Marvin Lewis restored the dignity of the Cincinnati Bengals last year. As a rookie head coach, he took over a downtrodden team that hadn't had a winning season since 1990 and led it to the cusp of the playoffs. The Bengals no longer were the laughingstock of the league after years of being derided for their frugal approach and losing ways.
But taking the next step -- from respectable team to playoff participant -- is proving more difficult. Lewis could have stood pat and hoped that the Bengals would build on last season's 8-8 record. Instead, he switched his starting quarterback in the offseason from veteran Jon Kitna to youngster Carson Palmer, the top overall choice in last year's draft.
The decision all but ensured that the Bengals would endure ups and downs as Palmer made, in effect, his rookie mistakes as a second-year pro. He didn't play at all last season while Kitna threw 26 touchdown passes and only 15 interceptions and was the league's ninth-rated passer.
But Lewis hoped he was serving the best long-term interests of the franchise. And, he said, he wasn't abandoning this season. He said he believed that playing Palmer would help the Bengals win this year as well, but they'll take a 3-5 record into Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.
"Any time you're losing, you wonder about the choices you've made," Lewis said by telephone this week. "You second-guess any time you're not scoring as many points on offense as you thought you would. You don't have to play him. You don't have to do anything. When you're trying to win, you play the guy who gives you the best chance to win. I started him because I felt like he was our best option."
The Bengals had the same record after eight games last season, then reeled off four straight victories to climb into playoff contention. The question is whether Palmer is ready to be a winning quarterback. He is the NFL's 30th-rated passer, with six touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and he has struggled enough that others in the quarterbacking fraternity -- including his favorite player from childhood, Troy Aikman -- have called and written to offer hang-in-there messages.
"I got a note from Troy before the year and talked to guys like Boomer [Esiason], and you talk to guys from around the league," Palmer said during a news conference last week. "And they just say, 'Keep fighting. Keep your head up.' . . . It is tough at first. It's hard. You're in a lot of situations that you've never been in before, and at times you feel like you're in over your head. You keep pushing. You keep fighting. You keep working through, and you know better days will come."
Said Lewis: "What we need is some positive play from our quarterback. We need consistency from our offense. That's what we got last year as the season went on. . . . We're happy with where he is. The one thing he really needs to do is take a little bit more of a leadership role on the football team. It's okay to be demanding of yourself. But at a certain point, it's time to go out and be demanding of the entire offense and demanding of the entire football team."
But Palmer hasn't been the only problem. Lewis said that in only one game -- a late-September loss to Baltimore in which Palmer threw three interceptions -- did the young quarterback not give his team a chance to win. Wideout Peter Warrick is on the injured reserve list because of a fractured leg, and the club's defense is ranked last in the league against the run and 27th overall -- particularly troubling because Lewis was the coordinator for highly successful defenses with the Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins.
Things went more like the Bengals envisioned last Sunday when they overwhelmed the Dallas Cowboys, 26-3, at Paul Brown Stadium. Palmer ran for one touchdown and threw for another. He wasn't sacked in a game for the first time this season and completed 21 of 32 passes for 212 yards. The Bengals stuck to a conservative offensive approach, limiting Palmer's downfield throws, but he mixed in a 76-yard touchdown to tight end Matt Schobel. Tailback Rudi Johnson ran for 95 yards. Wideout Chad Johnson contributed eight catches, and the Bengals rolled up 239 of their 328 yards of total offense in the second half. Right tackle Willie Anderson made his 72nd straight start, against the advice of doctors, who told him that he should undergo surgery on his ailing right knee.
The defense forced five turnovers and yielded the fewest points the Bengals have surrendered in a game since November 2002. Madieu Williams, a rookie defensive back from the University of Maryland, led the way with nine tackles and an interception.
"We're seeing some progress -- maybe not as fast as we'd like, but we are seeing progress," Lewis said. "We've learned some lessons. Unfortunately, we've had to lose some games and had some things go wrong to learn them. . . . We're still a work in progress. We have young guys that are going to be great players. They're not there yet. We've been disappointed in the way we've played, but you see it getting a little closer every week."