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'Hard Knocks' primer: Cincinnati Bengals' rebirth continues

CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis leans back and fidgets in his swivel chair, sitting in the empty team-meeting room inside Paul Brown Stadium, reflecting on what happened two years ago.

The Cincinnati Bengals were coming off of a four-win bottoming out of a campaign, and the lockout was looming.

After eight seasons in charge, Lewis could've been fired. He wasn't. But he was going to take the opportunity to act like he had been.

"It started with where a lot of coaches have to move," Lewis said last Wednesday. "I was basically able to start again here, and that's when I said, if both sides agreed that I would come back for the 2011 season, I was gonna have an opportunity to do something other coaches don't ever have an opportunity to do, and that's restart and re-function in the same spot. You normally have to move.

"Coach (Bill) Belichick had to go from Cleveland to New England, and he had to take some steps along the way. Coach Fox, John had to take some stops along the way. ... We changed a lot of people out, and that made the biggest difference. But I knew we had to restart. We had to change. And so we were able to take a long look."

Beginning this week, the Bengals will be making their second appearance in five seasons on HBO's "Hard Knocks" television program. But Lewis will be the first to tell you that the team that now fills this cavernous auditorium on a daily basis is nowhere close to being the same one that sat in those seats the last time it was featured on the show, in the summer of 2009. Everything has changed. Maybe the Bengals aren't yet a model franchise, but they also aren't a laughingstock anymore.

During Lewis' first eight years with the Bengals, they made the playoffs twice -- something each of the coach's three predecessors failed to do even once. However, Cincinnati's proclivity for the absurd remained, whether it manifested in the form of off-the-wall personalities or off-the-field run-ins with the law.

Lewis was aware of the dysfunction. The start of 2011 gave him the chance to address the kinds of things that make fired coaches think, in his words, "Damn, I knew that, but I didn't listen."

He volunteered his staff for the Senior Bowl. He used the lockout to re-imagine his program. He changed the standards and blew up the Cincinnati mold. As Lewis said, "I don't think Chris Henry would be picked today ... Chris would have a harder time today, just because we'd be more skeptical on whether he could handle the day-to-day of being a good teammate."

The key wasn't to avoid guys with pockmarks altogether. It was to find the right kind of men for the program. And if the team was going to roll the dice on a boy who was not yet the right kind of man, it had to be sure he was capable of growing to become the right kind of man. Henry didn't do so fast enough. Odell Thurman didn't do so at all.

"I think there was always a feel that it was a 'boys will be boys'-type situation," Lewis conceded. "Some boys just can't get over that. And unfortunately, the organization had to learn that, and it took a hit with those two kids, unfortunately. ... You gotta be sure he's gonna mature into the right person."

It wasn't long before Lewis saw growth. That summer, before the team's second preseason game, in New York against the Jets, a group of veteran offensive and defensive linemen led by Andrew Whitworth and Domata Peko came to his office with a strong sentiment: The entire group needed to forget quarterback Carson Palmer (who was a part of Lewis' original renovation plan, but decided instead to "retire") and back rookie Andy Dalton.

That, too, was a result of the lockout. Rather than being anointed by coaches, Dalton had to earn his teammates' respect during player-run workouts. In the same way, those guys were charged with investing in the change they knew was coming.

"I remember, with the whole Carson situation, we had to move on from the whole era of (Chad) Ochocinco, (T.J.) Houshmandzadeh, Carson Palmer," Peko said. "Especially with Ocho, the media stuff, it wasn't all about the team. Now it is. Those guys, it was about 'me,' kind of. Nowadays, it's all about the team. That's how you win games, man. Everyone's thinking, 'Put the team first, put the team first,' and we've got a good thing going."

The Bengals went on to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since the early 1980s. The revised draft standards have yielded an enviable and youthful core headlined by Dalton, receiver A.J. Green, defensive tackle Geno Atkins, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson.

And leading those guys is the veteran group that resolved to effect the change Lewis had envisioned.

"They didn't worry about all the outside crap," Lewis said. "They were disappointed in our 2010 season, and things that we thought were true, things that we knew were true, it was proven in 2010 that were true. If you do those things, you're gonna get your butt whooped. And if you do these other things, we're gonna be successful. All the lessons we knew, we learned in 2010."

