INDIANAPOLIS - The last time Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis embarked on a re-boot, he did it with a new cast of characters led by a pair of rookies named A.J. Green and Andy Dalton. Now for the current overhaul he's overseeing the same roster but is installing massive de-bugging of the offensive and defensive systems as well as some tweaks to the classrooms and locker room to give the player space a bit of a new feel.
Lewis got his 2014 season off to an unofficial start Friday when he met the media during the NFL Scouting Combine. On a day Johnny Football oozed his outrageous confidence all over the media room, Lewis again went to bat for his own quarterback and said Andy Dalton not only needs to get better, but so do the players and coaches around him. With an intact roster from three straight playoff teams, Lewis is concentrating on sharpening the infrastructure instead of personnel.
"There'll be a narrowing of focus and I think that's good for our players. Because it has to be new for our players," Lewis said. "When our players come back April 21, it's going to be a new room. The rooms are going to look different, everything is going to look different because we're not going to be the same, we're going to be different, we're going to be new and the organization is committed to doing that and I think that's important."
Lewis has been so tied up with finalizing his coaching staff while running the most extensive self-scouting analysis he can remember that he and Bengals president Mike Brown haven't had time to deal with a contract extension. Lewis said the subject has been raised, but he doesn't expect a problem and seemed to indicate that it would come down like his previous one when he inked a two-year extension on the eve of the 2012 training camp. But as heads into his 12th season for the second-longest tenure in the NFL, he doesn't think being a lame duck is an issue.
"My contract will be fine. Things will work out the way they always work out," Lewis said. "I don't see how it would affect a coach in the NFL where it's a play-for-pay proposition anyway. Nobody is guaranteed the opportunity to be here beyond next year as a player. It's different than some other sports. Our players don't know the status of my contract. They don't give (a bleep) about my contract."
But he does think they'll care about some changes at work just to freshen things up. Plans are on the drawing board to put new desks in the offices of the position coaches as well as some different furniture in the players' lounge and locker room. At 54 and still trying to get that first playoff win, Lewis says he's refreshed after visits to Hilton Head and Arizona and he wants his players to be, too.
"It was a season that sucked at the end. We had to refresh and recharge," Lewis said. "I got shocked back in my system losing the coaches right away and had to work at that. We were able to put that together as good as we could as quick as we could. I feel really good how that came out. Now we're doing football again. We'll embrace this process through the draft. We've got free agency that will come up and getting our guys signed and re-done and putting our team together. We're in a good spot. We have to feel good about that. I think everybody should feel good about that. This is a record crowd here today."
That record local media crowd wanted to know how the departures of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden are going to impact his club and Lewis was pretty up front about how it has led to a re-focus under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
"We've been more thorough and I've been more involved in the process and we're doing it differently. That's going to be good for us," Lewis said of the self-scout. "We're focused on us. You start out in the spring and you have a certain plan. Then you enter training camp and you're going to have a certain plan. Then as you come out of training camp you say, 'Oh shoot, we're over here now and then you've got to get back on track.
"That's what I'm conscious with Paul about because it's his first time doing that. We want to stay on course. How we script. I want to go back and look at the script of the entire week. Take the Excel spread sheet and look, this is how many times we ran this, so after the game comes off we're calling the things in the game that we're practicing. We have a great opportunity here to start fresh, start new and get better that way."
Jackson has talked about his emphasis on the running game, but Lewis made it clear the Bengals aren't going to become three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust and that Dalton has shown enough that he's ruled out only a quarterback and wide receiver in the first round.
"You have to throw the ball effectively in the National Football League so I had to back everyone down off that stance," Lewis said. "Everyone says San Diego ran the ball (in the wild card loss). When they scored their touchdown in the third quarter they threw the ball six out of nine plays. People don't understand that. You have to throw productively in the NFL. You can't turn it over and you have to be able to run the football productively and be physical and that's all part of what we want to do. That's not a change from where we were. We're just going back to it with a re-direction."
Lewis likes the direction of his coaching staff. In Jackson, Lewis says he's got a Zimmer-like guy that gets involved in every position. In Guenther, he's got a guy that has served under Zimmer and knows his style inside and out.
"The thing Mike was so good at is being able to coach everything. From soup to nuts,. From the step of the left end to the turn of the right cornerback and that's a great quality," Lewis said. "As Paul continues to grow and mature as a coordinator, you have to have those kinds of eyes. Offensive coaches at times want to fracture apart. Defense spends all its time together. That's the greatest lesson I ever learned in Pittsburgh. We spent time together so I could coach any of the positions. From end to tackle to the left cornerback to the safety, so when I became a coordinator that was a great asset I had. Hue is going to bring that to our offense. He sees it from the left guard to the X and Z wide out. Soup to nuts all the way through.
"Every step. Every hand placement and the way it should be done. That's what I want to have as a coordinator. That's what I have in our special teams coordinator in Darrin (Simmons). It's your baby. Every foot, every hand placement is your responsibility. If it's not done right, that's your responsibility. To get the position coach to get his player to do it right. Or we have to make change. That's the impression Mike would have left on that room and on Paul and the other defensive coaches. This is the way it's going to be all the time and we're not going to settle for eight out of 10. We' going to have it 10 out of 10."
Lewis is also very high on the hire of secondary coach Vance Joseph, a guy he says is in the fast lane on the way to being a defensive coordinator and head coach. Lewis smiled when he thought of the number of teams the Bengals beat out for his services after Joseph's three-year run in Houston ended this season. Zimmer is so good teaching secondary technique that Lewis felt he needed a strong hire back there and now he'll give Joseph the cornerbacks while former Pro Bowl safety Mark Carrier coaches the safeties.
"We left a lot of clubs with their pockets picked a little bit by getting Vance. He'll be a coordinator very quickly in the NFL and one day he'll be a head coach," Lewis said. "He has great communication skills, he's a bright guy, he's a positive guy, he's got great energy. I couldn't tell you how many different people said, 'Oh my gosh, you hired him?' That kind of reaction. From the time they got let go in Houston, he was going to be my No. 1 target if we could hire him.
"By hiring Vance, we were able to upgrade our coaching staff. Vance has done a great job of being a man technician, coaching man-to-man technique. He's been able to go in and understand the game plan and see how best to attack an offense and defend receivers and be a great resource for Paul Guenther. That's the two-fold thing I had to get done – another technician on the back end and a guy who could help give input to Paul from another point of view."
Other highlights from Lewis' media availability: - Lewis is optimistic the club is going to reach a long-term deal with right end Michael Johnson, scheduled to hit free agency March 11. That would probably pre-empt a contract for left tackle Anthony Collins but Lewis indicated they have flexibility on the offensive line and that Andrew Whitworth is willing to play either guard or tackle "if it's best for the team."
- Lewis gave Dalton an enthusiastic endorsement and ruled out only two positions for the club's 24th pick in the first round: quarterback and wide receiver. He admitted he's just now getting into the draft process after dealing with his staff. He didn't know which selection they had and he's only watched three prospects so far.