- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

CINCINNATI.

This town had been Marvinized before the Cincinnati Bengals’ opener against the Denver Broncos yesterday at Paul Brown Stadium.

There were billboards and commercials, all featuring the Bengals’ new coach. They sold out their first home opener in three years. As fans filed into the stadium, Sting’s “Brand New Day” played over the loudspeakers. The Bengals took the field in black uniform pants for the first time in franchise history.

It was a new era — the Marvin Lewis era.

“Marvin is God!” declared Bengals fan Jeff Hirsh, wearing a Carson Palmer jersey. “People believe in Marvin. We’ve needed to believe in something for a long time.”

Yes, they have. More than two years ago, the city was torn apart by race riots spurred by police shooting an unarmed black man. It has been slow to heal. The city has desperately been looking for something to rally around, a purpose which a sports team can often serve.

“I was the mayor here in 1988 when we went to the Super Bowl,” said Mayor Charlie Luken. “I remember how a team can lift a city.”

They hoped one of their favorite sons, Ken Griffey Jr., would unite the city by returning the Reds to past glory, but that hasn’t worked out. So now they looked to Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens and Washington Redskins defensive coordinator, to bring some spirit back to Cincinnati.

“Marvin has brought a lot of energy back into town,” Luken said. “People want to believe.”

It was not lost on some people that now they wanted to believe in a black coach in a city where racial tensions still simmer. “I see a lot more color in the stadium this year,” said Randall Bridgeman, a black Bengals fan from Cincinnati. “I’m optimistic.”

It was a shame they had to play yesterday’s game: Broncos 30, Bengals 10.

By the end of the first half, the fans realized they were tricked again. This wasn’t the Marvin Lewis era. This was the Dick LeBeau era, the Bruce Coslet era, the David Shula era, all over again.

For Bengals fans, coaches are like exploding cigars. They are tricked time after time to put a new one in their mouths, and then — BAM — it explodes.

They exploded yesterday when Bengals kick returner Brandon Bennett fumbled the kickoff after Denver went up 17-3 with just under two minutes left in the first half. The Broncos added a field goal and went into the locker room with a 20-3 lead. The Bengals entered their locker room to the sound of boos, as cigars exploded all over the stadium.

By the time Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna threw an interception that linebacker Ian Gold ran back 12 yards for a Denver touchdown and 27-3 lead early in the third quarter, it was obvious to Cincinnati fans that the Bengals still stink. And it was obvious that if they are looking for any inspiration, they will have to find it in a beer stein at the city’s annual Oktoberfest in two weeks.

By the time the Bengals scored their first touchdown — a 41-yard pass from Kitna to Chad Johnson with a little more than three minutes left in the game — there was hardly anyone left in Paul Brown Stadium to see it.

Lewis came into this job talking tough and cut some veteran players early in training camp. “It doesn’t matter whether a guy has been with us one week or 10 years,” he said. “We want guys who are going to be productive, who are going to play in our scheme. … It’s tough to fit people into the scheme and be confident with them when they can’t play. I see better than I hear when it comes to evaluating players.”

No matter what sense you used yesterday, you could tell the Bengals still stink.

No one expected them to actually beat the Broncos, but given Lewis’ tough talk and his reputation as a defensive guru, it wasn’t too much to expect a better defensive effort. The Bengals were sloppy and sluggish on offense, and just sluggish on defense. Denver’s new quarterback, Jake Plummer, hardly had a big game (12 for 25 for just 115 yards, cause for worry for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan). But the Broncos ran for 184 yards (24 carries for Clinton Portis for 120 yards), and good defenses — at least the ones Lewis is used to coaching — don’t give up that amount of rushing yardage.

“You can’t expect to beat a football team and give up 180 yards rushing,” Lewis said after the game. “I was disappointed in how we played in all areas today.”

Now that the euphoria of promise has been replaced by the harshness of reality, Lewis is left with a long rebuilding job ahead of him.

He still may be the right man. He is one of them, these long-suffering Bengals fans sitting in the stands. He grew up in a steel town in western Pennsylvania, his father worked in the mills for 31 years. He wasn’t just a football player in high school; he was a wrestler as well.

Lewis spent 22 years as an assistant coach, passed over for numerous head coaching jobs — including the debacle in Tampa Bay where general manager Rich McKay wanted to hire Lewis but was overruled by Joel and Bryan Glazer, the two sons of owner Malcolm Glazer. Oakland coach Jon Gruden got the job, and the rest is history. Lewis finally got his chance to run the show here in Cincinnati.

“We will have to go back and work harder,” Lewis said. “I’m disappointed for our fans. I think everyone was ready to jump on with both feet today. I hope they hang with us.”

I don’t know. Patience may be running a little thin in Cincinnati. I saw two police officers handcuff a man wearing a Jon Kitna jersey and escort him out of the stadium at the end of the game. I asked one of the officers, “Will you be arresting all the Bengals?”

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