New Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is the first man other than team founder Paul Brown and his relatives to have the authority to make personnel decisions. So it should come as no surprise that Lewis is also the first man to bring hope to this moribund franchise since wacky Sam Wyche was driving game officials, women's groups and the NFL commissioner crazy as Cincinnati's coach in the late 1980s.
The air of optimism is the biggest change around these parts. Ask any of the Bengals. Ask any Cincinnati fan who has had to endure a league-high 12 straight seasons without a winning record. "When I'd run into fans in the off-season," guard Matt O'Dwyer says, "the first thing they'd always ask me is, 'Is Mike Brown really giving up power?' " Brown, the Club president and one of Paul's three sons, is good-hearted, but since becoming the franchise's football architect following his father's death in 1991, he has graded out as an F. Though Brown hasn't ceded total control to Lewis, he allowed the new coach to pursue the free agents and draft the players he wanted.
Lewis, the respected longtime defensive coordinator, also cut loose nine of the team's 15 assistant coaches, including former Bengals stars Ken Anderson and Tim Krumrie. He nudged old-school strength coach Kim Wood, in the job for 28 years, into retirement and oversaw a $250,000 upgrade of the weight room. He emphasized speed training and the importance of proper diet. He refused to beg the team's best defensive player, linebacker Takeo Spikes, to return, letting him go to Buffalo in free agency. He tried to convince free agents from other teams that Cincinnati wasn't Siberia, and good players such as linebacker Kevin Hardy, defensive tackle John Thornton and cornerback Tory James picked the Bengals over better teams.
One of Paul Brown's beliefs was that players should use the off-season to prepare for life after football, meaning the Bengals had never stressed the off-season strength and conditioning program. That was O.K. a generation ago, when few players worked out hard from March through June, but times have changed. So Lewis implemented the same voluntary (read: mandatory) off-season regimen that is now standard around the league. At least 45 players were regular participants in the 14-week program. "So many guys came," says 0wideout Peter Warrick, "that we had to split into groups and come at assigned times. The weight room got too crowded."
"Marvin is in total control," says quarterback Jon Kitna, "and whatever the situation was before, the players knew Dick LeBeau [ Lewis's predecessor] didn't have that control. I don't care what anyone says: If the players don't have faith in who has control, you're not going to succeed. And I can tell through one off-season and training camp with Marvin, the attitude is 100 percent better. The players think they can win."
More important, the players think they are being given every opportunity to succeed. "Marvin stresses so many little things because he says little things lose games," says O'Dwyer. "That reminds me of what Bill Parcells used to say when I was with the Jets. Both guys want you to be accountable for everything."
Lewis has looked for every edge he can find. He was adamant about traveling to the team's three regular-season games out West—against the Raiders, Cardinals and Chargers—on the Friday before the game instead of on Saturday. Brown originally thought it was a waste of time and money, but he came around to Lewis's way of thinking. "Over the years I've found that when you take the West Coast trips, or you go to Florida, family comes out of the woodwork," he says. "I wanted to go out on Friday, let the players have family time on Friday night and Saturday morning, then have the hotel become the safe haven for players about noon on Saturday. Mike was willing to change. So far this job is everything people said it wasn't. Mike's been flexible."
Indeed, things are looking up for the Bengals.
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