After peeling back so many layers, the football onion begins to take a completely different form than its original shape. This season reinforced the idea to me that games are only tests to gauge how well practice is going and how Sunday is arguably the least important day of the week. Football is not a game, it's an experiment. The goal is for 70 or more individuals to share ideas and talents throughout the course of a week by the end of which they are to achieve perfection in both execution and design within the rules. Every team fails every time, but the idea is to get as close as possible. In a sense, by Sunday the game is already won or lost based on the success of the preparation involved. If the players are ready and the game-plan is solid, everything should take care of itself. Just like we practiced.
But what about human error and human triumph? People aren't robots, they will never do the same thing every time the same way, and also the ball takes funny bounces. Preparation can only go so far.
It's true. Of course, it's true. Nonetheless, the more prepared a team, the easier it will be to overcome the shit-happens rule. This is why it is imperative to have a program in place and it operate at a high efficiency.
I do not believe all programs are created equal but I also don't agree that there is only one way to do it right. Today's head coach is responsible for the program to be in place much more than he is to do any actual coaching. That isn't to say there isn't some of that, but as the game gets bigger, so does the program, and a head coach actually becomes more of a manager than a coach. He has to see the big picture, know the whole experiment to its smallest detail, do the best with the materials given him and try to achieve perfection.
Marvin Lewis has a program, and regardless of the jokes the media and fans incorporate into their Bengal remarks, professionals in the industry admire it. He dragged the Cincinnati Bengals out of the heart of darkness and into relevancy using it, and he seems more confident in it now than ever before. He sees it working.
When studying the program for so many years, one starts to notice consistent characteristics: Marvin loves the kicking game. He values its impact on games more than other coaches and many of his game-time decisions are based around the best possible kicking situation at hand. He doesn't trust younger players all that much, although he was forced to give a few kids a shot lately with the offensive youth movement that took place before the 2011 season. And he wants us to know as little as possible about anything pertaining to his program. The minute you tell him you understand it, he will laugh and say that you know nothing.
To my original point, however, Marvin's program allows for quality practices which lead to more wins and ultimately allows he and his staff to come closer to achieving football perfection. One interesting tidbit ML shared with us after the playoff loss was that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden had to adjust to the way Marvin runs his practice. Marvin has a very specific way that practice is run, when Gruden has mastered the way Marvin wants his practices run, the program will run more smoothly and the equation works its way back to more wins again. Every little detail that improves the efficiency of the program translates to a better showing in tests (Sundays), and in theory, when every detail is operating at its fullest potential, the Bengals will experience football euphoria and will become a collective beam of light right after winning the Super Bowl to cap an undefeated season. It will be blissful and we will be proud to say we were there. Only, it isn't likely to happen.
No program works all the time. Sometimes, a program will be as sound as it gets, but the player talent is too lacking. Sometimes both are in place and an owner or a GM (or both) gets in the way and messes around too much. Sometimes an equipment manager is blowing it, sometimes the bathrooms aren't clean enough, sometimes the plane is late. There is a lot to these programs and at the end of the day, if it didn't hold up to the 16-game test, it's the head coach that is blamed for its problems and out he and his program go.
There are certainly more successful coaches out there than Marvin Lewis. There are brighter, more innovative football minds, there are more fiery men who would love a shot at the NFL, but who runs a better program than him? Who would be better? His players—outside of one moody running back—seem to believe in his way of doing things. They play hard and don't grumble. They were shown the way of the professional and that's how they live.
I believe that as long as Marvin Lewis remains with the Bengals, the longer they will remain competitive. Now that they appear to have stockpiled potentially elite talent once more, this young group should help the program to operate even more efficiently in the years to come as they grow more familiar with it.
So as we tune in to the weekly tests next season, remember that it's more than two football teams meeting on a painted field, it's a week's worth of rigorous preparation and hard-nosed discipline by two large organizations colliding violently and repeatedly for three hours. It's the next chance to prove the program's working. It won't always be perfect, but it will always try to be.