Drawing the Line

Fed up with distractions and his players' frequent run-ins with the law, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis finally got mad—and is getting back to basics on the field
August 24, 2008

WHILE FOOTBALL fans were watching Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson become a caricature of himself in the off-season, popping off repeatedly with demands to be traded—or, presumably, to be given a new contract—a small group of Bengals players turned their attention to coach Marvin Lewis. ¬∂ Almost from the moment Lewis took the Cincinnati coaching job in 2003, he assigned Chosen One status to Johnson. The former Oregon State standout could get away with almost anything. Walk out of a meeting room without permission? Walk off the practice field and not return because the quarterback hadn't thrown enough passes his way? Put on a sideline skit after scoring a touchdown during a game? Johnson had done them all without significant consequences.

But this off-season his behavior took on a different tone. For the first time he publicly challenged Lewis and the organization, criss-crossing the country to do one sports show after another, threatening to boycott minicamp and training camp if he wasn't dealt. The more he talked, the more some teammates wondered privately if Lewis would write it off as Chad being Chad or finally take a stand.

It is not a reach to say that the respect of the locker room was at stake. Colleagues had cautioned Lewis that there would come a day of reckoning with Johnson, and when a reporter asked in April about the player's threats, that time finally arrived. "He has stated that without an opportunity to go to a different team and [receive] a new contract, he wasn't going to play," Lewis said at the time. "I think he's a man of his word. He says he's not going to play, so don't play."

"Marvin had had enough," says Baltimore Ravens quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, a close friend of Lewis's and the Bengals' receivers coach from 2004 through '06. "Whatever was going on there, Marvin said, 'I've taken as much as I can. I'm going to stop this now.'"

That's not all Lewis did. In addition to his public handling of the Johnson situation, he also got owner Mike Brown to sign off on the release of two talented but troubled players: wideout Chris Henry and linebacker Odell Thurman.

The sight of a new, rougher, tougher Lewis might have been a surprise to some, but the players saw it coming during the final two weeks of the 2007 season. In his seven years as a defensive coordinator with the Ravens (1996 through 2001) and the Washington Redskins (2002), Lewis, who turns 50 in September, was part of teams that won largely because of their ability to run the ball and stop the run. But during his time with Cincinnati, the Bengals had gotten away from those principles. Lewis knew something had to change after his team ran for just 61 yards and gave up 156 on the ground in a 20--13 road loss to the then 3--10 San Francisco 49ers last December. "It was about the lowest point in my life as a coach," he said recently.

As he sat on the charter for the four-hour flight home, he was filled with disappointment, embarrassment and, finally, anger. At a team meeting the following Monday he told his players that they would get back to running the ball and playing more aggressively on defense. But most important, Lewis changed. "I just went back to being the guy I was in Baltimore and when I got started here—when no one liked me," he says.

That meant holding people accountable, regardless of their paycheck or draft status. He took the advice of Jackson, who told him, "It's your bus. Get back to driving it."

"He was right," Lewis says. "I gave some leeway to guys in certain areas, and it didn't work out. We've had to go back to the way we got started. And that's, Put your pads on and go to work. I don't want to talk about it. Let's see it."

FROM THE moment he arrived in 2003, the future began to look up for the Bengals. A longtime assistant who was finally getting his chance, with a 2--14 team, Lewis immediately produced a pair of 8--8 seasons. Then, in 2005, he guided the Bengals to their first winning record (11--5) and playoff appearance in 15 years. The way that Cincinnati fans reacted, you'd have thought he had raised the Titanic.

But the joy of the turnaround began to dissipate almost immediately when quarterback Carson Palmer went down with a severe knee injury on his first pass play in a wild-card playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. By the end of the 2006 season the Bengals were again an 8--8 team. And if that weren't bad enough, the franchise known for losing streaks on the field was in the middle of another one off it: 10 player arrests over a 14-month period beginning in April '06.

The run-ins with the law intensified the focus on the team's willingness to draft players like Henry, Thurman, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive lineman Frostee Rucker, whose backgrounds contained behavioral red flags.

Team and league sources say that the responsibility for the selections is shared by Lewis and Brown, but Brown has the ultimate say on personnel matters and a soft spot for talented players with troubled pasts. His father, Paul, was the coach of the Cleveland Browns during their run of greatness in the 1940s and '50s, when there was no Internet, no cellphone cameras, no instantaneous headlines when a player got in trouble. Problems were addressed quietly, and a boys-will-be-boys attitude prevailed.

But now the culture in the NFL has changed, with commissioner Roger Goodell cracking down on personal transgressions. Still, sources inside and outside the Bengals organization contend that Brown, because of the early lessons he learned, still thinks that players shouldn't be expected to act like choirboys. That's not to say he condones missteps; rather, he is more tolerant and patient than some other owners when players run afoul of the law.

"I guess the world is divided up between redeemers and nonredeemers," Brown said at his pre-training-camp news conference, which traditionally is the only time he speaks publicly during the season. "I happen to be a redeemer. I think people can be made better and right. If that's a fault, so be it."

That attitude can create awkward situations, as was the case last week when a representative for Henry said he had talked with club officials about the wideout's returning to the team. The Bengals released Henry on April 3, just hours after he was arrested for the fifth time since joining the team as a third-round draft pick in 2005, in this case for allegedly assaulting a man. The charge was later dropped after the jury failed to reach a verdict, but already on Henry's record were guilty pleas to marijuana possession, concealment of a firearm and providing alcohol to minors. (A 2006 DUI charge was dropped due to a faulty breathalizer.) Lewis told reporters on the eve of training camp that he was "not interested" in bringing back the troubled receiver, who has 17 touchdown receptions in 35 career games.

Multiple sources, though, say a team employee has been in regular contact with Henry's agent, Marvin Frazier, on Brown's behalf, indicating that the coach and the owner could be on different pages when it comes to the team's roster. (If Henry signs with a team, he faces an NFL-imposed four-game suspension for repeated violations of the league's personal-conduct code. Last season he was suspended for eight games.)

Lewis's new mantra following his only losing season (7--9) in five years on the job is that he wants players he can count on. Previously, he would allow injured players to sit out practice on Wednesday or Thursday but suit up on Sunday. No more.

"He is different this year," says eighth-year wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh. "In the past he would say certain things, and a lot of times you didn't know if the consequences he talked about were going to happen. I think now you're getting the sense that if he says this is going to happen, it's going to happen."

Just ask Chad Johnson. He's been working hard ever since he showed up—on time—for training camp.

Saying he was at the lowest point in his coaching career, Lewis "went back to being the guy I was when NOBODY LIKED ME."



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PHOTOPhotograph by Thomas E. WitteOLD SCHOOL Lewis wants the Bengals to focus on two key fundamentals: running the ball and stopping the run. PHOTOPhotograph by Thomas E. Witte[See caption above] PHOTOBEN MARGOT/APCLEANING HOUSE Though he had 17 career TD receptions, Henry wore out his welcome with his off-field troubles.