Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis prepares to open this season Saturday with the same icy focus he has brought to the three previous seasons of a project he has taken from rehab to prefab a defending division champion.
In a recent sitdown with Bengals.com Lewis refused to talk about the character issue that has dominated this offseason, indicating the subject is going to be discussed at Wednesday's news conference with Bengals president Mike Brown.
But Lewis did say he feels his team is much better than the one that lost in the playoffs, the club's decision-making process hasn't changed, and he still expects Carson Palmer to start Opening Day.
Lewis said when his thoughts go back to that 31-17 loss to the Steelers in the Wild Card Game; they are not of Palmer lying on the field with a season-ending knee injury after throwing his first pass of the game.
"We went out there and allowed two touchdown passes when we got the lead," Lewis said. "Jon Kitna put us in position to win the football game, and we didn't take care of business and gave up a couple of big plays. That's what counts. Those are the things that we can control."
The Steelers cut the 10-0 lead to 10-7 when running back Willie Parker popped a pass in the flat for a 19-yard touchdown, and then took a 21-17 lead the snap after safety Kevin Kaesviharn was called for a 40-yard pass interference penalty in the middle of the third quarter. Pittsburgh scored its last touchdown on a double pass that resulted in a 43-yard heave to Cedrick Wilson.
But Lewis insists the pass defense, along with every other area of his team, is better than what transpired in the dusk of Jan. 8. Reports have said the Bengals won't have middle linebacker Odell Thurman for the first four games because of a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy, robbing the defense of the game-changing ability Thurman brought with five interceptions.
But Lewis indicated his offseason planning has taken such absences into account, and the addition of two defensive backs that weren't playing Jan. 8 (safeties Madieu Williams and Dexter Jackson) make the defense better. He also says that the top two draft picks, cornerback Johnathan Joseph and offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth, give them better depth.
"We're a better team. A much better team than where we finished the fall," Lewis said. Asked to elaborate, he pointed to wide receiver. "We're just better in every area. With Antonio Chatman, and Reggie McNeal, we're better. Tab Perry is a better player than he was."
And in his only reference to troubled players, he said the oft-arrested Chris Henry "is going to have an uphill battle to make the team."
"David Pollack is going to be a better player than he was," Lewis said of the club's No. 1 pick from last year. "Madieu Williams is going to be better. Johnathan Joseph is a better player. Andrew Whitworth."
After the Bengals surprisingly took Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks in the supplemental draft two weeks ago, various web sites reported Brown made the pick despite Lewis's disagreement.
Lewis says that the Bengals went about selecting Brooks the way they have selected players in the draft and free agency since he arrived in 2003, with Brown having the final say.
"Ultimately, they're all his picks. That doesn't change. He's the owner of the football team," Lewis said. "From Carson Palmer to Reggie McNeal to Ethan Kilmer this year. But he gives us an opportunity to evaluate them, and see if we can make it work and let him know if we can't. That's in everything we do, whether its free agents or draft picks, or whatever, and I feel very confident in what we're doing. From the time we started, what we've done has been great and it has not changed."
If Lewis wasn't for Brooks then, he is now. One of the things he emphasized when he came here is that he didn't want players to be known as "Marvin Guys," and "Mike Guys."
"I think we're excited about the opportunity with the pick. I think Mike feels the confidence in our staff to be able to coach this guy and get him ready to play productive football, and be a productive player and person," Lewis said. "I'm excited (Brown is) willing to put that responsibility on our plate and gives us that responsibility and opportunity. The coaches are excited about it. We have an owner who gives us that type of opportunity. He's concerned about one thing and that's winning football games."
The major thing Brown did change when Lewis arrived is that he made him the team spokesman and he disappeared from public view. Which means Lewis is getting a terrific pounding in the local and natonal media as the arrests pile up. But he does remember getting praise from people last season after drafting the red-flagged Thurman and Henry a round later than they were supposed to go if they didn't have problems.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Lewis said of the criticism. "The same people criticizing us are the same people that were patting us on the back, so I don't really care."
One of the concerns that scouts had besides Brooks' positive drug tests that got him kicked off the Cavaliers is his conditioning. After losing 30 pounds to get to 260 pounds in 10 weeks, is he going to blow a year just getting into shape?
"That's not what people said who saw his workouts," Lewis said. "He's got a lot to learn in a short period of time in order to be able to help us. He's willing to do it. He's been here a lot this week studying. It will be fun."
With the turbulent offseason (six arrests, a drug suspension, a major rehab), it wouldn't seem to matter that this team is better physically. But Lewis isn't buying into the notion that his team has to prove it's not a mental case after the trauma of losing Palmer on the second play of the postseason
"We went through it last year. We had to get through (the pressure of winning) Opening Day and then coming back and playing at night and answering the fury of the crowd," Lewis said. "We answered the bell and that's just all a part of growing up. What we didn't do last year was get over the injury to one of our good players. We have to learn to do that."
Lewis isn't changing his opinion on Palmer being the Opening Day quarterback. He won't say what role he'll have when camp starts Saturday (No. 1, 2 or 3), but he did say he expects him to practice. And Palmer counts when he says the team is better.
"Our quarterback will be fine," Lewis said.
Lewis sharpens the focus again when asked if the offseason madness has robbed the team of all the momentum it gained with a playoff run and AFC North title.
"We don't have any momentum. We're starting from scratch. Our players understand that," Lewis said. "It's been great. It's time to give people something else to write about. Right now, there's nothing else to write about. 'We didn't sign this. We didn't do that.' It's always something. Now it's time to get it done on the field."