Tearing Down the Bungle Society

Washington Post

As one of the longest-suffering members of the Cincinnati Bengals -- a team that knows a thing or two hundred about suffering -- veteran tackle Willie Anderson was clearly the man to present Coach Marvin Lewis with a memento of the team's stunning upset of the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.

The Bengals, more commonly known as the Bungles during their years as an NFL embarrassment, had just beaten the Chiefs -- who were gunning to go 10-0 -- and Anderson handed Lewis an orange-handled shovel, a visual reminder of what Lewis has been preaching to the team since he became its coach in January.

"That's been our motto, his motto -- keep shoveling the dirt, keep shoveling the coal and good things will happen," Anderson said, with the shovel appropriated from the stadium groundskeeping crew propped against his locker. "The man was prepared for this job years ago, and all we're going to do is keep digging, one pile at a time."

At the start of the season, they appeared to be digging only another Bengalesque hole -- starting 0-3, then 1-4. But in a tough overtime loss to Buffalo on Oct. 5, the team showed promising signs. Now, after winning four of their last five games, the 5-5 Bengals -- 2-14 last year -- are tied for first place in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens. They beat the Ravens in their first meeting, an emotional day for Lewis, who spent six years as an assistant coach in Baltimore and was the architect of one of the greatest defenses in NFL history during the team's 2000 Super Bowl championship season.

But beating Kansas City was even more special.

"I think it meant everything to him," said quarterback Jon Kitna, who plays while the team's No. 1 overall draft choice, Carson Palmer, learns the pro game and backs him up. "He's seen the fruits of his labors. He fights for us, he gets things for us we haven't gotten in the past. He's never wavered in his faith in us."

There were few dry eyes Sunday in the locker room. Lewis choked up momentarily -- and the tears quickly spread to his players -- as he awarded a game ball to team owner Mike Brown. Now one of three black head coaches in the league, Lewis had been frustrated in 2001 and 2002 by not being offered a top job. He finally was picked by Brown last Jan. 14 at the urging of his daughter, executive vice president Katie Blackburn, and her husband, Troy, the team's director of business development.

Brown, often accused of running the team like a mom and pop store, has essentially stepped out of the way. He has allowed Lewis the freedom and the budget to begin rebuilding a team many believe Brown helped destroy with personnel moves throughout the organization.

This was something of a bold move for Brown, because Lewis hadn't been a head coach in the NFL, even if he had meticulously prepared for it as an assistant for three teams over the previous 11 years. Lewis told his players after the Chiefs game that he had given Brown the game ball because "of the ability he's given me to direct you guys and make (them) feel like they're NFL players."

Brown declined to comment through a team spokesman and has avoided any public comment about his team and his new coach, choosing to make Lewis the public face and voice of this organization. Lewis also is the man making most of the decisions -- with Brown's advice and virtually unanimous consent -- affecting the football team.

"Mike wanted someone to direct the team, put a plan in place and take him out of the mix," Lewis said in an interview this week. "When I flew back to Baltimore (after interviewing for the job), that's how I felt about what he was looking for, without him ever saying it to me. He was interested in the things we'd done in Pittsburgh and Baltimore. I never felt he would not relinquish this, or that we would not be able to do that."

A team used to playing in front of thousands of empty seats had the third sellout of the season at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday. "I had a feeling people weren't enjoying coming to the stadium." Lewis said. "But there's no question the atmosphere was there" last Sunday.

Lewis quickly put his stamp on the operation, bringing in nine new assistants within a week of his hiring and firing two popular assistants, Ken Anderson and Tim Krumrie, who had been revered players for the team, as well as a popular weight coach who had been in the position for 28 years. Several scouts were added, with more likely on the way.

He oversaw a $250,000 makeover of the weight room, made 40 public appearances in his first six months and helped court the business community. He also invited a number of past Bengals from the team's moderately successful 1980s to a dinner with his team.

He's brought the 21st century into the Bengals operation, introducing computers and power-point presentations to prepare his team and coaching staff, as so many teams have been doing in recent years.

But his best work has been getting the Bengals to believe that losing is no longer acceptable. There has been almost a 50 percent turnover on the team from opening day of the 2002 season, and 13 players on the roster, many of them brought in by Lewis, have playoff experience. That was a deliberate move to help change the downtrodden culture in the locker room, his greatest challenge.

Recruiting players to come in as unrestricted free agents was not that difficult, though he was unable to persuade Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes to stay with the program. Spikes signed with Buffalo, and Lewis declined to match the $12 million offer, instead spending $18 million to bring in three new defensive starters -- linebacker Kevin Hardy, cornerback Tory James and tackle John Thornton, all major contributors.

"Me coming here was him (Lewis) totally," James said. "If not for him, I wouldn't be here. I knew he was a special guy and I wanted to be a part of turning it around with him. His reputation as a defensive guy and the aggressive style of defense he plays were a perfect match for me."

Hardy admitted to having initial reservations about Cincinnati, saying: "When they called, I said to myself, 'I'm not going there.' After talking to Marvin and seeing the direction this was heading, I felt like this was a big opportunity for me. When I decided, people were like, 'Are you sure you want to go there?' I didn't look at it like it was 2-14. I looked at it as a new beginning."

There is an opportunity for the Bengals to make the playoffs, though Lewis has cautioned his team about getting too giddy about beating Kansas City, especially with the next three games on the road, including Sunday at San Diego. The Bengals are 1-3 this season on the road and critical division games at Baltimore and Pittsburgh -- a stretch that probably will define Lewis's first season -- follow the San Diego game.

"There's still a cliff to fall over," Lewis said. "There's a tendency among guys experiencing some success for the first time to have that trait ... to throw in the towel. We're trying to coach it out of them. We've got to guard against that. We felt we'd go to Arizona (Nov. 2) and win. We had two great practices, then we lost our edge and they beat our butts.

"We're not as good as people think we are, or as bad. We just want to push forward and up. I'm going to push harder. We've got to be mentally tough. You have to be able to handle everything that goes on. As we mature, we'll handle that.... We tell them do your job and someone will make a play. Do your job and good things will happen."

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