Tenure: Marvin Lewis and the Bengals

Andy Reid, now in his second year at the Chiefs’ helm, has served more consecutive seasons as an NFL head coach (16) than any of his active league peers, and with good reason. Although he’s never finished climbing the mountain to an NFL championship, Reid has reached the playoffs 10 times while coaching his teams to five conference title games and a Super Bowl. Over his career, including 14 seasons in Philadelphia, he has amassed 10 playoff wins, six division titles and a career regular-season winning percentage of .587.

Meanwhile Bill Belichick, now in his 15th straight season piloting New England, has the longest active tenure with one franchise. His accomplishments with the Patriots have been tremendous: three Super Bowl crowns, five conference championships, eight AFC title games, 18 playoff wins, 11 division titles (New England has not lost the division title outright since 2000, an astounding feat) and a winning percentage of .727.

Less known is that Marvin Lewis is the next man up in both these tenure-specific categories. Now in his 12th consecutive season as a head coach, all with Cincinnati, Lewis has five playoff appearances, three division titles, a .522 winning percentage ‒ but zero playoff wins. How in the world does a coach with a complete lack of postseason success end up keeping his job with the same team for a dozen years? And who in their right mind would want to work for the Bengals?

When Lewis took over the Bengals in 2003, they were mired in an abysmal stretch. From 1991 through 2002, Cincinnati went 61-131 for a .317 winning percentage, an average of 5.1 wins annually that marked an era known simply as The Lost Decade. So why were the Bengals so bad for so long? NFL legend and team patriarch Paul Brown passed away before the 1991 season, leaving control of the club to his son Mike. Paul was the greatest innovator the game has ever seen and is considered by many to be the second-best coach in history after Vince Lombardi. Mike Brown is a Harvard law graduate and while I wouldn’t want to sit across the negotiation table from him, he knows nothing (video) about making smart football decisions.

The cascade of failure in Cincinnati began with busted draft picks like David Klingler, Ki-Jana Carter and Akili Smith. Head Coaches Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and 2010 Hall of Fame inductee Dick LeBeau were asked to make bricks without straw. While struggling franchises generally experience higher turnover, the Bengals only had four head coaches during this 12-year stretch (Sam Wyche had the job in their first year of futility but was fired after a memorable contract dispute.) In reality, Brown was too cheap to fire these men while their contracts still carried significant time and financial commitments, leading to long stretches redefining the term “lame duck.” The owner’s miserly ways extended to Cincinnati’s on-field talent, as Corey Dillon and others were low-balled or shipped out of town for draft picks when they finally tired of the constant contract battles. Even when the Bengals found stars like “Big Daddy” Dan Wilkinson, Carl Pickens, Takeo Spikes, and Dillon, those players went completely to waste in the absence of a solid team foundation.

Lewis came to Cincinnati with strong credentials: after serving as linebackers coach in Pittsburgh for four years he held the defensive coordinator post with the Ravens for six seasons. In 2000, on the way to victory in Super Bowl XXXV, he coached a Baltimore defense considered by many to be the greatest of all time. Following a season as defensive coordinator in Washington, he arrived in Cincinnati and immediately made his mark. In 2003, the Bengals jumped to 8-8 in his inaugural season, a marked turnaround from typically dismal 2-14 campaign in 2002. Lewis overcame a 1-4 start while keeping #1 overall pick Carson Palmer on the sidelines for the entire year. Palmer took the starting job in 2004 and the club repeated its record, but improved their point differential by 40 points while playing a much tougher schedule. As expected, Cincinnati took off in 2005, starting 11-3 and coasting to a division title; the combination of Palmer with receivers Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and Chris Henry proved lethal to opposing defenses..

The Bengals hosted Pittsburgh in the first round of the playoffs on the date that shall not be named. A month prior, Cincinnati had hung 38 points on their Steeler rivals at Heinz Field which essentially clinched the division title, so they were certainly capable of putting up points on Pittsburgh’s defense. On the Bengals’ second play of the playoff game, Palmer dropped back and uncorked a trademark 66-yard bomb to Henry. However, as only fate could have it for the Bengals, Palmer took a questionable hit (video) from Kimo von Oelhoffen and tore his ACL and MCL. Worse still, Henry dislocated his shoulder on the catch and was also lost. The Bengals did eventually grab a 17-7 lead, but Jon Kitna was easily solved by Pittsburgh’s defense and the Steelers reeled off 24 unanswered points to win it going away. Palmer rebounded from the hit with two good years and is still a serviceable quarterback to be sure, but he never achieved the stardom that might have been.

