Marvin Lewis; AP NFL Coach of the Year
Marvin Lewis had much more than game plans to deal with this season.
Lewis won The Associated Press 2009 NFL Coach of the Year award for guiding his team to the playoffs during a season marked by tragedy.
The Bengals won the AFC North with a 10-6 record, just their second division title since 1990, both under Lewis. They did so despite the deaths of wide receiver Chris Henry and Vikki Zimmer, the wife of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. Several players’ families also were directly affected by the tsunami in the Samoan Islands.
For holding his team together under such circumstances and leading a turnaround from a 4-11-1 record in 2008, Lewis earned 20 1/2 votes Saturday from a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters who cover the league. He beat Sean Payton of New Orleans (11 1/2), Norv Turner of San Diego (9) and Jim Caldwell of Indianapolis (7). Andy Reid of Philadelphia and Ken Whisenhunt of Arizona had a single vote each.
“I’m flattered,” said Lewis, whose seventh season as Bengals coach ended with a 24-14 home loss to the Jets in the wild-card round. “I never took any credibility to it, that it could occur, but I am flattered. I would trade it to still be playing.
“To me, this is more a recognition of the organization, for the coaching staff and the hard work they’ve done, and for the players.”
Few coaches have dealt with such a season of grief. Vikki Zimmer, who used to bake treats for the players, died unexpectedly in October. Two weeks earlier, defensive linemen Jonathan Fanene and Domata Peko and rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga struggled to contact family in American Samoa after the tsunami devastated the region.
In December, wide receiver Chris Henry, on injured reserve with a broken left forearm, fell from the back of a pickup truck after an argument with his fiancee and was killed.
So Lewis was as much a therapist and psychologist for his team as he was a strategist.
“Just look at that load right there he’s beared,” veteran guard Bobbie Williams said. “With Chris, Vikki Zimmer, the Samoan Islands. … There’s been a lot of weight on his shoulders, and through the not-so-good seasons when it seemed like the world might have been crashing down, he’s been that rock for the team and for the city. … When you look at it, you’re like, ‘Dang, that’s a lot, that’s a lot.’ But you know what? He’s still there and he’s still rolling and he’s still coach.”
And he’s Coach of the Year, the first for the Bengals since the team’s founder, Paul Brown, won the award in 1970.
“Our coaches did a great job of helping through those times and being there in support of Mike and his family, support of the players through the tsunami, and then with Chris’ death and how that affected certain guys,” Lewis said. “All that being said, I think again the credit should come to the entire group because they did this. I think we had a good group of leadership.”
Those team leaders credit Lewis for changing the environment in Cincinnati. There were far fewer unchecked egos this season, and the influx of youth worked well.
“Marvin’s really gotten better with gauging our team, and a lot of it is because he knows our individual players,” quarterback Carson Palmer said. “He knows when to back off, he knows when to put shoulder pads on, he knows when to hold us longer for meetings, he knows when to get us out of practice earlier. And that’s a head coach’s main job, to get his team ready to play on Sundays.”
The Bengals certainly were ready in the first half of the schedule, going 7-2 and sweeping Pittsburgh and Baltimore to take command of the division. They faltered down the stretch, losing three of their final four — all against playoff teams.
But how many teams wouldn’t have struggled under all the adversity handled the Bengals?
“He knows real life,” Peko said. “He was able to not only be our coach but a father and mentor to some of us.”