CINCINNATI (AP) -Players sat at their lockers with heads down while coach Marvin Lewis screamed at them after a loss that left the Cincinnati Bengals in last place.
He called them selfish. He told them they hadn't done anything. He punctuated his diatribe with profanities for effect.
Were they listening? Or have the last-place Bengals tuned out their fifth-year coach?
We'll soon see.
The Bengals (1-3) went into their bye week with a lot of injuries and a lot of issues. During a 34-13 loss to New England last Monday night, they fussed at each other on the field and sounded like a down-and-out team in the locker room.
``I feel horrible,'' cornerback Deltha O'Neal said. ``It's just ugly for us right now. It is so depressing to me because we are a lot better than what we are playing. A lot better.''
So why aren't they playing a lot better? For the first time since his triumphant arrival, the head coach is coming in for a big share of the blame.
Lewis was embraced when he arrived in January 2003, wearing a 200-diamond Super Bowl ring that flashed in the television lights. After a franchise-worst 2-14 season, owner Mike Brown finally went outside the organization for the next head coach, bringing in the coordinator of Baltimore's championship defense of 2000.
``What I'm going to hammer home to our guys is that we're not that far away,'' Lewis said that day.
When they went 8-8 in his first season, the town started to believe. Another 8-8 the next season was acceptable, too - the Bengals were breaking in rookie quarterback Carson Palmer, who was obviously headed for great things.
An AFC North title in his third season, Cincinnati's only playoff appearance since 1990, won over the last of the skeptics. Great things couldn't be far away, could they?
Since then, the Bengals have crashed. They regressed to 8-8 again last season, and their 1-3 start suggests a franchise going in reverse. They're 6-11 in their last 17 games.
In any other city, fans would be wondering whether the head coach will get fired. In Cincinnati, ownership loathes change. Remember, Dave Shula got a contract extension during his disastrous stay in the '90s.
As long as the stadium is full - the New England game drew a franchise-record 66,113 fans - the coach won't get fired by the team.
But can Lewis lose this team?
``I've never been a part of a team where I felt the coach lost control, and I don't feel like I'm part of a team like that at all,'' Palmer said. ``We're in a tough spot because we're 1-3 and we shouldn't be. You've always got to find someone to blame it on.
``You can start with me. That's fine. I'm the quarterback. I'll take all the blame and heat in the world. A lot of it's my fault. You can put it all on Marvin. Marvin will take it because he's got broad shoulders.''
A big part of this belongs on those shoulders.
Lewis squandered some of his reputation by steadfastly defending his players during their numbing run of arrests: 10 players charged in a 14-month span. The fallout is still hitting the team hard.
The Bengals were down to two healthy linebackers on Monday night. They sure could have used middle linebacker Odell Thurman, suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. They also could use No. 3 receiver Chris Henry, sitting out the first half of the season for violating the league's conduct policy.
A more discriminating approach to the draft and a tougher hand on misconduct could have avoided some of it.
Lewis' handling of his high-maintenance players is a long-standing issue as well.
He got Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson to tone down his act this season, challenging him to become more focused on winning a title instead of getting attention. It worked - until Monday night.
Johnson fussed at Palmer after a second-quarter interception that was the result of the receiver running the wrong route. He kept at it as the two walked to the locker room at halftime.
Johnson's childlike joy for the game is warming. His childish demeanor when things go wrong is a problem. When Lewis decried the team's selfishness after the game, everyone immediately thought about Johnson.
Everyone except the receiver, that is.
``He's not referring to me at all,'' Johnson said. ``Selfish in what way? What have I done or what have I said for that to even fit?
``When our coach makes a remark like that, the first reaction is your so-called star receiver who is out there - you know how my personality is. But it wasn't directed at me.''
Without singling out a player, Lewis made it clear he's tired of the outbursts. Besides Johnson's complaints, receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh loudly questioned the play calling on the sideline after a third-down incompletion.
``I wish we could eliminate them all,'' Lewis said of the outbursts, ``because they don't understand the unnerving effect they have on other guys at times.''
The defense is an entirely different issue. Although Lewis made his coaching mark there, he hasn't been able to build a dependable defense in Cincinnati. This season, his defense is again one of the league's worst.
That long run of losing before he got here is no longer an excuse. Lewis has had five years to rebuild the team the way he wanted, more than enough in the parity-driven NFL.
This is his team to win with - or to lose.

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