WHILE FOOTBALL fans were watching Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson become a caricature of himself in the off-season, popping off repeatedly with demands to be traded—or, presumably, to be given a new contract—a small group of Bengals players turned their attention to coach Marvin Lewis. ¶ Almost from the moment Lewis took the Cincinnati coaching job in 2003, he assigned Chosen One status to Johnson. The former Oregon State standout could get away with almost anything. Walk out of a meeting room without permission? Walk off the practice field and not return because the quarterback hadn't thrown enough passes his way? Put on a sideline skit after scoring a touchdown during a game? Johnson had done them all without significant consequences.
But this off-season his behavior took on a different tone. For the first time he publicly challenged Lewis and the organization, criss-crossing the country to do one sports show after another, threatening to boycott minicamp and training camp if he wasn't dealt. The more he talked, the more some teammates wondered privately if Lewis would write it off as Chad being Chad or finally take a stand.
It is not a reach to say that the respect of the locker room was at stake. Colleagues had cautioned Lewis that there would come a day of reckoning with Johnson, and when a reporter asked in April about the player's threats, that time finally arrived. "He has stated that without an opportunity to go to a different team and [receive] a new contract, he wasn't going to play," Lewis said at the time. "I think he's a man of his word. He says he's not going to play, so don't play."
"Marvin had had enough," says Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, a close friend of Lewis's and the Bengals' receivers coach from 2004 through '06. "Whatever was going on there, Marvin said, 'I've taken as much as I can. I'm going to stop this now.'"
That's not all Lewis did. In addition to his public handling of the Johnson situation, he also got owner Mike Brown to sign off on the release of two talented but troubled players: wideout Chris Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman.
The sight of a new, rougher, tougher Lewis might have been a surprise to some, but the players saw it coming during the final two weeks of the 2007 season. In his seven years as a defensive coordinator with the Ravens (1996 through 2001) and the Washington Redskins (2002), Lewis, who turns 50 in September, was part of teams that won largely because of their ability to run the ball and stop the run. But during his time with Cincinnati, the Bengals had gotten away from those principles. Lewis knew something had to change after his team ran for just 61 yards and gave up 156 on the ground in a 20--13 road loss to the then 3--10 San Francisco 49ers last December. "It was about the lowest point in my life as a coach," he said recently.
As he sat on the charter for the four-hour flight home, he was filled with disappointment, embarrassment and, finally, anger. At a team meeting the following Monday he told his players that they would get back to running the ball and playing more aggressively on defense. But most important, Lewis changed. "I just went back to being the guy I was in Baltimore and when I got started here—when no one liked me," he says.
That meant holding people accountable, regardless of their paycheck or draft status. He took the advice of Jackson, who told him, "It's your bus. Get back to driving it."
"He was right," Lewis says. "I gave some leeway to guys in certain areas, and it didn't work out. We've had to go back to the way we got started. And that's, Put your pads on and go to work. I don't want to talk about it. Let's see it."
FROM THE moment he arrived in 2003, the future began to look up for the Bengals. A longtime assistant who was finally getting his chance, with a 2--14 team, Lewis immediately produced a pair of 8--8 seasons. Then, in 2005, he guided the Bengals to their first winning record (11--5) and playoff appearance in 15 years. The way that Cincinnati fans reacted, you'd have thought he had raised the Titanic.