11-11-03, 2:35 p.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
"One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals, people of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don't know when to quit."
That is the first part of a passage that has been posted in the Bengals' locker room for the past month or so. But not now. Not this week. Because of the man's name printed at the end of the quote marks.
"Had to take it down," says Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "Had to. He's the enemy this week."
Vermeil is the head coach of the 9-0 Chiefs, the NFL's new flavor of the month, the chic team with a 21st century kickoff man named Dante Hall that is the latest to challenge the '72 Dolphins of 17-0.
Vermeil was already hot that season back before chic was invented. In '72, he was probably "in," as the NFL's first specials teams coach ever in the NFL who had returned as the Rams offensive coordinator.
That was the year before Bengals defensive end Duane Clemons was born and it was the fall that Lewis started high school. But Clemons, who played for Vermeil in Kansas City last season, can sense the similarities even though he views Vermeil more as a grandfather and Lewis as an uncle.
"It's the new bull and the old bull," Clemons said. "It's totally different dynamics. They relate to players slightly differently and in some ways the same. . .Dick would be (the age of) most of our grandfathers, where Marvin is more like your uncle. Your uncle understands a little bit better where you're at now.
"Coach Vermeil is 'I'm teaching you about the history.' He's bringing these legacies. He's bringing in guys that talk about his era," Clemons said. "Coach Lewis is basically sticking to the here and now. Totally different dynamics. There are many coaches and there are a lot of different ways to do it. There are a lot of great head coaches. There's no particular way to do it."
Besides his words, Lewis admires the way Vermeil has built relationships with his players and sees him as a model. Which is important in a week he is being scrutinized for his handling of Corey Dillon.
"Most men succeed because they are determined to."
Lewis has an open-door policy in his office that he constantly encourages players to use. He also wants to be a disciplinarian, but he indicated Monday he excused Dillon from the stadium for last Sunday's game and there are times there has to be a 'certain leeway." Lewis has been depicted as walking a line of "not losing" Dillon and appeasing a locker room wondering if there are two sets of rules.
But Lewis' track record is solid enough that people may just have to trust him on this one. A large measure of Lewis' success as a NFL assistant and now a head coach can be traced to his handling of different types of personalities ranging from Greg Lloyd, Ray Lewis and Chad Brown, a trait many see in Vermeil.
"He provides an atmosphere that the guys enjoy playing in. He's demanding, yet they enjoy playing for him, and obviously it comes to success," Lewis said. "After they finish playing for him they flock to him still. You look at the coaches he has on his staff. The ex-players he has on his staff are guys that played for him, and he has one that works (in) the media in Jaws (Ron Jaworski) that wishes he was on the staff. They love the man, and that's a credit to his passion, his care of them, and how he's handled him and then been successful."
Exhibit A: Middle linebacker Kevin Hardy approached Lewis Monday, and when they put an arm around each other to talk, Hardy said, "You owe me," referring to how the Texans' responded to a certain coverage last Sunday.
"Oh yeah, you're right on that one," Lewis said as he walked away.
"Just pay me in fives," Hardy said.
Lewis' open door is more like a revolving door for wide receiver Chad Johnson. Johnson, who works the hours of a diner, has shown up anywhere between 7 a.m. and midnight and has never had the door shut on him. He says he was in there Monday night about 9 asking about the Houston game and how he can get better and Lewis kept hammering home, "Hey, if you want to be that all-around receiver, you have to block better."
Of course, the outgoing Johnson would walk in on a honeymoon suite looking for a toast. Jeremi Johnson, the rookie fullback, is more reserved and less loquacious, but he's also found a home upstairs.
"That's why I was a little late coming in here today," said Lewis at Monday's news conference. "He's starting to feel a little good about himself, and he hangs around my office a little bit. I had to make sure to put him right back in his spot. As a football team, I think we've grown to the point where coming upstairs is a comfortable thing for them. They want to come in, they want to talk, and air out their feelings. With 58 guys, we deal with a lot of things off the field every week. I think it's good for them to have a place to go vent, and talk, and I'm glad we're getting to that point."
Chad Johnson said when he was in there Monday, Lewis gave him an impromptu clinic as he broke down a play on the Chiefs-Ravens tape.
"I would have gone after the play action fake if I was playing defense," Johnson said. "But he was telling me you have to watch who is in the game and how you have to stick to your assignment. You can learn something just by doing that.
