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Sweet and sour Gatorade

The Bengals may be 17-31-1 since they clinched the 2005 AFC North title in Detroit three years ago Thursday.

They may be 9-23-1 since they went into the last three games of 2006 at 8-5.

They may be 8-20-1 since Cleveland got 51 points in Derek Anderson's first career victory to prevent a Bengals 2-0 start in 2007.

But since this is the week of another Cleveland game, remember the costliest victory in Bengals history because head coach Marvin Lewis does.

Sept. 17, 2006.

Lewis' confrontation with a reporter, where he told The Cincinnati Enquirer's Dustin Dow he would no longer answer his questions (see video here) marred one of his most revealing news conferences during his six-year tenure Wednesday and obscured some major points. He pointed to weak character as the reason the club has been in a death spiral since 2005.

He feels those personalities wouldn't have been tough enough to endure this 2-11-1 season and believes he's got a roster of players better equipped to handle the emotional rigors. Of the 70 players on the active roster and injured reserve, 52 were not here the day the players dumped Gatorade on him in Detroit, three years virtually to the day.

"They wouldn't have been able to go through this. We'd have had inner-fighting, we'd have had finger-pointing, we'd have had all those things," Lewis said. "And the ironic thing is that if you look at this team, it's so different from that football team, as far as the people. There's none of that left. There's a few guys on offense, but there's really nobody on defense. And that's the amazing thing. You look at three years ago and what a difference the makeup of your football team is. A little bit by design. Again, that's the way it works sometimes. It just happens through injuries and attrition. With unfortunate injuries, we've lost a few guys."

Then he actually made news when he ended up answering Dow's question a few minutes after the exchange, saying a strong finish won't hide what has to be fixed and the club needs better players as well as coaching.

Lewis also answered a question about possible coaching staff changes with, "I think our guys have really coached their butts off," but didn't elaborate. Then, when he got into the talent debate he said the Bengals have as much talent as anybody in the league.

"Talent is spread out evenly across the league, pretty much," Lewis said. "It's what we do as coaches -- because we're responsible for it, too, and I'm responsible for it -- to give players every opportunity to get better."

What that means for the future of the staff is anyone's guess because it won't be answered until Lewis and Bengals president Mike Brown emerge after the season to reveal their plans. What it means about his take on how that roster was put together and if that will be a part of the discussions with Brown remain to be seen. But asked if he feels everyone in the organization is on the same page with him when it comes to resources and players, he said, "Yeah, I am."

As he left the news conference to prepare for the Browns, Lewis also revealed his thoughts on the impact another game against Cleveland had on that championship team. A game played just two games and nine months after the Wild Card loss to the Steelers.

The Bengals are 15-28-1 since they eased to a 34-17 win over the other team Paul Brown founded in the stadium named after him on a picturesque Indian Summer Sunday. But back on Sept. 17, 2006, Lewis had a bad feeling.

"Just like the moment they threw the Gatorade on me in Detroit," Lewis recalled. "We've been spinning sideways (since)."

Two key starters, one the glue of the offense and the other a future defensive leader, never played another NFL snap.

On the Browns' second play of the game, a second-and-12, running back Reuben Droughns ripped off a 10-yard gain and SAM linebacker David Pollack lowered his head and ended up breaking his neck and ending his career. Pollack, the club's charismatic and passionate No. 1 pick in 2005, was supposed to be the third-down playmaker teamed with fellow Georgia product Robert Geathers.

Later, early in the second quarter on a second-and-15 from the Bengals 21, center Rich Braham, the eyes and ears of the offensive line, broke his knee on a two-yard Rudi Johnson run and didn't take the field again until his retirement ceremony.

And Lewis knows the next sequence cold.

With the Bengals winning, 34-10, with 2:07 left and facing a third-and-seven from the Bengals 48, quarterback Carson Palmer threw a pass to wide receiver Chad Ocho Cinco and Browns safety Brian Russell laid him out with a hellacious hit that cut his chin, knocked him silly, and put the ball in the air for a Leigh Bodden interception that led to a Cleveland touchdown with 58 seconds left.

"We got ready for an onside kick and put the hands team in there and they kicked it deep. Tab (Perry), instead of getting on it and running forward and falling down, didn't field it cleanly. He tried to run sideways and dislocated his hip," Lewis said.

Perry, who broke the Bengals single-season kick return records as a rookie in '05, had also been groomed as an indispensible hybrid third receiver/H-Back. But he was done for the year, never really got healthy again, and would play just two more games before the Bengals chose not to re-sign him after last season.

"Costly," is how Lewis recalled that victory.

He also wonders if the interception has had some lingering effect on Ocho Cinco.

"Brat asked me, 'What do you want to do here?' " recalled Lewis of his third-down conversation with offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "The week before we sat on the ball in Kansas City and all the players were upset with me. I said, 'Pick up the first down,' and that's when we threw the ball to Chad and he got hit."

He sees that game as a turning point, as well as the title clincher the year before. The Gatorade celebration in Detroit might as well have been cold water.

"We knew they really weren't strong pillars, I would say. I knew they weren't strong pillars, at least," Lewis said of his team makeup in the news conference. "I can remember talking to Jon Kitna about it, because he was taken aback by my reaction, and I just said, 'I've been there before, and I know what's ahead.' I thought -- although we had some accomplishments -- we weren't screwed down the way we needed to be screwed down."

Indeed, a few days after the clincher at a news conference unveiling the team's five Pro Bowlers, Lewis went ballistic when he saw AFC North champion hats and T-shirts displayed and directed them packed away.

"That hat had nothing to do with this," Lewis said that day. "That's over with."

On Wednesday he said what he's been saying all year: that he's more comfortable with the guys in this locker room.

"I think we're building some of (the pillars), and some of them we're kind of moving along to the wayside, and they're moving themselves, too," Lewis said. "I think that's a good thing, because I think the way the guys are here and competing -- some of them we still have to get shaped the right way, and I'm going to keep working at that. But I do feel good about a lot of the guys and I guess just their -- I don't know what the right word is to use in this setting -- just what they have inside of them, you know?"

But what amounted to Lewis' benediction for next season got lost in his tiff with Dow that included his advice to The Enquirer to send another reporter to cover the team because he didn't like the angles Dow had pursued the past few weeks. He objected to the question, "If you guys finish this out winning three in a row, or even two of three, how much will it show that improvement has been made, vs. covering up improvements that still need to be made?"

Lewis called that "disrespectful," while Dow argued that he was simply asking questions his readers and Bengals fans wanted to know.

In the end, the news conference not only indicated the long season has eaten away at Lewis' patience, but that he has also gained a healthy respect of the past.

And he wishes not to repeat it.

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