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In Search of the Keystone

Marvin Lewis has been best when one specific component is in place. Does he have that component now?

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Time is relentless. It shouldn't seem so long ago when Marvin Lewis was known as the brightest defensive mind in the game. It shouldn't surprise us so much to remember that it was he who developed some of the greatest defensive players of his era, but true nonetheless. These days, he is just a head coach and is even progressing beyond that title as we speak. Many observers-this one included-have decided that Marvin is now more general manager than coach. As he has grown professionally, so has the scope of his duties and he is now the trusted confidant and the esteemed right-hand man of his owner, Mike Brown. No one outside of the Brown family has earned the ear of the man on top as successfully as Lewis has. No one has thrived professionally within Paul Brown Stadium the way Marvin has.

Yet as much as he has established himself as a football program director, a talent evaluator and team administrator, his success with the Bengals has not translated on reaching the pinnacle of the football field itself. Like everything that is human, career paths and personal outlooks are inherently unique. While some coaching philosophies remain tried and true for nearly everyone, the more nuanced details of an individual team's success hinge largely on the preferences of the men in charge. Some coaches need that one specific type of player in order to succeed. In San Francisco, Bill Walsh needed running backs and tight ends that were better pass-catchers than their peers to effectively run the West-Coast offense. For Bill Parcells, he needed a kick returner who would catch every punt to protect field position. Bill Cowher always looked for a power runner to plow its way into the playoffs. The question is: does Marvin Lewis have a keystone position that he has yet to adequately fill?

If the answer is yes, then a seek-and-destroyer type of middle linebacker seems like the missing ingredient.

In order to understand the man's personal attachment to the position, one must go back to his college days at Idaho State and dust off the record books of that forgettable time in a forgettable place. From what I've read, Marv was a pretty good linebacker himself. There are no readily available scouting reports on him, but his former coach, Dave Kragthorpe, said the only thing that kept him from being an NFL prospect was his lack of size. There are claims that he was a three-time Big Sky all-conference linebacker from 1978-80, though nothing in my research could validate that claim. Nonetheless, we know he played some linebacker and probably learned a great deal from first-hand experience while in Idaho.

One interesting (and verifiable) piece of information is that he played on some very bad teams. In 1979, his second year playing, they lost all of their games. His final year as a player, though, things turned around and the Bengals (yes, Idaho State are the Bengals too) finished at a respectable 6-5. After that season, Marv hung up the cleats but stuck around Pocatello as an assistant coach, and in 1981, Idaho State won their only Division II Championship in the school's history.

Linebackers became his thing where he coached the position in college at both New Mexico and Pittsburgh. Then in 1992, a changing of the guard took place within the Steelers organization when legendary Chuck Noll retired and a young Bill Cowher took over. Cowher was a defensive guy too, coordinating that side of the ball in Kansas City prior to landing his gig in Pittsburgh, and he loaded up his coaching staff with some other promising minds around him. Dom Capers was pegged as the defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau was named defensive backs coach, and for the linebackers, Marvin Lewis. Marvin came into a nice situation. Already in his unit he had greats, in the tenacious pass rushing Greg Lloyd and the rangy Hardy Nickerson. Lloyd would go on to record memorable sack totals during his time in Pittsburgh, but it may have been Nickerson that revealed to Marvin the luxury of a stud inside linebacker. Nickerson moved on to Tampa Bay after that first season with Lewis (where he recorded an incredible 214 tackles in 1993), but was replaced with Levon Kirkland and Chad Brown on the inside-both future pro-bowl players. Also added that season was Kevin Greene and the foursome of Lloyd, Kirkland, Brown and Greene remain one of the best groups in linebacker lore. While in Pittsburgh, Marvin established himself as a developer of superstar players.