"That's real important being a head coach. To be able to come in and talk to you, that's huge. There are things other than football that affect what you do on the field. You don't have a lot of people you can talk to, and it's important to have people around who will listen to you. If you can do that as a head coach, it makes it a whole lot easier. That's what Marvin brings to the table. You can tell by the way he carries himself he wants to talk to you."
Clemons gets that feel from Lewis' staff, a group of coaches he sees as accessible to the players. It's a feel that former Vermeil players talk about.
"They both like to have close relationships with their players," Clemons said. "I think Dick is more emotional than Marvin is."
Which is no knock on Lewis since Vermeil leads all active coaches in tears per victory. But Clemons say you can talk to coaches here.
"There's not a massive void between coach and player. There's not that divide," Clemons said. "You feel like you have that eye-to-eye relationship. It's very humbling and then we can get more accomplished because we're not doing it with an ego. . 'Look man, we've got one common goal. Let's get it done.'" The leaders I met, whatever walk of life they were from, whatever institutions they were presiding over, always referred back to the same failure; something that happened to them that was personally difficult, ever traumatic, something that made them feel that desperate sense of hitting bottom _ as something they thought was almost a necessity. It's as if at the moment the iron entered their soul, that moment created the resilience that leaders need."
There are differences.
Clemons has as good a feel for Sunday's matchup as anyone. After last Sunday's victory over the Texans, he called Bengals-Chiefs "David vs. The Goliath." On Monday, he said it was, "The new bull and the old bull." He also said that Lewis "is our underdog," as an African-American head coach trying to beat the odds.
Vermeil, 67, became head coach at UCLA at 37 before going to the Eagles in 1976. Lewis got his first head shot at 44. Both went through the college and pro ranks, but they connect to their team in different ways. There are 25 players on the Chiefs' roster born after 1976. The current Bengals are well versed in Lewis' long grad-assistant climb because they saw it, and they have rallied around it.
"(Lewis) had to kind of go the hard rock way to get a head coaching job," Clemons said. "He brings a different element because we know his history. We know he was a defensive coordinator and how basically teams wouldn't give him an opportunity. He's a black man and we don't have very many black head coaches in the NFL, so we realize it's important for us to really support him in that kind of way and understand his struggles and try to give him the best opportunity to make his mark because we want to open doors up to more coaches and have that situation change."
But to Clemons, relationships have nothing to do with color. They are only man-to-man.
"I feel like I've had more strained relationships with one of my past African-American coaches than I ever had with any of my other coaches white or otherwise," said Clemons, an African-American who wouldn't elaborate. "It doesn't really matter the color of the man. It just matters how they relate to you So far, Marvin relates to me."
Clemons immediately liked Lewis when Lewis interviewed him as the Ravens' first-year coordinator and Clemons was coming out of the University of California. That's all that matters. But Clemons is fully aware of the significance of there being only three black head coaches
"We want to see him have the best opportunity to make an impact and we've seen some other coaches that have done great jobs that have been overlooked. He's like our underdog. We want to see him overcome the odds," Clemons said.
So it's The Underdog vs. The Old Master in a season Vermeil bids to become the first NFL coach to lead three different teams to a Super Bowl.
Lewis hopes he sees more similarities than differences because he calls Vermeil, "a great model," for young coaches. He still remembers his own first-year head coach in Baltimore, Brian Billick, telling him how Vermeil would occasionally call him to tell him to hang in there during that 1999 season even though Vermeil was enjoying a great ride with his long-shot Rams.
"I know that since I've been here, my contact with him has always been so positive," Lewis said. "For young coaches like myself, he is a model. Having known through the 49er people that used to work with him at UCLA, that's the way they felt about him then."
Lewis also admires how Vermeil turned around those Bengalish '99 Rams, and he got a chance to take notes when the Ravens opened the season against a St. Louis team that had lost its starting quarterback for the season 15 days before. He is still taking notes. The Rams won, 27-10, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
"He has a plan and he sticks to it," Lewis said. "Then they keep adding the players that have the personality and the passion and the ability that he wants. He doesn't stray, he sticks with it.
"They had lost their quarterback in the next to last preseason game, and all of a sudden they are going to play with Kurt Warner, and see if he can get them through the first couple of games while they got another guy prepared to go play," Lewis said. "They stick to what they do. Dick has great coaches that coach the hell out of technique, and how to do it right, and they stay consistent with it and they keep getting better, Action is Power! If you don't invest very much, then defeat doesn't hurt very much and winning isn't very exciting."