The First 30 Days

2-14-03, 7 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

As Marvin Lewis emerged as the most visible Bengals' head coach since Sam Wyche in a whirlwind 30 days worthy of a presidential candidate on the eve of New Hampshire, he has begun to isolate the needs of his team.

Reviewing his first 30 days on the job with bengals.com on audio Thursday, Lewis didn't rule out pursuing a veteran free-agent quarterback if the right one comes along, or finding a replacement for transition free agent Takeo Spikes, or making massive changes in the secondary for a pressure-oriented defense. In short, Lewis didn't rule out anything that would make the Bengals better in free agency or the draft in what he thinks is close to a contending team in the AFC North.

"You always have to contend in the division. It's not that far," Lewis said. "It's a fine line, I still believe, between winning and losing. It's a matter of how you do things, how you approach it, how you prepare yourself for how successful you can be."

In The First Thirty Days, Lewis' administration has engineered the biggest coaching turnover in Bengals' history along with the most additions to the personnel department ever, as well as reaching out to the community in an effort to boost the image of a franchise longing for their glory days.

But Lewis will be the first to tell you it comes down to finding, drafting and developing players and he knows he has several holes to fill. Here are some of his takes on what he's got, what he needs, and the kind of guys he's looking for at next week's NFL scouting combine:

With some intriguing veteran quarterbacks potentially on the free-agent market (Kordell Stewart, Jake Plummer, Brian Griese?) Lewis was asked if the Bengals could go after one even though Jon Kitna stands as the Bengals' unquestioned starter. Lewis likes Kitna and isn't crazy about the idea, but he's also not closing off doors.

"If a person that we had that kind of interest in and it would be a good fit, but there's a lot that goes into that and it would be the price coming in," Lewis said. "Possibly, but you never know."

Asked if the Bengals seek a replacement for Spikes at right outside linebacker while he goes on the market, Lewis said, "We're always looking for people all the time. Nobody here is irreplaceable. You're always evaluating talent. He necessarily doesn't have to look anywhere. They have to look at him and see what his value is. Once he gets to free agency, Takeo and his people have an opportunity to understand what's out there and that's a good a thing. It's a positive thing for him and it's a positive thing for us."

Lewis is shrugging off Spikes' anger with, "I don't know what else he can say right now."

Lewis heads to his first scouting combine next week in Indianapolis as a head coach with core requirements in mind.

"You want to have football temperament," Lewis said. "A knee-bending guy that can change direction, can plant, and accelerate and play football. He's got to be a play-making type of guy.

"He's got to have the ability to learn and retain knowledge and he's got to be able to get along with people. We don't want somebody we can't stand looking at around here."

Lewis likes his team's ability to run the ball, but to be able to do it more consistently he feels they have to have more speed on the outside at wide receiver to stretch the field. He's also looking to add some players in the interior of the offensive line.

Although he says he's looking at both sides of the ball equally, he seems to have concerns on defense. Lewis, a former defensive coordinator, as well as his own defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier, have no plans to alter their aggressive, pass-rushing schemes. But that usually means you need solid man-to-man pass coverage and the Bengals have struggled in that area.

Only the Vikings gave up more touchdown passes than the Bengals' 30 last year, and no one in the NFL had Cincinnati's minus-21 differential between interceptions and TD passes.

"We need to improve play in our secondary," Lewis said. "However we do that. Acquire through free agency, develop currently the people we have and/or through the draft.

"The one thing is to acquire what you like to have," said Lewis of tailoring scheme to talent. "But at the end of the day you better do what your guys can do proficiently to win football games. That's the No. 1 objective. We want to be aggressive. If you don't have it, you knock your head against the wall and continually do it because all you're going to do is get you beat. I'm not so sure we don't have the guys that can do it. We have to learn and we have to (teach) how to do it better. The glass isn't necessarily half empty. It's half full."

Still, this is what Lewis wants out of his defense: "The strength maybe lies a little bit somewhat in our athletic ability. . .We've got to learn how to play blocks better, we've got to learn how to prevent against big plays and plays that get you beat. . .We've got some guys that have ability to play on defense, but we've got to get to the front side of blocks, stay on our feet, keep leverage in coverage and be competitive in coverage when the ball goes in the air and be able to rush the passer."

Lewis has been burning the candle at both ends because he has to squeeze his tape watching into the early mornings and late nights while he concentrates on his administrative duties during the day.

And, not since the days of Wyche has a coach immersed himself into the community via the media and events. Last week, he performed a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a downtown library. On Wednesday, he spoke to students at Wyoming High School. The day after he gets back from the combine, he is the featured speaker at a dinner of Cincinnati business leaders.

He won't continue at this breakneck speed once football starts, but he has made it known he wants to set an example for the players.

"We're going to ask our players to get out and do that," Lewis said. "The more we give back, the more we invest, the harder we'll work at our job here. It's a two-handed approach."

While Lewis watches other coaching regimes in the NFL end because of failure to communicate with the front office, his brief tenure has been marked by perpetual accessibility to president Mike Brown and the front office. He has no problem about climbing those "golden stairs," with his input.

"With the history of what goes on in the NFL is people somehow grow apart and the rift that comes between them. It seems like that's the first day of their decline," Lewis said.

"We've got to do this together," Lewis said. "I can't do it by myself, he can't do it by himself. I'm part of his team. I'm here for him to lean on and do what he expects."

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