Then in 1996, he got a promotion. The Cleveland Browns had become the Baltimore Ravens and owner Art Modell began his tenure in his new home by turning over the coaching staff. Out were Bill Billechick and his hotshot staff of future head coaches and general managers, and in was Ted Marchibroda and his new defensive coordinator, Marvin Lewis. The team had two first-round picks that season and with the second, they selected Miami University middle linebacker, Ray Lewis.

Ray was made of the cosmic stuff that is found in exceptional talent. He was rare, but raw clay and it was Marvin that applied the glaze and the kiln that would fix that cosmic stuff in place for the next 16 years. Unlike in Pittsburgh, though, it took time to get the unit as a whole to play on a championship level and the first few years did not boast impressive win/loss totals. Marvin kept at it, and the next year added Peter Boulware and Jamie Sharper, another tandem destined for Pro-Bowls. The record improved slightly but it wasn't until 1999 when head coach Brian Billick came aboard when everything clicked. Billick was clearly the offensive coach and seemed to leave the other side of the ball to Marvin. Essentially, the Ravens played with two head coaches and a deep sense of unity began to form along the defensive ranks of the team. Their league rank went from 22nd in 98', to second in '99. The team only managed to finish at .500, but the table was set for the next season where his squad would go down as one of the greatest groups ever assembled on defense. They set the record for least amount points given up in a season and went on to win the Super Bowl. They were known as a defensive team and Marvin was given the lion's share of the credit. The next season, in 2001, they encored with another second-best league ranking and lost in the divisional round of the playoffs to the Steelers. Marvin made a prominent place for himself in the record books and became known as a true wizard of linebacker coaching.

His name caught fire among the pundits who were eager to see him take control of his own team as a head coach. The sense was that he had grown too big for his britches to remain simply an assistant coach. The football world felt it was the right time to strike, but in typical Marvin fashion, he would not be swayed by outsiders.

He did leave Baltimore, but he didn't like the head coaching vacancies at the time. Redskins' owner Dan Snyder cracked his enormous vault in order to write a nice check for an expensive coordinator like Marvin Lewis and the deal was made. The sports world was confused at the lateral move, but Lewis liked the course he found himself on. In Washington he once again had quality linebacking talent to work with. Jeremiah Trotter never blossomed all that much in Washington, but Jessie Armstead and Lavar Arrington picked up the slack with sterling seasons. The Redskins missed the playoffs and went 7-9 but the defense still finished fifth and his reputation was upheld.

Then the big move came: coaching the Cincinnati Bengals.

The striped ship Marvin took over was a floating inferno. The bottom had completely fallen out of the franchise with the epic failure of the highly drafted Akili Smith coupled with the flawed team program predecessor Dick LeBeau tried putting in place. If Lewis was to succeed, he would need to completely overhaul the roster and start from a rough beginning. The world expected a terrific defense right away but the pieces were not yet in place-particularly at linebacker.

One of the rare stars on Cincinnati the year before was inside linebacker, Takeo Spikes. Here was an animal at the position, one who even prompted Jerome Bettis to state that Spikes was a better player than Ray Lewis. In response to this claim, the verbose but hardly eloquent Shannon Sharpe went on to say that the comparison was as useless as comparing the movie Titanic to Dude, Where's My Car? Despite this insult, Marvin valued Spikes more than perhaps any other player on the team, but lost him to Buffalo in the offseason before he even had a chance to coach him up. Spikes explained that he didn't fit into Lewis' 4-3 scheme as his reason for departing but some felt he was dismayed by the firing of LeBeau. Marvin would later go on to say that Spikes not buying into his system was one of the biggest regrets of his coaching career. If things had been different had Spikes stayed is not for us to know, but what was certain is that he left a gaping void in the defense's middle.

As a failsafe, Lewis brought in veteran Kevin Hardy to patrol the middle and put the other inside backer, Brian Simmons, on the outside. The plan worked well enough to allow for an 8-8 finish-a total which far exceeded expectations for the year-but didn't turn many heads as a full body of work. The team finished 28th in defense and had a lot of work to do.

