CINCINNATI — After a fifth-straight Wild Card round exit last January, former Bengals MVP Boomer Esiason implied that it might be time for Marvin Lewis to move on. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was more straightforward, because of course he was, saying, “Marvin Lewis should be gone today” after Lewis’s team collapsed in the final minute against the Steelers. And yet, here we are, seven months later, with the NFL’s second longest tenured coach still on his Orange and Black throne.
The word of the day on the TVs inside the Bengals locker room Tuesday summed up Lewis’s plan for getting Cincy its first playoff win since 1990: relentless. RE-LENT-LESS. Meaning persistent or unceasing. The 2016 training camp T-shirts around here echoed a similar message: “Pound the Rock.” A cousin of the Panthers’ “Keep Pounding” motto (and a closer relative of the San Antonio Spurs’ “Pounding the Rock”), it comes from Progressive Era reporter Jacob Riis’s quote about a stonecutter splitting a rock only after 101 tries. Lewis, who is currently 0–7 in the postseason, obviously hopes success comes a little sooner than that, but you get the idea. After pushing his franchise to the cusp of greatness, Lewis’s strategy to reach the promised land is as simple as “stay the course.”
“That’s the Bengal Formula,” safety George Iloka said when he returned to the facility for training camp. “Every off-season, you’re going to have pretty much the same amount of guys and maybe bring in a new wrinkle here or there. But since I’ve been here, we don’t change up a lot. They don’t overhaul. Which is good.” Iloka will be joined by a rare new face in the Bengals starting lineup, Shawn Williams, who signed a four-year extension this off-season and got a promotion to replace Reggie Nelson, who left as a free agent.
The other area that was ripe for change was along the sideline. But after another off-season of other teams raiding Lewis’s assistants, he filled the resulting vacancies with men well versed in the Bengal Formula. With Hue Jackson now leading the division rival Browns, Lewis promoted quarterback coach Ken Zampese, who is keeping the bulk of Jackson’s system. “[Fans] won’t notice anything different,” Zampese told Bengals.com. “We’ll do the same things that got us to this point.”
On defense, Lewis rehired former Dolphins coordinator Kevin Coyle as DB coach, where he had served the Bengals for nine season prior to joining Miami. This is defensive line coach Jacob Burney’s first time in the Queen City, but he was schooled in Lewis’s philosophy while working under him in Baltimore. While Burney has put an emphasis on developing a rotation of defensive rushers, he is by no means trying to reinvent the wheel drill. And then there’s Jim Haslett, brought in to lead the team’s linebacker unit. This is his first time working with Lewis, but Haslett said he’s appreciated Lewis’s philosophy from the outside, and the two have known each other for years.
As for the loss that sparked the winter speculation about Lewis’s grip on the team, it is a thing of the past in the coach’s eyes. If you squint, you can see its impact, like when five-year vet Chykie Brown celebrated a pass breakup. “That’s expected,” Lewis barked. “We don’t need a demonstration.” But the game is never mentioned directly. “We’re just answering questions about the future,” Iloka said. Of course, the answer to most of those questions is some variation of “we’ll see” or “it’s still early.” This is a team that knows better than to make proclamations. New motto aside, these are the same Bengals that you’ve come to know, working towards that same elusive goal.
“We have a good formula here,” defensive end Michael Johnson says. “I’m just looking forward to being part of the group that really breaks through because I feel everybody knows that we are one swing of the hammer away from cracking that rock open, so we are going to just keep chiseling away at it. We are right there.”
Other training camp observations
• Bengals first-round pick William Jackson III could be done for the year after reportedly tearing his pectoral muscle Tuesday. The No. 24 pick did not appear to be a critical piece of Cincinnati’s 2016 corner rotation, but the injury will complicate decisions during the upcoming off-season when No. 2 corner Dre Kirkpatrick becomes a free agent. In other injury news, backup tight end Tyler Kroft left early Wednesday with what was reported to be a hyperextended knee.
