MOBILE, ALABAMA – Pitched forward, forearms on his knees, Marvin Lewis laughed behind dark sunglasses and underneath a black baseball hat. Andy Reid, seated to Lewis’ right, smiled with him. The two men are about to enter a combined 36th season as head coaches on NFL sidelines in 2018, Reid celebrating his 20th season overall and sixth in Kansas City, Lewis his 16th in Cincinnati.
Down below the pair of coaches on the Eastern bleachers of Ladd-Peebles Stadium was Ohio State alumnus Mike Vrabel, the newly minted head coach of the Tennessee Titans, entertaining waves of media.
Lewis and Reid, 308 victories between them, couldn’t help but notice the attention on the newest kid on the coaching block as they talked quietly, and anonymously, with each other.
A day later, Lewis sat comfortably for a quiet interview in the downtown Mobile hotel the Bengals coaches and front office set up shop in.
He’s in the rarefied coaching air of Bill Belichick and Reid regarding how long he’s been doing the job, but as he begins a new Bengals season Lewis is relaxed, as excited for what is to come as those getting their first bite at the apple.
“I feel really good where we’re starting from,” he told The Enquirer. “I think we’ve got a lot of work ahead. We’ve got the systems on both sides of the football to refine, redefine, whatever the word is, and that’s going to be important and that’s going to be our challenge right away for the coaches. So that when we roll it out to the players in April they feel great about things and right from the start.”
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The Senior Bowl is, really, the first opportunity for all of the new assistant coaches on Lewis’ staff to meet, let alone talk and trade ideas. Bengals owner and president Mike Brown called it one of the biggest coaching turnovers he can remember, citing the injection of fresh ideas as much needed.
But it all begins with Lewis.
“Our best chance to get there is with him having another run at it,” Brown said.
So Lewis is being counted on to foster those new voices and ideas and shape them into a championship level structure around a core of veteran players that remain in the window of their prime.
“That group of guys has played a lot of football, I think they all have enough character to them,” Lewis said of a leadership group that includes Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins and Vontaze Burfict.
“They have the character that they understand the best part of doing this job is the opportunity to be a champion. That’s what they strive for. The work, the diligence, to ratchet it up another couple levels to get there and what it takes to do that and them to keep pulling the team forward is important for them.”
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As for himself, Lewis is moving forward from a year that was especially odd, a road unlike many his 15 years as head coach. It was littered with a wide array of off-field issues, first with the decision between he and Brown to enter the year without an extension, which rolled right into managing a charged off-field atmosphere surrounding the drafting of Joe Mixon in April.
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Then in training camp a health issue that caused Lewis to miss a practice – leading to immediate and incorrect reports he might miss not just practices but games. The year ended with what proved to be an incorrect report he was definitely moving on from Cincinnati after the regular season.
“Well, there obviously were different challenges that there didn’t need to be,” he said with a soft laugh.
And those were just the bookends.
Lewis also had to navigate changing offensive coordinators after two games, managing a potentially explosive locker room situation following President Donald Trump’s remarks about football players that led the Bengals to link arms as a show of unity in Green Bay, deal with an off-field incident report surrounding a crashed vehicle registered to Tyler Boyd to having two different star players being ejected from two different games.
“I thought our guys did a great job fighting through those things,” Lewis said. “The change we made on offense, I thought they did a good job of not letting that get in the way of things. Overcoming the whole thing with the anthem, our players stayed together through that. They did it the right way, they did it the way they’ve always done it – very respectful and being able to deal with both sides of it. They were all able to talk and speak and come to a resolution that was fitting for everyone that I don’t think put anybody out in any way.
“They’ve handled themselves through those kinds of things always very well. The thing’s been, we’ve got to be about football.”
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Which sets them up for a new season that Lewis hopes is just about that.
There are no questions about his contractual status. He said he finished 2017 feeling as good as he has after a season in a long time physically, citing better exercise habits. He is expecting his new coaching staff to help create a new dynamic on the field. And all of has him looking forward to getting the Bengals back to the postseason and beyond.
“It’s going to be new, it’s going to be different, so we’re going to have the (player’s) attention, which is good,” Lewis said. “It’ll be a good spark for them to have. But we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But we can certainly make it different, better.”
He knocks the table for emphasis and leans back in his chair.
“We have to make it better. We have to be a better football team. I mean, we have to. We’ve got a lot work ahead and players know that and understand that. They look forward to that. It’s that group of guys that’s going to lead them forward but they know what’s ahead.”