An arresting story, in a good way
The Bengals, once a losing team with players in frequent legal trouble, have turned over a new leaf

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.

Lewis said that Brown, in the weeks after, did an excellent job of assessing the market, realizing that some teams might not want to spend and there would be an opportunity for the Bengals to seize some talented players. The sense around the organization is that Lewis -- after many years of settling for those Brown might have liked -- was finally able to get the ones he wanted.

What the Bengals wound up with was a group of better-than-average, experienced players who for some reason or another had been cast away by other teams. This included Crocker and Benson as well as wide receiver Laveranues Coles, defensive tackle Tank Johnson and safety Roy Williams.

All with something to prove.

"A lot of guys have bricks on their shoulders," Crocker said. "Many of us realize that second and third chances don't come along too often."

It is perhaps a risk for the Bengals, considering their recent history, taking on players such as Benson and Johnson. Especially Johnson, who went to jail for four months in 2007 for a probation violation.

But Lewis had a sense about this team, about the leaders in the locker room. He understood which players were worth taking a chance on and which ones weren't. That became clear when Lewis and Brown publicly disagreed before last season over taking back wide receiver Chris Henry, who had been arrested several times. Lewis didn't want him, Brown did.

Still, in the delicate balance that is the Cincinnati decision-making process, the move worked out.

"The change of his life over the last year is amazing," Lewis said of Henry.

And suddenly the atmosphere around the team has brightened.

"It's a different environment in who runs the show [in the locker room] now," Lewis said, naming Crocker, Williams, linebacker Dhani Jones and quarterback Carson Palmer as examples.

"It's not that the people who ran the show before were bad, but these people aren't afraid to speak up. These people will challenge you to do it right and they have each other's backs. What happens sometimes is you get guys sometimes who say, 'Well, I can't do that.' These guys can."

'Let me see'

The challenge, in many ways, has been mixing Brown's more refined approach -- chasing lots of younger, cheaper players -- with Lewis's urgency to mix in older players with records of success and life experience, even if it means taking on players with injury risks. Without a general manager between them, that careful dance has taken time to get right.

The owner, who does not often speak to the media and turned down a request to be interviewed for this story, has never been known as a meddler. Mike Brown's father Paul, of course, was one of the game's great coaches and he's always shown great respect for letting coaches coach the way they want. Rather than criticize Lewis's play-calling or organizational techniques, he will flood Lewis with questions: wondering why certain players played while others didn't or why Lewis chose to throw on third down instead of run.

"At the end of the day all he's doing is venting off his chest," Lewis said. "He feels better after he said it and we move on. And if I see it differently, I let him know that. Sometimes I agree. Sometimes I don't. But it helps him understand."

Where Lewis has gently changed the team's system is in the acquiring of players, blurring the stark designation between owner and coach. When Brown has a player he or the scouts want to draft or sign, Lewis asks to see him on tape. When the team is considering four or five prospects, the coach insists on watching film of all of them.

"I want to see how they fit what we do," Lewis said. "I don't want to hear about it from someone else. He will allow me to make a decision as I see fit. He may not agree with it but I'll say, 'Let me look at him rather than doing something sight unseen,' not, 'We're going to sign this guy because he did this four years ago or last week.'

"Let me see."

Two weeks ago, when the team first considered signing running back Larry Johnson, whose troubles with the Kansas City Chiefs and repeated outbursts led to his release, Lewis demanded a meeting. He wanted to sit down with Johnson, talk to him, let him understand that he was being given another chance but he could not disrupt the winning or the beauty of a locker room that had perfect symmetry for once.

This is the coach's way.

And it's working. The Bengals, with two wins each over the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, are a legitimate first-place team, even after Sunday's loss to the Raiders; they will play only two winning teams the rest of the season. Already, Lewis has had to send out a mass e-mail to every team employee pleading with them to squelch talk of the playoffs and Super Bowl that is trickling from the offices. He also has told his coaches to coach like they are 0-8 "and turn over every rock you can to find a way to get a first down or keep them from making a first down."

And yet just two weeks ago, in the middle of a practice before a huge game against the Steelers, he suddenly stopped the workout, sensing the tension of expectations and said: "We need to relax here. Let's loosen up."

No one had ever seen him do something like that.

Then again, it's been a long time since everything felt right around here.

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