• The aforementioned Haslett has quickly earned the respect of the linebacker room this off-season. Vincent Rey has dropped 20 pounds after committing to a Caveman Diet on the coach’s request, and all of the ’backers respond “Yes, sir” to him in practice. “He’s been able to reach that room right away and they’ve made a real connection with them,” Lewis said. “I’ve been excited about and frankly really pleased with how they responded to him.”
How’d he do it? By emphasizing his playing career (Haslett was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1979) and by taking his guys out on the town, something he says he picked up while consulting at Penn State. “We went to a steakhouse, we went bowling [Marquis Flowers won], just us as linebackers and him as our coach,” Rey says. “We went to LA Fitness and we did a cycling class for 45 minutes. ... Doing stuff off the field as a group socially, it strengthens the bond you have together.”
• Speaking of LBs, Vontaze Burfict, who is currently on the non-football injury list and suspended for the first three games of the season, has been serving as a de facto assistant for Haslett thus far in camp, educating younger players and celebrating big plays during team drills. Haslett even said that Burfict wants to be a full-time coach one day. In the shorter term, expect Burfict to return to practice soon.
• An inspiring story: receiver James Wright was cleared for practice Monday after 609 days of rehab. A close friend of Jeremy Hill’s going back to their LSU days, Wright initially hurt his knee in November of 2014, his rookie year. Cincinnati.com has the full story of his return.
Five questions with head coach Marvin Lewis
Q1: What changes might we see with Ken Zampese in as OC?
ML: The offense is a Cincinnati Bengals offense. We’ll continue to move forward with that and we are excited to have Kenny be in charge and go from there and kind of put his stamp on it now.
Q2: What was the decision behind bringing in an experienced coach in Jim Haslett?
ML: His level of coaching expertise, his degree of knowledge on the little things and the fine points and the things that he adds as a coach, he’s just an excellent football coach and he’s very detailed.
Q3: How do you prevent good from becoming the enemy of great here in Cincinnati?
ML: The one thing about it, these guys are not satisfied with good. I think that’s the key for us as a football team: our guys’ internal drive, how they approach walking into the building every day and everything they do.
Q4: Takeo Spikes has been around the building representing NFL Network. What memories has that brought back?
ML: We allowed Takeo to move on when I came here. That’s one of the worst mistakes I ever made, that I didn’t fight to keep him in the building. He was an awesome player here and obviously had a great career after he left here. It’s always good to see him. He’s always welcome around here.
Q5: What was the key to Adam Jones having his first Pro Bowl season at age 32?
ML: He’s had an opportunity to be mentored and learn from a lot of good pros, good players, good people, and you’ve seen Adam just be a sponge to all of that. No question last year was his best year in the league as a cornerback. I think he’s just continued to work very hard, continued to accept the coaching and develop on the field with the physical part and the mental part.
Biggest Turnaround: Mental discipline
There weren’t many holes for the Bengals to plug in the off-season, except for that glaring one that exposed itself when Burfict and Jones earned last-minute penalties that set the Steelers up for a game-winning field goal.
Rather than changing the personnel to solve that issue, Lewis is attempting to change the personnel, starting with one message at the beginning of off-season activities.
“Nothing’s changed … but the one thing they added was we just have got to be a little smarter in terms of extracurricular activities on the field,” Iloka says. “Smart in terms of penalties. He said it once. We ain’t kids, you ain’t gotta whoop us or make us run or anything. You say what you want and it’s supposed to get done as a professional and it will.”
Buzzing: Cedric Ogbuehi
After fully recovering from a torn ACL and sitting behind Andre Smith as a rookie, all eyes are now on the 21st pick of the 2015 draft to be the right tackle of the future. So far, he’s proven capable of carrying that responsibility. Ogbuehi appeared to easily handle all comers during one-on-one drills Monday and Tuesday, and he’s already earned high praise from line coach Paul Alexander, according to former Bengals great Willie Anderson, who has been helping Alexander.
“I could tell you what Paul told me, but it would put too much pressure on the kid,” Anderson told Bengals.com. “I just know Paul really loves the kid. And when Paul loves a tackle like that, that guy turns into the guy. It happened with me. It happened with Levi [Jones]. It happened with Andrew [Whitworth]. What I understand is he’s one of the most athletic guys they’ve ever had up there.”