CINCINNATI -- There’s a difference in the Bengals’ locker room this season, and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is.
It might be the new coaching staff. It could be the influx of young players. Or it might simply be that for the first time in two seasons, the Bengals aren’t digging themselves out of an early hole. It’s hard to be unhappy while sitting at 4-1.
“I think it’s just a winning culture right now,” second-year player John Ross said. “When you win ... the energy is always live. Last year we didn’t get off to a hot start like we are now and it was definitely different. ... That’s something I noticed right off the bat, how happy everyone is. After the game, during the game, how confident everybody is.
“I asked someone, ‘Why wasn’t it like this last year?’ And one of the veteran guys said ‘That’s what it feels like to win.’”
But the “why” of the Bengals’ winning culture comes down more to X's and O's. It’s more about the team’s willingness to let go of old philosophies and embrace change.
That’s something that started back in Week 3 of last season when the Bengals fired offensive coordinator Ken Zampese after an 0-2 start and zero touchdowns through their first two games.
Coaches get fired all the time in the NFL, but they rarely get fired in Cincinnati, and certainly not during the season. The Bengals have a history of showing loyalty to their coaches, and they’ve often been criticized for it.
They had never fired an assistant coach during the season before last year, and they stuck with head coach Marvin Lewis when other teams might have moved on. Many pundits wrote the Bengals off at the end of last year when they re-signed Lewis to a two-year deal despite two straight losing seasons. Ticket sales reflected the fans' displeasure at the move.
The Bengals stuck with their decision with the idea that a new coaching staff could be the catalyst for winning again with Lewis at the helm. And Lewis, who turned 60 this season, appears rejuvenated after hiring a new coaching staff that has guided the team through a successful September.
“We’re very fortunate to have been able to put together this group of guys,” Lewis said. “They come in with their expertise from different teams. There’s no ‘one way’ to do things, so to be able to listen and hear from others is great.”
Lewis has always chosen well with his hires, and former Bengals assistants Hue Jackson, Mike Zimmer, Vance Joseph and Jay Gruden are now head coaches themselves.
So far, so good with this new staff, which includes six new assistant coaches.
The Bengals parted ways with offensive line coach Paul Alexander, the most tenured assistant on the staff and hired Cowboys O-line coach Frank Pollack. Bob Bicknell became the new wide receivers coach, and Daronte Jones took over as cornerbacks coach.
They snatched up Aaron Rodgers’ former quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and he appears to have Andy Dalton playing some of his best football in years.
Part of that could be attributed not only to a solid connection between offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and Dalton, but also because of Van Pelt’s relaxed coaching style.
“We have a loose room. We play music. We talk. When you correct a guy that knows what he did wrong, I think that becomes monotonous in the room. I like to just say ‘What would you do differently?’ and let him answer instead of me telling him what he already knows. ... It’s so stressful to play the game at the quarterback position. You can’t have stressful meetings. You have to be relaxed and calm, and get some work done obviously, but that’s an area to learn and speak freely in that room.”
Promoting Lazor to offensive coordinator turned out to the be first of many good moves. He has the Bengals scoring a franchise best 30.6 points per game so far. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s unit, but he came in preaching takeaways, and the Bengals have eight this season, including several game-changers.
Austin’s philosophy has been to correct the negative and accentuate the positive to keep the team loose.
“I think that’s important, the reinforcement. It’s what you preach, what you get, I think that’s what you get back. If you’re negative all the time, your players feel negative and they always think that something bad is going to happen. I don’t like to coach that way,” Austin said. “I like to coach on the positive side of things. We can make this happen, we can get it done. We obviously have to correct the flaws that we have and work to get better at them, but that’s not what I harp on.”
The coaches aren’t the only thing the Bengals changed. They benched former first-round pick Cedric Ogbuehi after making a rare splashy trade for left tackle Cordy Glenn. They let go of veterans Adam Jones, George Iloka and Brandon LaFell in favor of young, promising players. Those three players had 40 combined starts in 2017 alone, but have only a combined two starts on their new teams.
It might not sound like much, but the Bengals, who have been well-known for their stubborn ways in the past, have made all the right moves to get the team back on track. It meant letting go of old ways and taking chances on the unknown.
So far, that has meant more for the team than any statistic.