Moving forward without successful veterans hard, but sometimes wise

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Marvin Lewis has yet to find out how difficult it is to part with veteran players who helped win several Super Bowl titles. But he is hoping to be getting closer to the moment.

The Cincinnati Bengals have never won a playoff game since Lewis became head coach in 2003, but they have made more trips to the postseason in the past four years (3) than the Steelers (2).

And, in a winner-take-all game in December in Heinz Field, they beat the Steelers, 13-10, to grab one of the wild-card playoff spots in the AFC -- and guarantee the worst record in Mike Tomlin's six-year tenure.

They are no longer playing to catch-up to the Steelers. With four of their stars under the age of 26, they are on the precipice of passing the Steelers and joining the Baltimore Ravens as the division heavies, if they haven't already.

Especially because the Steelers are facing another season of purging their roster of veteran players from past Super Bowl teams.

"It's a very difficult thing," said Lewis, a former Steelers assistant coach who grew up in McDonald and attended Fort Cherry High School. "Bill Walsh was the best at it, ever. What 49er retired playing his last season as a 49ers? Only one -- Steve Young."

And Young ended his career playing for George Seifert, not Walsh. Even Chuck Noll was criticized for holding on too long to many of his four-time Super Bowl veterans.

"They had great Hall of Fame players and only one played his last season in SF," Lewis was saying Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. "It just goes to show how difficult that is because you, as player, still feel like you can play at this level; but the club at times has to, for better or worse, move away from you and move forward. You might take a little dip for a bit, but then it's got to move forward.

"Pittsburgh has had tremendous, tremendous players. Mike and Kevin [Colbert] have done a great job of putting their football team together. I don't feel they'll be any different as they go forward. I know how Mr. [Dan] Rooney and Art feel about those things. They just got a great plan."

Lewis has spent much of his time in Cincinnati trying to emulate the Steelers, beginning by finding tough, physical players who understand what it's like to play in the AFC North Division.

Now he is trying to stay on a parallel path by doing what the Steelers have done maybe better than any NFL team -- build the team through the draft and retain as many key free agents as possible. In their wild-card playoff defeat in Houston, the Bengals had 17 of 22 starters who were draft choices or rookie free agents.

"It's going to be important to us because I've invested the time," Lewis said. "That's what I keep pushing for. You want to draft these good guys and grow 'em up? We've done that. Now, when they're ascending, we got to buy in, we got to keep them. You have to. You're not 100 percent on it, but that makes it better."

That has the Bengals poised to hang around longer and get even better. Their top four players -- wide receiver A.J. Green, quarterback Andy Dalton, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive tackle Geno Atkins -- are all 25. Outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict was an undrafted rookie in 2012 who led the team in tackles.

When the Bengals did dabble in free agency, they signed players such as running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and cornerback Terrance Newman without paying a steep price.

And, unlike the Steelers, they don't have to make any tough salary-cap decisions. The Bengals are $50 million under the cap.

"[My approach] was we got to go win the division," said Lewis, recalling his plan when he took over in Cincinnati 11 years ago. "We've been somewhat successful, but I know that from when I started in 2003, we had to be bigger, tougher and stronger to play Pittsburgh and Baltimore and even Cleveland. I knew that from the start because I had been part of those buildings.

"I knew what it took to do that. It had to be that type of approach. You can't come in there and Mickey Mouse them, you're not going to finesse them. You got to play physical football. You got to outplay them. Our guys understand that. They know what it takes to win football in our division."

Maybe one day Lewis will discover what it's like to part with Super Bowl players.

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Gerry Dulac: and Twitter: @gerrydulac.


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