Hard-working Lewis won't allow Bengals to rest on first-half success
Bengals coach Marvin Lewis likes players who show up, shut up and work
Afterthought acquisition Dhani Jones has helped set tone in locker room
Other castoff players have seen hard work get rewarded in Cincinnati
After seven seasons in Cincinnati, Marvin Lewis finally has a team he can wrap his identity around. Lewis is from southwestern Pennsylvania, more precisely a steel and coal place called McDonald, same as Marty Schottenheimer and very close to Bill Cowher's Carlynton and Mike Ditka's Aliquippa.
People there don't care who you are or what you've done. Their hats aren't high. If yours is, they'll not knock it off. What's important is showing up. That and doing what you can as well as you're able. The rest is nonsense.
Lewis' father, Marvin, spent his career in the Shenango Foundry in nearby Sharpesville, wielding a sledgehammer as a shift laborer. To sleep at night, he'd prop his elbows on a pillow, to limit their throbbing. Marvin Jr. worked for nine weeks one summer in a coke mill, where the furnace temperature was so severe, it melted the frames of his glasses.
It's no surprise Lewis likes players who show up, shut up and work. After years of messing with players whose rap sheets exceeded his patience, he likes guys who arrive with their Boy Scout sleeves rolled up. After spending seasons in the mud with the likes of Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson and Chris Perry -- "great kids that had been allowed to be lazy,'' Lewis calls them -- he likes players who don't take their talent or the game for granted.
(Why the coach is still father-ish to and amused by Chad Ochocinco is work for a shrink on a slow afternoon. Or maybe it just makes his point.)
"You have to earn it here,'' Lewis says. "That sense of entitlement doesn't work. If it's allowed to get stagnant around here, your worker guys, your solid pros, wonder what's happening.''
If you watched HBO's "Hard Knocks" this summer, you might have seen an angry Lewis in the locker room, after a preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams: "Be a f------ pro!'' he shouted, a directive launched straight from the mills of southwestern P-A.
Still, for all the good intent and high-tech resources at a coach's disposal, lots of acquiring the right players is plain, dumb luck. When Lewis summoned Dhani Jones from surfing a San Diego beach two Septembers ago, all he knew was he needed a linebacker, and fast. He'd seen Jones working on the field before a preseason game that August, as a member of the New Orleans Saints. Lewis liked what he saw, but had no idea the impact Jones would have on the Bengals, on and off the field.
"What I didn't know was Dhani's learning ability and his professionalism, the effect he'd have on our younger guys,'' Lewis says. Jones is something of a renaissance man, who dabbles in art and photography and designing clothes. He spent last offseason starring in a show on Discovery, "Dhani Tackles the Globe."
When football starts, he hits the film room like Ebert. "He's constantly with the younger players on our defense, watching tape," Lewis said. "Peer pressure kicks in. Now, those guys don't want to be the guy that doesn't know what's going on.''
Thanks to defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, Lewis acquired cast-off safety Chris Crocker last October. He picked up Ced Benson four games into the '08 season, mostly because the Bengals had no running backs worth playing time. Those three -- and free agents Tank Johnson and Roy Williams, from Dallas -- have injected Lewis' personality into the locker room, better even than Lewis himself could.
The multiplier effect kicks in: "Tank helps Domata (Peko, starting defensive tackle), who helps Antwan (Odom, eight sacks until he was lost for the year) and it keeps going like that. We've sifted through the rubble of two seasons of injuries and lucked into some great pros. Now we have young players who are getting led by those guys.''
Examples? How about the work that young, rising-star cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph turned in last week, in a 17-7 defeat of the Baltimore Ravens? For the second time this fall, both Cincinnati wins, Hall and Joseph shut down the Ravens' wide receivers Mark Clayton and Derrick Mason. After the game, Joseph attributed the lockdown to film work. "We knew what they were going to do,'' Joseph said.
Lewis has seen this before. As defensive coordinator in Baltimore, he watched the effect Rod Woodson had on a young Ray Lewis. Before that, as the linebackers coach with the Steelers, he saw the motivating effect Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd had on each other.
"It doesn't matter your pedigree, where you came from,'' Lewis said. "You have to perform. Players here know. You can't fool them. They watch work get rewarded.''
The Bengals are 6-2 heading into Pittsburgh Sunday. The '05 team -- the first Bengals group since 1990 to make the playoffs -- also was 6-2 at the halfway point. There is no comparison, not by Lewis' standards. In 2005, "We had some guys who thought they'd arrived,'' Lewis says. Carson Palmer, the QB then and now, last week called the '05 team "young and dumb.''
When that team clinched the AFC North, it dumped the Gatorade bucket on Lewis, which only ticked him off. "They thought the work was done,'' Lewis said. "The season was just beginning.'' The '05 Bengals lost at home to the Steelers in their first playoff game.
The Gatorade will stay in the bucket this year. Lewis guarantees it. If the Cincinnati Bengals make the NFL playoffs for the second time in 19 years, the coach will not need a raincoat. Through luck, experience, trial and error, Lewis has put together a team in his likeness, one that suits his southwestern Pennsylvania, hard-head nature.
He likes what he sees.
Paul Daugherty is a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer
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