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Marvin Lewis trying to engender winning mindset - ESPN - 6/17/2003


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Lewis trying to engender winning mindset

By Ryan Early

Tuesday, June 17

Updated: June 18

12:05 PM ET

No football franchise has exemplified perennial futility like the Bengals of the last dozen years. A franchise-wide emphasis on the financial bottom line over on-field success alienated fans and players alike. But for the Cincinnati faithful, it appears there is light at the end of the tunnel. When Marvin Lewis accepted the position as the Bengals new head coach, he demanded and received organizational and philosophical changes in the way the franchise is run. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late for several Bengal free agents, including defensive captain Takeo Spikes and their lone Pro Bowl player, fullback Lorenzo Neal, who signed elsewhere.

Marvin Lewis is stressing the importance of physical conditioning to Bengals players.

Lewis is best known as the mastermind behind one of the most dominant defenses of all time, the 2000 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. He left the Ravens after the 2001 season to become the highest-paid coordinator in the game for the Washington Redskins. He was almost their de facto head coach as well as he organized team practices and did a lot of the administrative work that typically is done by the head coach. He becomes the first head coach hired by the Bengals with no previous ties to the team since 1980. The break with the past continued when he was given permission to replace any assistants, including longtime favorites of team president Mike Brown and the Brown family. In all, nine assistant coaches were replaced with the most important new hires being not one, but two, new strength and conditioning coaches. The weight room also got a major renovation to emphasize the team's new priority on the physical conditioning of the players.

Lewis kept on the majority of the offensive staff after they made solid strides last season with quarterback Jon Kitna. But with the No. 1 pick, the Bengals couldn't pass up the chance to take Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer out of USC. Palmer will have the opportunity to sit and watch Kitna at the controls before taking over. Lewis has insisted on some changes to the offense as he wants to lengthen the passing attack to stretch opposing defenses and thus give franchise back Corey Dillon more room to run up front.

While Lewis will also pay a lot of attention to the defense and will be a good mentor for Leslie Frazier in his first year as a coordinator, the two have such similar defensive philosophies that it is reminiscent of the 2002 Panthers with new head coach John Fox overseeing defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio. If the Bengals have anywhere near the kind of defensive improvement that the Panthers enjoyed, they'll be kicking up their heels in joy.

The only defensive coaches retained were secondary coach Kevin Coyle and assistant secondary coach Louie Cioffi, but they will be asked to teach a more in-your-face pressure style of play for their cornerbacks. Frazier was the secondary coach with the Eagles before coming to the Bengals. In Philly, he coached three of his four starters into Pro Bowl seasons and he will spend extra attention to an overhauled secondary with only one returning full-season starter. Newly signed cornerback Tory James has the bulk to play the bump-and-run effectively, as does rookie Dennis Weathersby, whose stock slipped from a possible first-round pick all the way to the fourth round after suffering a gunshot wound shortly before the draft. Weathersby is getting a slow start to his rookie season as he recovers from that wound, but he should challenge Artrell Hawkins for the other starting spot by the second half of the season.

Lewis' defenses have always been centered around the linebackers, which made the loss of Spikes all the more painful. However, Lewis took the salary-cap space he would have used on Spikes and to sign three free agents, significantly improving the overall talent level on the defense. Kevin Hardy proved he was fully back from his injury by playing well for the Cowboys last season. He will man the middle for Lewis, moving Brian Simmons to the weak side position where Spikes played. Steve Foley missed the entire 2002 season with a shoulder injury but is counted on to man the strong side spot.

With the Ravens, Lewis put two mammoth defensive tackles up front to remove any chance of opposing teams running up the middle. With that in mind, he signed John Thornton away from the Titans; Thornton is just coming into his own as a major two-gap run stuffer. The other tackle spot will be manned in a committee approach with Tony Williams getting more pass play opportunities because of his pass rush skills. Third-year end Justin Smith saw a lot of double teams last year but still had 6.5 sacks. He will be given the green light to do whatever it takes to penetrate the backfield on every play, even if it means he's not as effective against the run.

The Bengals' defense should make big strides in 2003, but it will certainly go through some growing pains with so many new starters all learning a new defensive scheme. Any improvement will help out the offense tremendously and Dillon could be the biggest beneficiary as he will finally be asked to run out the clock on several wins, padding his stats nicely. Whatever improvement takes place on the field will be welcomed warmly by the long-suffering Cincinnati fans. But it should just be a prelude to the 2004 season.

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