Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis opened minicamp recently with another one of his T-shirt gimmicks -- only this time there was no doubting the sense of urgency in his message.
The message on the back of the T-shirt: "Now." QB Carson Palmer said that in a team meeting Lewis provided a translation -- the Bengals had "enough talent in the locker room right now to win the Super Bowl."
Bold words from a head coach who, entering his sixth year at the helm in Cincinnati, has had exactly one season with a winning record. In fact, it's a slogan that Lewis could apply to himself.
The Bengals haven't even had a winning record in three seasons. In 2005, they finished 11-5, won the AFC North -- and were one-and-done in the playoffs.
Granted, in that wild-card matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Lewis' star player, Palmer, was knocked out of the game. But the Bengals' defense -- Lewis' supposed strength -- allowed Ben Roethlisberger & Co. to walk up and down the field at will. Big Ben fired three touchdown passes -- the most he's thrown in a playoff game. And the Bengals collapsed, 31-17.
Remember, Lewis got the job in Cincinnati largely on the strength of the reputation he built as the defensive coordinator in Baltimore. In 2000, the Baltimore Ravens' defense was ranked first in the league and set a record for points allowed in a season (165), shutting out the Giants' offense in Super Bowl XXXV. But it's clear that Marvin Lewis had less to do with that defensive performance than Ray Lewis did -- and still does.
In the six seasons Marvin Lewis led the Ravens' defense, it ranked 30th, 27th, 23rd, second, first and fourth in total yards allowed. In the six years since, the Ravens defense has finished 22nd, fourth, sixth, fifth, first, and sixth. Not much difference. In 2006 -- four seasons after Lewis left Baltimore -- the Ravens ranked first in the league in scoring defense, surrendering just 201 points. Last season, the Bengals' defense ranked 27th in total yards allowed.
In Cincinnati, Lewis has a record of 42-38. But he's only 16-24 against teams with a record of .500 or better. He's 26-14 against teams with a losing record. Last season, the Bengals beat only two teams that finished with a winning record and only one of them, the Tennessee Titans, squeaked into the postseason.
Critics of the Bengals are always quick to blame stingy ownership responsible for a bare bones scouting department that has drafted some of the worst problem children in recent NFL history. True enough. But many coaches would sacrifice their Cadillac SUVs for the talent that Lewis has had at key offensive positions, including left tackle, wide receiver and quarterback -- especially QB. If Palmer were in the NFC, he'd be the best quarterback in the conference. He is a player of immense talent who should have been in a position to compete for a Super Bowl title by -- pun intended -- "now."
So, why all the gushing over Marvin Lewis? He's a good guy who's good with the media. But as a head coach, he's overrated.
Another coach who seems to get a free pass is Jeff Fisher, the coach of the Titans.
Fisher, who rode Buddy Ryan's coattails to the NFL, still is riding high on the memory of one indelible image: being one yard short of defeating the high flying St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXIV.
At the start of the 2008 season, Fisher will be the NFL's longest tenured head coach. Why?
If you count 1994, when he finished out the year for Jack Pardee, Fisher is beginning his 15th season as head coach of the Oilers/Titans franchise. Let's say the 1994 season doesn't count (he went 1-5 to finish the year, yet got the permanent gig anyway). Fisher has gone to the postseason in just five of his 13 full seasons as a head coach. Five winning seasons. Four losing seasons. Four seasons of 8-8. And how exactly is that anything but mediocre?
Fisher's won-loss record of 115-99 (.537) barely cracks sea level, and his playoff record is 5-5. Yet, every year he is bathed in media holy water as one of the bright, young coaches in the league. When Bill Parcells retired from the Dallas Cowboys, it was rumored that Dallas owner Jerry Jones would pay any price to get Fisher down in Big D. Again, why?
But strip away the carefully crafted Fisher veneer and you get one mediocre head coach who doesn't deserve the constant doting of the national media.
Fisher grew up in Ryan's 46 defense. Yet, in all his years with the Oilers/Titans, Fisher's teams finished ranked better than 10th in points allowed just three times: 1995, 2000 and last season. Same story on offense. Only two seasons did Fisher's teams finish in the top 10 in points scored: 1999 and 2003.
