The Cincinnati Bengals are in the midst of their first truly disappointing season in many years. They will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. It is no surprise that many fans and analysts are calling for head coach Marvin Lewis to be removed. However, it was all but confirmed Tuesday that Lewis will be back for his 15th season next year.
There is certainly a case to be made that it is time for a change, but it is a case that has been made a thousand times over. While nothing will be certain until after Sunday’s season finale, it certainly does not look like a change is coming. That is not a bad thing for the Bengals organization, and here is why.
Bengals fans and media outlets are so quick to forget how bad things were before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati back in 2003. From 1991-2002, the franchise was the epitome of a laughingstock. The Bengals record in that span was an astonishing 55-137. Everything was wrong with the franchise. Bad coaching hires, horrible drafts, and the cheap ownership of Mike Brown were all problems.
The last of those deficiencies have not changed. As a native of Cincinnati, going to games back then was still fun, but mostly sad. To this day, mikebrownsucks.com is still running. Games were just a sobering reminder of how far behind Cincinnati was from the rest of the NFL.
Worst of all, the Bengals lost a significant chunk of fans in the younger generation. Many kids (including myself) became lifelong fans of other teams. It is impossible to overstate the amount of work Lewis had to do when he took the job.
Mike Brown is infamous for having a Jerry Jones level of control over the franchise, but Jones has been very successful despite down years. There are many stories as to just how little power Bengals head coaches had before Lewis.
In 1998, the Saints offered their entire draft to the Bengals in order to trade up to take running back Ricky Williams. Brown overruled his coaching staff and held firm to select quarterback Akili Smith. Smith played in just 22 NFL games.
Somehow, Lewis immediately seemed to have more power than his predecessors. Starting with Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, the Bengals drafts immediately improved. Thus, the on-field product was not far behind. Cincinnati went from 2-14 to the playoffs in just three years.
Given what he walked into, Lewis took the Bengals to the playoffs seven times during his tenure. That is nothing short of remarkable, regardless of what his team does when it reaches the playoffs.
The Playoff Failures Are Mostly Not His Fault
Speaking of the playoffs, the big knock on Lewis is his 0-7 playoff record. No denying that is bad, but here is my question- Of his seven playoff games, which ones was Lewis supposed to win? I came up with one, maybe two.
I was unable to find the betting lines for those seven games, but I did look at the rosters at the time those games were played. I challenge anyone reading this to do the same. In almost every case, the Bengals have the weaker roster. The loss to San Diego following the 2013 season is the only real shocker. Even that one does not bother me much. No team is immune to having a bad day at the worst possible time.
The Bengals may have won the 2005 wild-card game against Pittsburgh had Carson Palmer not gotten injured, but that is debatable. It takes a special coach to win playoff games with the less talented roster. A coach deserves no blame whatsoever for losing to better players. Make no mistake, while Brown values the input of Lewis, Brown still has the final say over player personnel decisions.
You Cannot Coach Common Sense
Cincinnati’s most recent playoff loss deserves its own section. Anyone reading this remembers the shocking fumble and ensuing drive that was aided by 30 yards of penalties on a single play. This allowed Pittsburgh to kick a chip shot field goal to extend Cincinnati’s playoff heartbreak.
To blame Lewis for this particular meltdown has always been amusing to me. Lewis is a football coach, not a babysitter. There is not a coach in this league that should have to tell their players not to head hunt or make contact with the opposing coaching staff in the final minute of a one possession playoff game. No coach makes a point of saying that, the assumption is that it is obvious. Unfortunately for Lewis, some players are just dumb.
Lack of suitable replacements
Unlike most NFL job openings, if Cincinnati were to become open, the pantry is not bare. Meaning, the Bengals are just a few tweaks away from winning in a big way. I simply don’t believe that a young first-time head coach like Matt Patricia or somebody else is more qualified for this situation than Marvin Lewis.
Several teams have made coaching changes in hopes of going from good to great. While transitions like Jon Fox to Gary Kubiak do happen, they are more of the exception. Situations like Rex Ryan to Todd Bowles are far more common. If Cincinnati could lure in a proven winner like Jon Gruden, that is a whole different ballgame, but that is about as likely as me becoming the next pope.
Additionally, the Bengals have hired names like Bruce Coslet and Dave Shula in the past. Considering all roads still lead back to Mike Brown, can this franchise be trusted not to botch another head-coaching search? I am not so sure.
While the frustration regarding Lewis is understandable, the risk in removing him far outweighs the reward. He has been able to win on a relativity consistent basis with the Bengals. Not many coaches can say that.
If he keeps putting his team in the mix most years, the Bengals will eventually get over the hump. Replace him with the wrong guy, and they could fall off a cliff… Again.
“From Our Haus to Yours”