6-10-03, 4:50 a.m.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
For the past two months of camps, Marvin Lewis has coated the Bengals' largest off-season overhaul ever with words.
Since the first voluntary minicamp in April, he has cajoled, needled, berated, praised, and uptempoed his team back into the land of the NFL living.
"The mentality around here the last few years was don't be too hard on the players," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who leads all Bengals with 104 career starts. "The coaches wanted to keep the morale up by not being critical. That's when you lose it. And from what I can see, Marvin doesn't care who you are. He'll let you know. This is how NFL teams are supposed to practice and carry themselves."
On Monday, the Bengals decided to use those very words in their latest bid to fill Paul Brown Stadium.
"Come on Mike. Get the snap. First things first," is how Lewis' voice crackled across the practice field before a crowd of about 300 Monday afternoon. "The play was in trouble from the start because of the snap."
Not only did new center Mike Goff hear that admonition, but so did the group of prospective season ticket buyers who were able to hear Lewis unplugged while he worked the second workout of the Bengals' six-practice mandatory minicamp that ends Wednesday.
Well, almost. The small microphone attached to Lewis' collar had an on-off switch, and he did invoke executive privilege a few times.
But the club's hope is enough words were heard Monday and will be heard in the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon workouts to convince the folks gathered under temporary tents and on bleachers to buy either season tickets, club seats, or a suite for Lewis' first season as head coach.
Last month, the Bengals put Lewis on a billboard to sell tickets. On Monday, the billboard became virtual.
"This is the pitch we made," said Kevin Lane, Bengals director of ticket sales. "Come here today and see that we're improving and see how Marvin runs a practice and then make your decision on whether you want to get on board with us. These are the people on the fence and hopefully he's the force that pushes them over the edge."
The Bengals targeted guys like Mike Grindstaff, 33, of Florence, Ky., who looked to be headed inside PBS after practice to check out seat locations and probably commit to a season ticket for himself and his nine-year-old son. Grindstaff, who works for
American Electric Power, went to three games last season. He wanted to see the Falcons' Michael Vick in the preseason, as well as the eventual Super Bow champion Buccaneers in the regular season, as well as the Steelers because they're the Steelers.
"If they had the same coaches and players as last year, I might have gone to one game with friends for a good time," Grindstaff said. "But to be honest, they've got me leaning to buying. I knew when Marvin came in and some of the players he brought in that they are going to be better. I really think they'll win at least six or seven games. But to come down here and be able to see it, that makes it more exciting."
The Bengals got Grindstaff's name off the rolls from last year and invited about 150 other such folks each afternoon this week to watch, listen and decide. They were allowed to bring about three or four guests, which is why several hundred people were eavesdropping on Lewis.
"Don't ask me the mike question," said Lewis when asked how the marketing department got him to mike himself live. "It did make me say things better."
He's been saying them since April. Backup center Rich Braham, dean of the Bengals with eight-and-a-half seasons here, has been under four head coaches like Anderson. There is a definite feel.
"The biggest difference is emphasizing a lot of discipline, " Braham said. "Being where you're supposed to be at the right time. Not dropping balls. Not missing assignments. It's more demanding."
Or, as left tackle Levi Jones said, "It's quality, not quantity. There's a big emphasis on getting things right, not just getting them done."
Jones should know. Not long ago, he hurried out of the locker room with just sandals on his feet after he got a call he was going to get some furniture delivered at his home. The shoes he wore into work were left in front of his locker.
"He let me know that he knew I did that and that he noticed," Jones said.
Anderson says to have "your character," ready at all times with Lewis on the practice field.
"He was watching the offensive line and then he turned his head around and said to (Armegis) Spearman at linebacker, 'Hey, 'Mego, keep moving.' He's the kind of coach who is everywhere."
Much to his team's chagrin, Lewis was on the Astroturf last Tuesday during a rainy on-field coaching session. Players responded slowly and stiffly in the opening moments of practice, and Lewis let them have it before starting practice over.
"He got into every position," Anderson said. "He said one group looked like old men, another group couldn't catch the ball. In the past, they would let that go and hope people would come around on their own, but Marvin won't let it slide. He'll tell you now. When you got a guy who benched a Hall-of-Famer in Bruce Smith in Washington last year for going offsides, that sends a message to everyone."
Anderson can sense the coaches adapting to the head man's style. Paul Alexander has been Anderson's only line coach here, and now he seems more of himself by being a bit more aggressive with players.
"Paul always wanted to coach like that," Anderson said.
So did offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. The players knew last year, at least on offense, if there would be one guy who would rip them verbally, it was Bratkowski. He wasn't miked Monday, but the crowd got an eyeful when he crawled all over a receiver for the way he went in motion and made the offense run the play over.
The upshot is that the players think the past two months have been more efficient than in the past. Jones calls it "more focused." Anderson says, "it's not like we weren't practicing hard last year, but there's a difference between practicing hard and practicing effectively."
Wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh can only do individual drills as he rehabs from a broken wrist, and Lewis caught up to him Monday with, "Step it up, T.J. You have to focus on what you can do. Concentrate on catching the ball."
"No doubt the tempo is faster," Houshmandzadeh said. "They emphasized that last year, but now we're in the third year of the offense. It's just coming naturally. You're not thinking as much, so you're moving faster. If this is the way training camp is going to be, then it's good we're getting used to it."
Training camp? After practice, Lewis came over to the bleachers for a few more words and told the fans by Wednesday, the Bengals would have reeled off 1,000 snaps in 30 practices this offseason. Which is roughly the same amount of practices in training camp.
So, by the time the Broncos come to town for the Sept. 7 opener, the Bengals would have run two seasons of plays.
Is that the way you always practice, a fan wanted to know.
"That's the way you practice if you want to do things right," Lewis said.
The Bengals are getting plenty of practice in watching Lewis sell the goods.