The subject turns to Takeo Spikes, as it must. Marvin Lewis reaches across the table and turns off the tape recorder. Five minutes later, you know exactly how the Cincinnati Bengals coach feels about his unsigned middle linebacker.
"Have you told Takeo all this stuff?" I wondered.
Yes, Lewis says, he has. "We've had some very good discussions."
Getting Spikes signed and happy would seem important. He's the Bengals' best defensive player, a leader, one of a handful of players with a conscience and a deep desire to win.
Signing Spikes is critical to keeping Lewis' early momentum and to establishing credibility among free agents. If your own players don't want to play in Cincinnati, why would anyone else's?
Getting Spikes signed and happy is key.
Or maybe not.
"I'm anxious to get to know him. I really am," Lewis says. "He has earned the right to test the market. Hopefully, we can keep him. If we can't, I'll wish him well and we're going to move on."
"Is it fair to say if Spikes returns, he'll be doing things your way?"
Lewis smiles. It's a big, open, welcome-to-my-way grin. "I really believe the guy wants to win" is what the coach says about that. "And there, we will meet."
I liked Lewis the day he got here. Finally, a coach not of the Bengal Family, not burdened by Bengals inbreeding. If Lewis is given the keys to the car, he actually might get it out of the garage for the first time in 12 years.
I like him even more now. Lots will change in the next few years. Hopefully, Lewis' confidence and singleness of purpose will not.
He has studied under two masters of My Way willfulness, Brian Billick and Bill Cowher. Billick's public confidence borders on smug arrogance; Cowher's jaw would take you 15 rounds if it had to. Neither has a problem determining who's boss or letting the world know.
Maybe this is a message Lewis delivered to Spikes.
Ask Lewis the most pleasant surprise he has had in his first month here, he says: "The number of people who think one person can make such a big difference. There are no such things as gurus. This is about having a vision, establishing a plan and working hard at it. Pushing and prodding. It's not about X's and O's. It's about communication and people."
Ask him what has been least pleasant, he says this: "Players blaming Mike Brown. I've been around guys who, five years after they finish playing, are going to Canton. And they would never do that. Part of the deal here now is to change things that way."
It isn't hard to read between Lewis' lines. Be accountable, be responsible, be a pro. To locate fault, look in the mirror.
Unlike the coaches before him, Lewis will not assume his players should be treated like men. He will allow them to earn that distinction.
"We're going to start establishing some things in small ways," he says.
The Bengals will begin offseason weightlifting March24. Officially, no player has to show up. Unofficially, Fresh Start Season will begin.
"You get a chance now," Lewis says. "I don't really know you. You want to be a pro, we're here to help you."
Lewis mentions that a lot: Be a professional. Accepting a check doesn't make you that. Neither does pulling on a jersey.
"It's everything we do. We've got to look good when we come into work, from the time we come in to the time we leave," Lewis says. "You're a professional athlete. Don't have your pants sagging off your butt. Look like a professional. If you want to hang with the guys on the corner, go ahead. We've got a lot of guys we can get to replace you."
Lewis buys the popular notion that NFL talent is spread evenly enough that attitude and coaching win lots of games. Injuries hurt, he says. So does bad luck. "But that's when you draw upon the temperament, leadership and the spirit of some strong-willed people," he says.
"Look at this," Lewis says. He shows me his cell phone. The last call was from "Big Play."
"Spikes?" I ask.
"No," Marvin Lewis says. "Ray Lewis."
Marvin sees Ray as a surefire Canton guy. "A professional," he calls him.
The workouts in March are voluntary. Then we will begin to see Marvin Lewis' influence.
"Winning," he says, "is also voluntary."
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