lewis-Leslie Frazier connection. You'll hear them until they get hit with the franchise tag. **
DRAFT CHOICE YOU'LL HEAR THE MOST ABOUT:** None. Thankfully, Mr. Anonymous.
Hey, get used to this. When you don't pick in the Top 10, it's easier to pick out a name in the phone book than project the 17th selection. So for the first time in years we won't be drilled with the same names for four months.
Of course, that could change if Ohio State receiver/cornerback Chris Gamble declares and then BuckeyeNation will be clamoring. **
BEST RE-RELEASE:** The Jungle.
There was never any doubt that the Bengals have the most resilient fan base in the NFL. All it needed was some hard evidence and some puffy dreams and both came together against Kansas City. The packed stadium, the empty shelves, the perpetual orange-and-black-painted-faces-who-dey buzz all came back better than ever.