Friday, January 30, 2004

When it comes to rebuilding, Panthers have the blueprint

Carolina's 2nd-year turnaround what Bengals hoping for in '04

By Mark Curnutte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HOUSTON - Marvin Lewis dragged the Bengals from the bottom of the NFL to its fat, mediocre middle in one year.

Now the Bengals coach faces a tougher task - preventing a slide while pushing his team into the playoffs at the summit.

This year's model, of course, is NFC champion Carolina. The Panthers, who will play New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday, have come farther and faster than most rebuilding NFL teams. Second-year Carolina coach John Fox, like Lewis, has a background in defense, and they faced each other as defensive coordinators in Super Bowl XXXV. (Lewis' Ravens beat Fox's Giants.)

"With the uniqueness of the National Football League, and the landscape we're currently under, you can rebuild quickly," Fox said in reference to free agency and the salary cap. "That's one of the reasons the league is popular. You can go from outhouse to penthouse in a hurry. There is opportunity in this league every year, unlike some other professional sports."

A stout defense led the Panthers into the postseason. And the Bengals' playoff hopes in 2004 and beyond rest on bettering a defense that ranked near the bottom in yards and points allowed this season.

The Panthers were an NFL worst 1-15 in 2001 under former coach George Seifert. Fox orchestrated a six-game improvement in his rookie season and the Panthers finished 7-9. In Year 2 of Fox's tenure, the Panthers were 11-5 and NFC South champions.

"After experiencing 15 losses in a row, they were pretty much willing to try anything," Fox said.

Lewis, taking over for Dick LeBeau, whose last Bengals team went 2-14 in 2002, also led a six-game improvement, to 8-8. The six-game turnarounds are tied for second-best in the league since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

"I tell you what, people better watch out for Cincinnati next year," Carolina safety Mike Minter said. "Marvin Lewis has done the same thing John Fox did. He came and gave them direction, he gave them confidence, he gave them belief and he gave them toughness."

Now Lewis, who kept his team in contention until the last day of the 2003 regular season, is striving to get the Bengals into the playoffs for the first time since 1990.

"We've got to be better at the little things," Lewis said this week during his one-day visit to the Super Bowl site. "We can't give up the big plays (on defense). ... The key is the elimination of big plays and continuing to make them on offense."

Lewis is applying much the same formula that Fox did in Charlotte, N.C.

On the field, Lewis stresses tough defense and special teams, and controlling the clock by running the ball.

Off the field, Lewis has gotten Bengals players into top physical condition and brought a consistent philosophy to acquiring players through free agency and the draft. He wants fast, intelligent players who are not injury prone.

"Coach Fox wanted tough guys who are smart and well conditioned," said Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons, who worked on Fox's staff in 2002. "It's exactly the same things Marvin is looking for. It's eerie how similar they can be."

All of the tasks facing Lewis as he heads into his second season are easier said than done.

Improving the Bengals' defense is Lewis' biggest challenge. His Year 1 defense was not as productive as Carolina's defense in Fox's first season.

The Panthers leapt from a No. 31 ranking in 2001 (last) under Seifert to No. 2 for Fox in 2002, the greatest single-season improvement in defense in NFL history.

Lewis' first Bengals defense, while a little better in the secondary, dropped from No. 17 under LeBeau and defensive coordinator Mark Duffner in 2002 to No. 28 at 351.3 yards a game. LeBeau's last team allowed 329.1 yards a game.

"They're going to have to get special performances out of (running back) Rudi Johnson, Carson Palmer if he's going to be the quarterback, and significantly improve their defense," said former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, who is now an analyst for CBS Sports and is in Houston to do the radio broadcast Sunday.

"What Carolina and New England have are outstanding defenses, and that's where the improvement has to lie for the Bengals," Esiason said.

Lewis and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier are counting familiarity to help in 2004. The Bengals started five first-year free agents on defense in 2003 in a new scheme. Still, the coaches said, more playmakers are needed on defense.

A thin line separates winning and losing. In going 11-5, the Panthers tied an NFL record by winning seven games by three points or less.

So Fox didn't throw out everything Seifert had done in Carolina. The Panthers have 20 players in Houston who were part of the NFL-worst 1-15 team in 2001.

Lewis kept the core of the Bengals together, too, ending the 2003 season with 14 starters who were part of LeBeau's last team.

"We want guys who have a passion to play the game," Lewis said when asked to compare his Bengals to Fox's Panthers. "We want guys who can lose the 'me' at the door. You want to have the opportunity to be the best. You want guys who want to be the best they can be."


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