Marvelous Marvin Has Bengals Hungry for Playoff Return
"We would later in the season deal with the tsunami (in American Somoa) and how that affected some of our players' families and then later came the deaths of family (defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's wife, Vikki) and a teammate (Chris Henry),'' Lewis said. "All season we have had to be resilient. Supportive. We have had to put our arms around folks and really help pull each other through it all.''
Along the way, Lewis kept putting his arm around his team and his imprint firmly upon it.
The Bengals would move from a pass-first team to a run-first one. Their defense would become more physical and attacking. They would sweep each team in the AFC North, a franchise first.
They would earn their wild-card playoff matchup on Saturday at home against the Jets.
The teams just met Sunday in a 37-0 whipping dispensed by the Jets in Giants Stadium.
"This will be a little different football game,'' Lewis said.
Lewis rested starters and showed little schematically in the last meeting. This time?
"We've got to make plays,'' he said ."Our execution has to improve. I've told them no more `my bads.' No more `I got it next time.' This is the final point. You fall off a cliff here if you don't respond. I mean, this is what you started working toward back in March and early April with mini-camps and OTAs. You want the opportunity to win a championship? You got it. All that other stuff is behind you.''
And that is the way that Lewis views his 4-11-1 season a year ago that began with eight straight losses and the 7-9 season before that. The Bengals are making only their second playoff trip in the last 19 years and their first in four years.
Lewis wants his team to enter these playoffs knowing they not only belong but certain they have a chance to be the last team standing. He has called his team a bunch of rejects, the epitome of that the resurgence of running back Cedric Benson. Lewis knows the feeling.
He entered this season with many observers wondering why he was not fired. But after his 10-6 season, he has now won more games (56) than venerable Bengals founder and coach Paul Brown (55). Lewis enters the playoffs as a deserving NFL Coach of the Year candidate whose steady hand has guided his team through turmoil and tragedy.
"It still hurts,'' Lewis, 51, said of the deaths of Vikki Zimmer and Henry. "It's just a shame. But we are where we want to be right now. It's been longer than we'd like to get back into the playoffs. It has been a bit. In those '06 playoffs, our guys thought they had arrived and thought they had captured the world (the Bengals lost 31-17 to Pittsburgh in a game that saw Palmer lost to a knee injury). Only eight players remain from that team. This team knows better. You can't take the fun out of it for those guys. You want them to step back and enjoy it but not be satisfied, because if you are satisfied you are defeated. I think we have the proper attitude there.''
He believes their maturity has increased.
Hard knocks and all.
"When we were 0-8 last year, I looked at the teams that were 6-2 and better,'' Lewis said. "Where are we different? It was running the football. This is a passing league but if you can't run the football you are not going very far in the playoffs. Too many things happen in the passing game from pressure to weather conditions. And if you lose your quarterback, what do you have?''
Lewis learned that last year when Carson Palmer injured his elbow and missed 12 games. He said Palmer watched from the sidelines and had the chance to see games like coaches do. And that Palmer understood that the Bengals had to change their offensive approach to run-first and more physical play.
Benson this season rushed for only 31 fewer yards than the entire team did the previous season. The Bengals rose from No.-29 in rushing to No.-9.
Another hard knock for the Bengals was their season opener. At home, they lost in the final seconds against Denver when receiver Brandon Stokley caught a deflected prayer-of-a-pass and scored from 87 yards.
"Letting that define our season would have been a fan-based attitude, not of people who do this for a living,'' Lewis said. "They outworked us on that play. We had plenty of opportunities earlier to make that play insignificant. We learned you just can't show up. You have to make things happen.''
Lewis says he listened more to his players this season. And this is what he had to say about coaching irascible receiver Chad Ochocinco:
"Chad does nothing malicious. He may approach things differently than I would and sometimes doesn't think about the way it is perceived. He does these things to get himself engaged and going. It makes him practice and play harder. When we tell Chad to be somewhere, he's there. Chad has a big heart. He handles corrections and criticisms. In my eyes, it's like having another son. I love him. I want him to be successful beyond football. I talk to Chad about not tarnishing his reputation or that of the Bengals and the NFL. He sees these things as a five-second prank and sometimes doesn't realize they will be broadcast for five days. The guy's life is twitter and video games. He is always dealing with family. He tries to help kids. I get a call at 11 at night and he's asking me about bringing four high school football players to practice so that he can teach them how to watch film and how to take notes and expose them to what NFL team meetings are like. He's been all about winning. He has his moments, but he is in a much better place than he's been.''
Lewis began his NFL coaching career as a linebackers coach in 1992 in Pittsburgh. Now in his seventh Bengals season, he wants his team to cash in on this chance to be the talk of the league -- for all of the right and winning reasons.
"My first four years in Pittsburgh, I thought the playoffs were just something you did at the end of the year since we went every year,'' Lewis said. "This is a great sports town and these playoffs are a great thing for the city. It has been important for us to make this a fun place to be. I hope that's where we're at and we can make it last a long time. This game is big for us in that way.''