Let's compare Fisher to another head coach who doesn't get nearly the lavish praise: Dennis Green. As of 2006, Green, too, had 13 seasons as a head coach. His record was 113-94 -- six more wins than Fisher over 13 seasons. Green made the playoffs in eight of those 13 seasons. Yet, Green is unemployed. Fisher is in demand.
While Green's poor showing in the playoffs (4-8) is constantly regurgitated, Fisher's failures in big games are overlooked. So, let's look.
Example 1: Titans finished the 2003 regular season 12-4, go to New England in the divisional playoffs. Lose to the Patriots, 17-14.
Example 2: Titans finished the 2002 regular season 11-5, lose to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC championship game. Bill Callahan's offense stomps all over the defensive genius -- 41-24 Raiders.
Example 3: Titans finished the 2000 regular season 13-3, win the old AFC Central for the first time. Don't forget, that year, Tennessee finished second in the league in fewest points allowed and total yards. Trent Dilfer and Ray Lewis & Co. just came into Nashville and stripped Fisher's team of its manhood: Baltimore, 24-10.
Example 4: Titans finish the 1999 regular season 13-3, advance to Super Bowl XXXIV against the Rams. Kurt Warner plays pitch and catch all day. Fisher's defense has no answer, allowing the winning 73-yard touchdown pass from Warner to Isaac Bruce with 1:54 left. Even with Steve McNair's late-game heroics factored in, Fisher's coaching performance should go down as one of the most overrated in Super Bowl history.
By the way, let's not forget something. It was Fisher who demanded the Titans draft Adam (Pacman) Jones in the first round over the objections of his scouting staff. Jones, the poster child for NFL bad boy behavior, was traded to the Cowboys for a song.
Now, here are two coaches who don't get their due and who should have been given greater consideration for head coaching jobs a long, long time ago: Monte Kiffin and Tom Moore. Both are vastly underrated.
Moore has labored in relative obscurity in his 30 years in the NFL. He started coaching in the NFL when Jon Gruden was still in elementary school. But who has been more recognized for their accomplishments? Chuckie, of course. Yet, Moore has been instrumental in helping three teams win Super Bowl rings.
Moore's longevity is historic, and his career underappreciated and underrated. Consider this: As receivers coach in Pittsburgh in the late 1970s, Moore was instrumental in helping Pittsburgh win Super Bowls XIII (1978) and XIV (1979).
In the 2006 season, Moore helped the Colts' offense (with rookie running back Joseph Addai ) win Super Bowl XLI. So 27 years separated Moore's last two Super Bowl rings -- the largest gap for any assistant coach in league history. That's an impact that has lasted two generations of football players.
But the Colts are the only NFL offense ever to have a 4,000 yard passer and a 1,000-yard rusher in three straight seasons (1999-2001) -- the first two years it was Manning, Harrison and James; when James got injured in 2001, Dominic Rhodes replaced him and the Colts didn't miss a beat.
Another guy who is vastly underrated is Kiffin.
In Super Bowl XLI, the two head coaches were Tony Dungy of the Colts and Lovie Smith of the Bears -- two former Bucs coaches who learned the so-called Tampa 2 defense from Kiffin. In 11 of the 12 years Kiffin has been in Tampa, the Bucs' defense has finished in the top 10 in both yards and points allowed. In both categories, Kiffin's defense ranked first in the league in the 2002 season, the campaign that ended with the Bucs winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, Kiffin is the only defensive coordinator to lead the league in fewest points allowed twice within a four-season period (2002 and 2005).
In the Dungy head coaching era in Tampa, if the Bucs had Tom Moore's offense and Kiffin's defense, they might have won multiple Super Bowls. They certainly would have beaten the Rams in the 1999 NFC Championship Game. Remember that game? In the deafening dome in St. Louis, the Bucs' defense nearly authored a monumental upset by holding those record-setting, high-flying Rams to just one touchdown, losing 11-6.
It was a Tampa loss, but might have been Kiffin's finest moment.
This is adapted from the best-selling book "The Paolantonio Report: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players, Teams, Coaches and Moments in NFL History" by Sal Paolantonio with Reuben Frank, available in bookstores and at Amazon.com.