CINCINNATI — The passing of the torch wasn’t literal, but the veteran Bengals players who were invited to Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse downtown—a short walk from Paul Brown Stadium—the night before camp didn’t need clarification on why they were there.
Marvin Lewis and his coordinators had them out for a reason. And the group, numbering more than 20 vets, knew before putting in their orders that it was as much about who wasn’t in attendance as about who was.
“There were a couple guys, Whit (tackle Andrew Whitworth), (Domata) Peko, that had been here 10-plus years, and those guys aren’t here anymore,” Andy Dalton said after a hot-and-humid session on the team’s stadium-adjacent practice fields. “So I think it was saying that the 2011 draft class, me, AJ (Green), Clint Boling, we’re now the older guys—or the younger older guys.”
It was more than just one draft class there that night, of course, and it’ll take more than just leadership for the Bengals to bounce back from their 6-9-1 swoon of 2016.
But the message Lewis and his staff wanted to send was received, loud and clear by a group made up mostly of players who missed the playoffs for the first time last year. It’s their team now. So getting back to that point where the biggest question was “when you will finally win a playoff game,” and then beyond that is up to them.
In this week’s Game Plan, we’ll explain a brewing problem over pain management and marijuana between the NFL and NFLPA; we’ll take you inside the Browns’ quarterback room; we’ll tell you why the Eagles should be the favorites to unseat the Cowboys in the NFC East; and we’ll take another spin around camps.
We’re starting, though, with a conversation I had with Lewis, and my recollection of another one he and I had a few years back as the Dalton/Green Bengals were on the rise. The coach, then, explained how so many coaches he knew went through a self-evaluation after they were fired, and changed as a result.
Hearing those peers, Lewis told me, prompted him to reset during the 2011 lockout, after a 4-12 season led to quarterback Carson Palmer’s early retirement. As Lewis explained it, he went through it as he’d been fired, reflecting on and shifting his program in the process. And it worked—the Bengals drafted Dalton and Green, dealt Palmer, and made the first of five straight playoff appearances the following fall.
So the big thing on my mind when I got to Lewis’ office earlier this month was whether or not he went through a similar reboot as a result of last year. That pre-camp dinner, as it turned out, set into motion a smaller-scaled version of it.
“They have to understand: You have to take control, you have to take over,” Lewis said of the dinner attendees. “Again, that group of guys, a year ago it’s 14 (vets), now it’s 20-something, that are at that point of their career. These guys have grown up. Now, they’re the leaders of the group, that group of players who’d never not gone to the playoffs.
“And that’s the thing, there are only five guys in this building who were there before then. That’s the great part of it. The rest of the group came in ’11 and ’12.”
And that brings you to what actually needs to be different from last year, rather than just what Whitworth’s departure to Los Angeles and Peko’s to Denver necessitated.
Here’s the simple answer that Lewis gave me, in explaining the difference between 2016 and the five years prior: “We didn’t make any plays.” If that sounds vague, the proof was clear on the scoreboard. The Bengals were 22-14-1 in one-possession games from 2011-15, and at least .500 in such circumstances in each of those individual seasons. Last year? Cincinnati was 1-5-1 in one-possession contests.
“Whether we missed a field goal, PAT, not scoring, or it was not stopping them from scoring, it’s plain and simple,” Lewis said. “We did a lot of things great. We were second in the league in penalties, we were top five in turnover differential, so things that make teams get beat, we didn’t have those issues. We had no issues socially. None. And yet, we didn’t make enough plays to win games.”
There are a couple ways the Bengals have addressed that. First, there was an effort to get younger and more athletic in some key spots—the drafting of speed merchant John Ross and versatile back Joe Mixon being prime examples. Second, the coaches have worked to put a scoreboard on everything in practice, to manufacture more game-like situations.
In fact, at the end of every camp day’s work, either the offense or defense was declared the day’s winner, and the loser had to go sign autographs. “And they have fun with that,” explains Lewis. “It’s, Hey coach, defense needs to go sign today because we beat their asses.”
Part and parcel to the integration of younger players in the lineup and ramped-up competition has been a more intense, physical camp. It’s needed too with a number of young guys walking into pivotal roles. One example is the progress tackles Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi need to make. Another would be the experience 2016 draft picks—and de facto redshirts—William Jackson (cornerback) and Andrew Billings (defensive tackle) have to get.
“I had a player walk in here the other day and say, ‘I really think I need the day off today.’ And I sent him out the door,” Lewis said. “We’re not doing that. Your coach will take care of you, I’ll make sure he does. But I want everyone suited up unless you physically can’t. That’s a better way for this football team. …
“We have been more physical in practice because we have younger guys. We have to reteach guys. I didn’t have to teach Whit how to be physical, or Peko how to be physical. But now we’ve got some new guys, some younger guys, and we have to reteach that.”
It’s even been apparent in the play-calling in Cincinnati’s first two preseason games—the team has an even 17-17 run/pass split in the 34 snaps Dalton’s played.
Now, globally, this isn’t quite the overhaul that Lewis oversaw during those lockout months. That was almost a cultural change. This is more of a system reset.
And now in his 15th season at the helm, and headed into a contract year as the NFL’s second most tenured coach, Lewis knows the importance of keeping the foundation of what he’s built in good standing—and that standing still doesn’t work.
“People always think you’re this close or in position to do this, and there’s more to it than that,” Lewis said. “You have to have graduation from here. … For instance, with (Whitworth), you don’t expect it, and it happens, you have to be prepared for it. Any time, whether it was Andrew deciding he doesn’t want to play anymore or whatever, that was always a possibility. So we’ve been prepared.
“And you have to prepare for those times all the time. Obviously our season wasn’t what we wanted last year. That just heightens everyone’s awareness, that we have to change and be better.”
So the Bengals have changed, for sure, and soon enough we’ll see it’s for the better.