Beers, tears and cheers flowed freely at Shelly Maxwell's postgame
tailgate party under the Elm Street Bridge in downtown Cincinnati
on Sunday night, and the excitement was almost too much for the
restless hostess to handle. "The truth is, I just don't know what
to do," Maxwell said. "I've been a Bengals' season-ticket holder
for 20 years, and this is the first home game that's meant
anything since 1990. I'm so happy, I could...." Breaking off
mid-sentence, Maxwell nudged her way through a crowd surrounding
the party's guest of honor and engulfed him in a heartfelt hug.
"Thank you," Maxwell said as she squeezed Marvin Lewis. "You
know, I could really get used to this."
Since becoming the coach of the NFL's most feeble franchise last
Jan. 14, Lewis has instilled in fans like Maxwell, as well as the
beaten-down players, the belief that he can remove the stigma
long attached to Cincinnati. As of Sunday, after the Bengals
thrilled 64,923 fans at Paul Brown Stadium with a 24-19 victory
over the previously undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, the Queen City
officially has a new king.
"I know my word ain't worth two cents right now, but he's a
genius, man," proclaimed running back Corey Dillon, who less than
a month earlier had said he wanted to be traded. Winning for the
fourth time in five games, the Bengals--the Bengals--moved into a
tie with the Baltimore Ravens (5-5) for first place in the AFC
North. "He's changing the perception of this team and this city,"
Dillon added. Across the locker room, veteran tackle Willie
Anderson had even higher praise for Lewis: "Him coming here was a
blessing from God."
After 12 years as one of sports' most reliable punch lines, the
Bengals are finally showing some punch. "We're fighting through
the culture of negativity, and it's a daily battle because this
franchise has been downtrodden and ridiculed for so long," Lewis
said, while making the short drive from his parking space under
the stadium to his friend Maxwell's shindig under the bridge.
"The people around here are just waiting to embrace us. They've
got one foot in the door, and we just need to give them a reason
to walk through."
That sound reverberating through the Jungle on Sunday was a
stampede. The Bengals treated their fired-up fans to a smothering
performance on defense and a ball-control offense keyed by Rudi
Johnson's 165 rushing yards. Cincinnati ultimately won because of
a pair of electrifying touchdowns by Peter Warrick--one on a
68-yard punt return, the other on a 77-yard pass play. Afterward
Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil heaped praise upon Lewis, who
until now was best known as the defensive guru behind the Ravens'
record-setting performance in their Super Bowl season of 2000.
Vermeil's sentiment that he was outcoached by Lewis was backed up
by his players. Said Chiefs guard Brian Waters, "It really seemed
like they were a step ahead of us all game long."
The Bengals' well-timed blitzes stymied Chiefs running back
Priest Holmes (16 carries for 62 yards), and quarterback Trent
Green repeatedly found defenders waiting for him when he rolled
out. After Warrick broke loose on the punt return, Cincinnati had
a 17-6 lead with 12:47 left and Kansas City had all of nine first
downs. But Warrick was just warming up. On the first play after
Green's 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez had cut
the Bengals' lead to 17-12 with 6:24 to go, Cincy offensive
coordinator Bob Bratkowski called a play known as O-68. Wideout
Chad Johnson, from the left side, ran a shallow crossing route,
drawing the free safety toward the line of scrimmage. That left
cornerback Eric Warfield singled up on Warrick, who was running a
post from the right side--and left quarterback Jon Kitna (19 of
32, 233 yards) with one obvious option. Warrick made an
over-the-shoulder catch inside the K.C. 40, got spun around by
Warfield, stayed on his feet and sprinted to the end zone again.
