Beers, tears and cheers flowed freely at Shelly Maxwell's postgame tailgate party under the Elm Street Bridge in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday night, and the excitement was almost too much for the restless hostess to handle. "The truth is, I just don't know what to do," Maxwell said. "I've been a Bengals' season-ticket holder for 20 years, and this is the first home game that's meant anything since 1990. I'm so happy, I could...." Breaking off mid-sentence, Maxwell nudged her way through a crowd surrounding the party's guest of honor and engulfed him in a heartfelt hug.
"Thank you," Maxwell said as she squeezed Marvin Lewis. "You know, I could really get used to this."
Since becoming the coach of the NFL's most feeble franchise last Jan. 14, Lewis has instilled in fans like Maxwell, as well as the beaten-down players, the belief that he can remove the stigma long attached to Cincinnati. As of Sunday, after the Bengals thrilled 64,923 fans at Paul Brown Stadium with a 24-19 victory over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, the Queen City officially has a new king.
"I know my word ain't worth two cents right now, but he's a genius, man," proclaimed running back Corey Dillon, who less than a month earlier had said he wanted to be traded. Winning for the fourth time in five games, the Bengals—the Bengals—moved into a tie with the Baltimore Ravens (5-5) for first place in the AFC North. "He's changing the perception of this team and this city," Dillon added. Across the locker room, veteran tackle Willie Anderson had even higher praise for Lewis: "Him coming here was a blessing from God."
After 12 years as one of sports' most reliable punch lines, the Bengals are finally showing some punch. "We're fighting through the culture of negativity, and it's a daily battle because this franchise has been downtrodden and ridiculed for so long," Lewis said, while making the short drive from his parking space under the stadium to his friend Maxwell's shindig under the bridge. "The people around here are just waiting to embrace us. They've got one foot in the door, and we just need to give them a reason to walk through."
That sound reverberating through the Jungle on Sunday was a stampede. The Bengals treated their fired-up fans to a smothering performance on defense and a ball-control offense keyed by Rudi Johnson's 165 rushing yards. Cincinnati ultimately won because of a pair of electrifying touchdowns by Peter Warrick—one on a 68-yard punt return, the other on a 77-yard pass play. Afterward Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil heaped praise upon Lewis, who until now was best known as the defensive guru behind the Ravens' record-setting performance in their Super Bowl season of 2000. Vermeil's sentiment that he was outcoached by Lewis was backed up by his players. Said Chiefs guard Brian Waters, "It really seemed like they were a step ahead of us all game long."
The Bengals' well-timed blitzes stymied Chiefs running back Priest Holmes (16 carries for 62 yards), and quarterback Trent Green repeatedly found defenders waiting for him when he rolled out. After Warrick broke loose on the punt return, Cincinnati had a 17-6 lead with 12:47 left and Kansas City had all of nine first downs. But Warrick was just warming up. On the first play after Green's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez had cut the Bengals' lead to 17-12 with 6:24 to go, Cincy offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski called a play known as 0-68. Wideout Chad Johnson, from the left side, ran a shallow crossing route, drawing the free safety toward the line of scrimmage. That left cornerback Eric Warfield singled up on Warrick, who was running a post from the right side—and left quarterback Jon Kitna (19 of 32,233 yards) with one obvious option. Warrick made an over-the-shoulder catch inside the K.C. 40, got spun around by Warfield, stayed on his feet and sprinted to the end zone again.
Following another Chiefs score, Rudi Johnson settled things by ripping off a 54-yard run to the Kansas City 29, from where the Bengals ran out the clock. Indeed, Cincinnati had proudly flashed its Johnsons: Rudi, who has thrived while Dillon recovers from an abdominal injury; fullback Jeremi, whose 13-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter put the Bengals ahead for good; and Chad, who had seven catches for 74 yards and, with the win, was spared great embarrassment. In addition to being the team's leading receiver, the loquacious Johnson is the leading supplier of bulletin-board material for opponents. Following a 34-27 victory over the Houston Texans on Nov. 9, the third-year wideout assured reporters that the Chiefs' quest for a perfect season would end in Cincinnati. Johnson's comments chafed numerous veteran teammates, including Anderson, who lashed out at Johnson publicly. "Part of the reason I made that guarantee was to draw some attention to this team, to get everyone to understand that the Bengals of old are gone," Johnson said after the game. "That's because of Marvin; I wanted to get this game for him."
In addition to implementing tangible change—a vastly improved weight room, new strength coaches, a beefed-up scouting department and greater attention to detail in practice and film sessions—Lewis, 45, has chipped away at the self-defeating pessimism that has enveloped the organization for years. Last Thursday he drew on his past during a speech to the team, recalling the summer he had spent before his junior year of college working with his father, Marvin Sr., in a western Pennsylvania steel mill. The younger Lewis and his coworkers spent eight hours a day shoveling coal from a large pile into coke ovens, an experience he describes as "nine weeks of hell."
"I know everything about a shovel," Lewis told his players. "I took breaks on it, ate on it, even slept on it. We had to move that pile of coal, and the only way to do that was to put your head down and keep shoveling."