CINCINNATI (AP) -Marvin Lewis called the hot-shot rookie linebacker into his office and challenged him to become a leader long before anyone had a right to expect it.
What choice did he have?
It was July 1996. The Baltimore Ravens had just released veteran linebacker Pepper Johnson, expected to be the leader of an up-and-coming defense. So defensive coordinator Lewis decided he might as well challenge the first-round draft pick to grow up fast.
Ray Lewis had just turned 21. He didn't expect this.
``Marvin called me in and said, 'Great leaders lead their team. No matter how young you are, go and lead your team,''' the linebacker said. ``So at that young age, I said OK. And everyone said the easiest thing to do is to always be you.
``Taking that from those guys, I never looked back.''
The boisterous linebacker became the bedrock of one of the NFL's greatest defenses, winning a Super Bowl championship in the 2000 season. The defensive coordinator moved on, eventually landing in Cincinnati as head coach.
Eleven years after that meeting in Baltimore, Ray Lewis is still a leader of one of the NFL's top defenses. And Marvin Lewis is still trying to find someone like him for one of the NFL's worst defenses.
The coach was reminded of what he misses heading into their opener Monday night against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium.
``There's some stability there,'' he said. ``And Ray's been not only that as a player, but also as the leader in setting the standard of how things are done.''
Marvin Lewis has tried to develop someone akin to that in Cincinnati.
One of Lewis' first jobs when he joined the Bengals in 2003 was to try to sell linebacker Takeo Spikes, the defense's leader, on staying and turning the franchise around. Unconvinced, Spikes left as a free agent.
Next, he tried to get Corey Dillon to become a team leader. The moody running back wasn't in the mood for it.
In 2005, the Bengals drafted middle linebacker Odell Thurman in the second round. He appeared to be the perfect fit: hard hitter, outgoing, willing to speak his mind. After a promising rookie season, Thurman wound up suspended by the league for the 2006 and 2007 seasons for violating its substance abuse policies.
Back to square one.
Meanwhile, Ray Lewis is carrying on in Baltimore at age 32, leading the NFL's top defense by example. The Ravens gave up the fewest points and yards in the league last season while snatching the AFC North title away from Cincinnati.
``Ray's getting into his 30s, but he's making different aspects of his game better,'' Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer said. ``He really isn't becoming a weak player.
``He's a ringleader. He's on all the guys on every single play. He's telling guys to hustle. He's on people when they're not in the right place. He's just an intense coach out there on the field that can knock your head off and can run around and do everything.''
A player like that makes a coach's job much easier.
``I've always looked at teams with that anchor at quarterback - Brett Favre in Green Bay, a Dan Marino, a Troy Aikman - guys who have been in a system for so long and have anchored whatever they've done,'' Ravens coach Brian Billick said. ``To be able to start with that every year, to know you're beginning with that, that's a gift.
``And Ray is very much the same way and very much in the same stature.''
The Bengals still are trying to develop a linebacker who resembles him.
The latest candidate is Ahmad Brooks, taken in the supplemental draft last year after Thurman got in trouble. Brooks is big and fast, but was kicked off his team at Virginia. He started five games as a rookie and often looked like one.
Coaches and teammates see a change in him this year.
``He's taking it more seriously,'' defensive end Bryan Robinson said. ``We have to count on Ahmad to know exactly what he's supposed to do, and he's taken on that role. He's being more accountable to that.
``That's the biggest thing: Ahmad, can we trust you? So far, so good. Yes, we can trust you.''
Brooks only had two weeks to study the Bengals' system before training camp opened last year. He looks a lot more comfortable the second time around.
``He is a guy that now understands how he is supposed to line up and where everybody is supposed to be around him,'' Marvin Lewis said. ``Last year, he was trying to get himself lined up, for the most part. Now he is able to put other people in position.''
Could he be a leader something like the Ravens' No. 52? Too early to tell, although his coach has talked to him about it.
``I'm starting to get a little more vocal with teammates,'' said Brooks, who has a more reserved personality. ``He has said I'm a leader. We're all leaders. That's something I'm working on.''
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