Following another Chiefs score, Rudi Johnson settled things by
ripping off a 54-yard run to the Kansas City 29, from where the
Bengals ran out the clock. Indeed, Cincinnati had proudly flashed
its Johnsons: Rudi, who has thrived while Dillon recovers from an
abdominal injury; fullback Jeremi, whose 13-yard touchdown catch
in the third quarter put the Bengals ahead for good; and Chad,
who had seven catches for 74 yards and, with the win, was spared
great embarrassment. In addition to being the team's leading
receiver, the loquacious Johnson is the leading supplier of
bulletin-board material for opponents. Following a 34-27 victory
over the Houston Texans on Nov. 9, the third-year wideout assured
reporters that the Chiefs' quest for a perfect season would end
in Cincinnati. Johnson's comments chafed numerous veteran
teammates, including Anderson, who lashed out at Johnson
publicly. "Part of the reason I made that guarantee was to draw
some attention to this team, to get everyone to understand that
the Bengals of old are gone," Johnson said after the game.
"That's because of Marvin; I wanted to get this game for him."
In addition to implementing tangible change--a vastly improved
weight room, new strength coaches, a beefed-up scouting
department and greater attention to detail in practice and film
sessions--Lewis, 45, has chipped away at the self-defeating
pessimism that has enveloped the organization for years. Last
Thursday he drew on his past during a speech to the team,
recalling the summer he had spent before his junior year of
college working with his father, Marvin Sr., in a western
Pennsylvania steel mill. The younger Lewis and his coworkers
spent eight hours a day shoveling coal from a large pile into
coke ovens, an experience he describes as "nine weeks of hell."
"I know everything about a shovel," Lewis told his players. "I
took breaks on it, ate on it, even slept on it. We had to move
that pile of coal, and the only way to do that was to put your
head down and keep shoveling."
After Sunday's game, as the jubilant Bengals filed into their
locker room, Anderson handed a shovel he had borrowed from
stadium groundskeepers to Lewis, who held it aloft as his players
roared. Then came an even more emotional moment: Lewis got choked
up while telling the team he was awarding the game ball to
Bengals owner and president Mike Brown and his family.
For all of Brown's well-documented shortcomings in running the
football operations, he deserves credit for two things: giving
Lewis the authority to make personnel decisions, power that he
wouldn't relinquish to previous Bengals coaches; and having the
sense to hire Lewis in the first place. Regarded as a slam-dunk
head-coaching hire following the Ravens' Super Bowl triumph,
Lewis was interviewed and/or passed over for numerous jobs during
the next three winters. All along wary of the lack of
opportunities afforded African-Americans in the NFL coaching
ranks, Lewis nearly accepted an offer from Cal in late 2001 and
strongly considered taking the Michigan State job late last year.
"What he's proving now is that it was all those other teams'
loss," Bengals defensive end Duane Clemons says. "It's great for
us because we get a guy who's been through some adversity, a guy
who had to do it the hard way and knows how to teach a team to
fight. That's something those other cats who had things handed to
them can't bring to the table."
What Lewis brings is perspective, something his team will sorely
need as it fights for the franchise's first playoff berth--and
first winning season--since 1990. The Bengals' next three games
are on the road, beginning with this Sunday's game in San Diego
and concluding with a potential division-deciding showdown with
the Ravens, whom the Bengals beat 34-26 on Oct. 19. While trying
to ensure that his players don't get too caught up in their
success, Lewis can't help but use as motivation this bizarre
postgame quote from the All-Pro Holmes, who said, "I still have
no respect, really, for the Cincinnati Bengals."
That used to be the word around Cincinnati, but no more. As Lewis
and his 13-year-old son, Marcus, arrived at Maxwell's tailgate
party, 150 revelers broke into applause. Lewis was handed a
vodka-and-cranberry cocktail, and he sipped it while receiving
hugs and high fives and signing autographs. "Mr. Lewis, you
rock!" said a woman in a blue ski cap. Added a young blonde in an
orange-and-black feather boa, "Hey, can I get a hug? My
birthday's on Tuesday."
Standing several feet away, Maxwell took a sip of beer and said
to no one in particular, "It doesn't get any better than this."
Lewis turned and caught her eye, and what he communicated with
his expression was unmistakable: Oh, it will get better.
"He's been through some adversity," Clemons says of Lewis, "and
knows how to TEACH A TEAM TO FIGHT."
"Part of the reason I MADE THAT GUARANTEE," Johnson says, "was
to get people to understand the Bengals of old are gone."