Mediocrity followed for the Bengals the next two years. After another crushing loss at home to Pittsburgh in the last game of the 2006 season, knocking Cincinnati from the playoffs, the team finished 7-9 in 2007 as Palmer threw a career-high 20 interceptions with five returned for touchdowns. By 2008 things were reverting to the bad old days, as Palmer was lost for most of the season with an elbow injury and the team started 0-8 before ending the season 4-11-1. Only a strong finish ‒ relatively speaking ‒ likely saved Lewis’s job and he was firmly on the hot seat entering 2009.

After a crushing loss in their opener (the Brandon Stokley 87-yard tipped pass (video) in the final minute is another classic Bengals moment), Cincinnati rebounded to win the division with several thrilling victories. Unfortunately, they were a walking infirmary by the time the playoffs rolled around and faced a Jets team hitting their stride at the perfect time. The combination of their ascent in 2009 with the signing Terrell Owens before training camp led many to dub them real contenders for 2010, but acquiring Owens was a desperation move to rectify the incredible free agent failure that was Antonio Bryant. The Bengals had given Bryant a big deal in the offseason while apparently forgetting to give him a physical. He ended up making $8 million in signing and workout bonuses before being released after a single preseason practice. The team bottomed out, going 4-12 and losing 10 straight games. Lewis’s contract expired and it appeared he was finally done after eight years.

Following two contentious days of meetings, Brown announced in a chillingly bad 27-minute press conference (video) that Lewis would return. The Bengals were lambasted for their decision and resumed their role as a national laughingstock. Palmer then announced that he would never play for the team again.

Why did Lewis decide to come back? And how sick was he to sign up for more dysfunction?

Lewis demanded, and received, more of a say in front office matters. He prioritized overhauling the club’s barebones scouting department, and insisted they no longer take on malcontents like Owens. Over the past three seasons, the Bengals have finally built from within like other successful organizations.

Despite predictions that they would be the worst team in football, Cincinnati went 9-7 in 2011 and made the playoffs thanks to two rookies: spectacular wide receiver A.J. Green and steady quarterback Andy Dalton. Coupled with the ascension of defensive stars Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, the Bengals were back in business. They bowed out in the first round to Houston but it was a house money game and spirits were high going forward. Palmer was dealt to Oakland for first- and second-round picks. The team continued to stockpile quality players through the draft, adding Kevin Zeitler, Marvin Jones and George Iloka (along with Vontaze Burfict and Emmanuel Lamur as undrafted free agents) in 2012, improving their record by a game but again suffering a postseason loss in Houston. It seemed that the playoff demons were going to finally be exorcised in 2013 as the Bengals went 11-5 to win the division. They hosted an 8-8 Chargers team that was lucky to be there, but Cincinnati fell flat on its face as Dalton committed four turnovers. Lewis’s seat was hot once again but Brown opted to extend him, valuing continuity with the team apparently still on the rise. Lewis also stood behind his quarterback throughout the entire process, putting the playoff loss on the whole team and emphasizing Dalton’s regular-season accomplishments. A coach and quarterback are often tied together, so it made sense for Lewis to stick with the only one he’s had since agreeing to come back as part of the post-2010 organizational reboot.

The move has paid off so far as the Bengals are the lone undefeated team in the AFC and have outscored opponents by 47 points. Lewis has wrested personnel control away from Brown, who has admitted he no longer solely runs the team ‒ a fact obvious to any Bengals fan as the constant losing has stopped. Together with invaluable player personnel director Duke Tobin, Lewis has produced excellent recent draft results. In Cincinnati’s 2014 opener, all 11 offensive starters and 19 of all 22 starters were homegrown players. There’s no way the Bengals of old could have taken on Burfict ‒ deemed uncoachable at Arizona State ‒ and his baggage. But Lewis transformed the culture when he gained control and the linebacker has fit in seamlessly with no issues.

Does Lewis make questionable in-game decisions? Yes. Does he often seem befuddled challenging plays and in the two-minute drill? Yes. All that being said, he’s a damn good coach who has twice turned a seemingly hopeless organization around, and the odds are against the Bengals finding a better one. Very few coaches would decide to come back after an eight-year run where they still didn’t have enough organizational input as they’d like, but Lewis knew the team would achieve consistent success if his vision was executed. I’m very happy to have him, and he’s as much a reason as anybody why the Bengals have become legitimate contenders with aspirations of being so for a long time.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

One thought on “Tenure: Marvin Lewis and the Bengals

  1. Great piece, Dan. This team is going to be another tough out for the Pats this weekend, largely because of what Lewis has achieved once Brown finally decided to GTFO of the way.

    >>**While struggling franchises generally experience higher turnover**, the Bengals only had four head coaches during this 12-year stretch<<

    Man, you ain't kidding on this. With the Raiders canning Dennis Allen overnight, they've now had 10 head coaches (and 24 starting quarterbacks) in the last 20 years — and that's with a 2002 Super Bowl appearance tucked inside those two decades of suckage.

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