Over the next few years, Marvin tinkered with things. He drafted both Landon Johnson and Caleb Miller to fortify the linebacking position but neither was able to find any prolonged success in the league. Only one draftee showed the kind of promise observers of Marvin's work came to expect but he proved too good to be true.

Odell Thurman was made of that same cosmic stuff that Ray Lewis was. The problem was that the stuff is a volatile substance and the same craziness that is required to make a great linebacker can also ruin the man beneath the pads. Ray Lewis' legal battles are well-documented and need not be dragged out here, but in the end, he redeemed himself both in the courtroom and on the field. Thurman, however, proved more vulnerable to the challenges of the outside world and was lost to substance abuse and alcoholism.

There is no better example of the waste of what should have been than in the case of Mr. Odell Thurman. The man was a terror on the field, not only zooming around to force five fumbles and pick off five passes, but the explosion he used to hit people was unparalleled in this world. Like no one I have seen in stripes since, when Odell made the tackle, everyone present knew exactly who was doing the hitting. Here was a man who could do Ray Lewis-like things but better and sooner in his career than even Sugar Ray. Here was a play-maker in every sense of the word, as if a rogue creator of football players decided to mix a Ray Lewis with an Ed Reed into one single player. He dominated without struggling to; success of the game came to him effortlessly.

Yet, sadly, it was not meant to be. Odell failed and failed again all the chances the NFL provided him once it became known that he struggled with addiction. In the end, he only played one season, not coincidentally Marvin's best season in Cincinnati, but because he went supernova so soon, Lewis was never able to build around him.

Eventually, Marvin cycled through his own defensive coordinators before landing on a gem not unlike his former self. Mike Zimmer may not have been a young man, but he paid his dues and found a nice home in Cincinnati. The past five seasons have been ones of stout defensive play and a sense of respect has bolstered the Cincinnati franchise around Marvin Lewis. He still has a nice reputation across the league, but his defensive ingenuity has been somewhat forgotten. Zimmer and his clan get the credit for the modern Bengals defense and the team is still seeking that gem middle linebacker. Rey Maualuga was once hyped up to be exactly that kind of savior, but he has not lived up to that billing and alcoholism may have hindered his career as well.

There is immediate hope, though, that the missing piece, the keystone, may have been found. There are times when I think that Vontaze Burfict also shares that cosmic stuff though it isn't as pronounced as it was with Thurman. He is a fearless hitter that plays with tremendous instinct and he has shown himself to be a diligent worker and has showed improved ability to quickly diagnose plays. He too came into the league with personality fears, carrying with him such labels as lazy and selfish. He was not handed anything in Cincinnati and has truly earned his projected starting spot next season. He is not of the Red Giant variety just yet, more of a gaseous Dwarf at this stage, but he too has potential for going supernova and could remind Lewis of the good old days of his own linebacking upbringing once he discovers his full capabilities. Perhaps Burfict is the next generation that cements a Marvin Lewis team into a true championship contender. Marvin's past history indicates that he needs a great middle linebacker to field the best team he can possibly manage, and all of us Bengals fans invest our collective hopes heavily upon the young shoulders of Vontaze Burfict.

As for next season, the outlook is bright, but the keystone must be in place for the structure to be as fortified as possible. It takes time to find the right mix of players to win the Super Bowl. Many have no idea what it takes since they've never drank from that improbable chalice, but Marvin has and should attempt to return to what made that drink happen in the first place. He has discovered, molded and fielded some truly great players, but not so far where it counts the most: middle linebacker. At least not long enough for it to matter. Only the presence of that cosmic stuff can make these great things happen to Marvin and his Bengals. The jury is still out if Burfict has enough of the stuff to do it, and if he does, if it will ruin him too.

So while time has eroded our memories of what Marvin once was and what made his defenses tick, it is only time that can bring it back and remind us again. Yet his chances are limited. Nothing is forever, not even the cosmic stuff.

Mojokong-recalling the miracles.