Now, only the Cincinnati Bengals' wins are arresting

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 26, 2009

CINCINNATI -- Early each morning, Cincinnati Bengals Coach Marvin Lewis leaves his windowless office at Paul Brown Stadium and walks upstairs to the suite of the team's owner, Mike Brown. There, as Lewis gets his first glimpses of the sky and the murky river meandering below, they talk football, with Brown asking dozens of questions and Lewis doing his best to answer them.

It is not as if Brown and Lewis don't get along. They do. After all, Brown has kept Lewis as his coach for seven seasons even though the team has not won a playoff game in that time. And it is not as if the Bengals are a dysfunctional organization in the way of, say, the Redskins or the Oakland Raiders. There is no chaos.

But things have always been a little different here. In a modern NFL of billion-dollar organizations, Cincinnati is more old-fashioned, a place where the owner runs the operation and signs the players while the coach coaches the team. The layers of football experts that other teams have do not exist here.

And it is the reason many believe that, until this year's sudden 7-3 start, the winning has come too infrequently.

"A lot of times Mike and I differ on what wins in the NFL," Lewis said last week, sitting at a conference table in his office. "We keep that between us. But the thing we always laugh about is one of us says, 'I know you don't see it this way.' He's always going to tell you how he sees it. But I think we've been able to come to a common ground and get players that fit to the common ground."

This has been a challenge for the Bengals in the past. The team wound up with a string of player arrests in 2006 and 2007 and a roster that into last year was not filled with enough players who understood how to win or cared much about it. That fact became obvious when the Bengals lost their first eight games last year.

But something changed at the end of last season. Some of the players Cincinnati brought in at the end of the dreary year were pushing responsibility in a way few had done before.

And when the season ended and Brown said they could pursue free agents, Lewis urged the signing of some older players Brown might not have liked -- players with injuries in their past. Players whose teams no longer wanted them. But players Lewis was sure could win at the right place with the right support.

"The short answer of why we're winning is in the people we have now compared to some of the individuals we had in the past," offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski said. "We have a solid group of character players. And we don't have the detractors anymore. And if there are still some detractors here they aren't able to do it anymore because we have the players around them who won't let them do that."

Or as guard Bobbie Williams, who has been with the team six years, said: Lewis "has the players with the attitudes he wants now. And, more importantly, they're buying in."

'Bricks' on shoulders

Maybe in a way, the Bengals got lucky that Miami released safety Chris Crocker in the middle of last season and that running back Cedric Benson was dumped by the Chicago Bears after tensions with management and two arrests in a matter of weeks. This allowed the Bengals to sign both before the end of the year, working them into the system. They found that Crocker was quickly becoming a voice of stability and Benson was nothing like the problem he had been presumed to be.

When the year ended with three straight victories, Lewis was shocked at how many players came into his office and explained in detail what they wanted to do to win and which players the team needed to help them do that. He knew then he had a team he could build upon.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company