The coach knew then that, frankly, he was lucky to still have his job. He's made the most of the second chance -- and second life -- since.

Here are five other things to pay attention to when the newest installment of "Hard Knocks" kicks off on Tuesday night (10 p.m. ET on HBO):

1) Andy Dalton's next step: If, with the roster now stocked, you acknowledge Lewis' work in changing the Bengals, then it's fair to ask if Dalton can take the next step as a quarterback. He filled out some, and he has done technique work all offseason to improve his deep ball, honing his drops and his throw trajectory.

He'll tell you the heat isn't on, because he puts more pressure on himself than anyone on the outside could. So I asked if he thinks he has a championship team around him.

"I do," he quickly responded. "Expectations are high for us in this locker room. Everyone expects to win a lot of games, and obviously the ultimate goal is a championship."

Dalton held passing sessions near his offseason home in Fort Worth, Texas, with Bengals receivers Andrew Hawkins, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Ryan Whalen, Dane Sanzenbacher and Brandon Tate. Green -- who couldn't make it -- says he's seen a more vocal Dalton this year. It'll be interesting to see if, through HBO's cameras and perhaps in settings like Fort Worth, it becomes apparent that the quarterback is seizing the reins.

2) A.J. Green's stardom: Fairly or not, when you talk about the old Bengals with the reformed group, the name that comes up most is Chad Ochocinco/Johnson's. And in that way, Green's smooth and calm Southern demeanor serves as a perfect example when discussing the difference between what Cincinnati was and what the team has become.

Of course, it's not like Green doesn't deserve attention. After notching 97 catches, 1,350 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2012, the third-year stud is right there with fellow 2011 draftee Julio Jones (and probably Dez Bryant) as one of the receivers most likely to crack the super-elite class currently inhabited by Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald.

Green is injured now, and that might take away from it a little. But one way or another, the cameras are sure to get a good look at him.

3) Andrew Hawkins' potential emergence: There's always one under-the-radar player who gets the spotlight on "Hard Knocks," and Hawkins -- whom the coaches love -- might be as good a candidate for that role as anyone. He had 51 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns playing primarily out of the slot last season. Adding more juice to the storyline: He's listed (generously) at 5-foot-7, was a two-way player in college and had to spend two years in Canada before getting a real NFL shot.

The other intriguing thing here is how the door is opening for guys like Hawkins.

"You have guys like Wes Welker, who aren't the biggest guys, who go undrafted, and tear the league apart," Hawkins said. "Tavon Austin was the first receiver taken; who would've thought that could happen six years ago? I think it's cool, being the short guy."

4) The veteran in the cast: This will be defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer's third go-around on the show, and he should be just as prominent this time as he was in 2002 with the Dallas Cowboys and in 2009 with the Bengals. Over the past two years, his units have ranked seventh and sixth in total defense, respectively, but they haven't quite achieved what they set out to do: become truly dominant.

Lewis himself said this: "The expectations for the defense were very high at the start of last season, and all of a sudden, they got their wings clipped a little bit over the first four weeks, and then later on for a stint, so then everyone starts drawing back."

If Zimmer can help his guys avoid those bumps in the road and take things to the next level, he could finally get the head-coaching shot that so many around the league believe he deserves.

5) It's "Adam," not "Pacman": Even with the changes in the organization, there are plenty of remnants of old reclamation projects. One would be Dunlap, who just inked a six-year, $40 million deal after coming out of Florida with a checkered past. But the most glaring example has to be Adam Jones.

And though he's facing an assault charge stemming from a bar altercation in June, Jones is, by all accounts, a different guy than the one the "Hard Knocks" cameras caught with the Cowboys back in 2008. It's hard to imagine he won't be a big part of the show this time around, too.

A few more things to watch for: The pressure on the Bengals to break through and win a playoff game for the first time since 1990. ... The Brown family's influence, and the passing of the torch from Mike to his children. ... The quick emergence of two rookies: tight end Tyler Eifert (whose feel has impressed coaches) and running back Giovani Bernard (who has looked electric in space). ... And, of course, the unnamed rookie free agent, just fighting to make the team.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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