It was time.
The tarot cards, crystal balls and every mechanism that tells one's fortunes hinted to it.
After finishing the season with ten wins and a postseason appearance in 2009, expectations in 2010 turned into an embarrassing ten-game losing streak and the collapse of all that the Bengals had developed. Yet the fault was theirs, failing to recognize the need to rebuild certain positions (offensive line, wide receiver, secondary, running back), instead relying on aging players and high-profile veterans.
From the rebuilding project that began in 2003 to the postseason appearance in 2005, the window to that generation closed and the first iteration of Lewis' Bengals was finally over.
In fact, Lewis in Cincinnati nearly over too.
Though the Bengals had reached out to Lewis during the season in 2010 to sign an extension, the Bengals head coach actively (and purposefully) refused. He had ideas, plans, suggestions to evolve a franchise that slow-footed the need to modernize. Lewis wanted more control of his coaching staff,, while ambitiously promoting a revamped scouting department and eventually, the necessity of holding indoor practices during inclement months in December.
Additionally the roster was in bad shape.
Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson were shells from the elites of all-star players, while other positions were aging out. There was no gameplan, a feeling of rebuilding that necessitated the philosophy that highlighted sustained success. From 2007 through 2010, the Bengals had losing seasons in three of those four years. And two of those losing records were highlighted with four-win seasons. Reflecting back, it was 2009 that was the aberration, unwisely adding more talent to a fragile roster that simply needed to be gutted.
For their part, the Bengals had tunnel vision with Lewis. They wanted him. They'll listen to his demands, even seriously considering to apply several. Lewis, who has already shown a propensity to shift disastrous seasons into salvageable follow-up campaigns, was the cause of sleepless nights. But unlike 2009, when the Bengals changed philosophies, the entire roster was targeted.
First resolution was needed with Lewis.
With an expired contract after the 2010 season, Lewis looked at his options. One report suggested that Pitt was interested, while Lewis made himself available to teams like the San Francisco 49ers. Most of that had the appearance of leveraging serious discussions with Cincinnati. But he made it clear that it was his choice.
"Talk to Lewis this afternoon after his game against Baltimore," Peter King said on NBC's Football Night in America in week 17. "His contract is up in Cincinnati. Everybody is assuming he's not going to be back. And I asked him about it and he said listen 'it isn't only about whether the Bengals want me back, it's whether I want to return.' So I think that thing is headed for divorce."
In reality, Lewis wanted to upgrade the teams training facilities and player personnel department. It was additionally believed that Lewis wanted total control on the development of his coaching staff. Paul Daugherty with the Cincinnati Enquirer opined at the time:
You might think that Lewis needs to go, anyway, and so what if he doesn't get the bubble, or a personnel dept, or the ability to release a few coaches from their jobs? Two of the last three years have been disasters. Eight years in one spot is a lifetime in the NFL.
But here’s the thing: If he leaves, most likely it will be because he didn't get the above concessions. All three requests are already standard operating procedure in most NFL towns where winning is a priority. So, showing Marvin the door doesn't remove the problem. It just passes it to someone else.
Then came January 4, 2011. Reports began surfacing that resolution was expected and that a deal could be signed by the end of the day. After hours of exhaustive negotiations, Lewis publicly departed the facility. Within an hour, the Bengals official twitter account made the announcement.
Marvin Lewis signs deal to return.— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) January 4, 2011
Now we can move on.
After Lewis signed a two-year deal worth $6.5 million through 2012, players squirmed.
During the NFL's Conference Championship weekend, ESPN Insider Chris Mortensen reported that Carson Palmer was demanding a trade. Serious enough never to play for the Bengals again, he would "use the retirement card". Chad Johnson told a radio show during an interview that he wasn't sure he and Lewis could coexist anymore.
"I have nothing to say about that. I’m not the owner of the team. My hands are out of that situation. The only thing I can remember, as of right now, about Coach Lewis, is Coach Lewis throwing me under the bus. When it was time to play the Chargers, knowing that I was hurt. That’s the only thing I can remember at this point."
Cedric Benson, a free agent at the time, announced that he wouldn't return if Bob Bratkowski remained as the team's offensive coordinator.
These are the personalities that Cincinnati no longer needed. No one was above the team.
It wasn't just the players that concerned the head coach. The biggest dilemma on Lewis' mind was identity. Who are the Bengals? What are they about?
"What upsets me is I can't tell who we are. My disappointment is I can't tell you what we are. The key to offense is to be offensive and stay offensive. What we are is a big statement. It has to be all encompassing."
The importance to the philosophical dilemma imported variables. What should Cincinnati do with disgruntled starters? How will the team revamp a roster, compounded by the looming NFL lockout that would prevent transactions, leaving the coaching staff to study film and analyze college players for the NFL draft? Convinced that Carson Palmer was serious, and convinced that Chad Johnson was done in Cincinnati (mentally and physically), the team heavily researched eligible players during the 2011 NFL draft. Before that, Lewis' perceived enhanced influence led to the firing of Bob Bratkowski, opening a vacancy for this unproven coach named Jay Gruden, who had experience as Jon's little brother in Tampa Bay, but extensive experience in Arena Football (and later the UFL). Was change finally here?
A.J. Green, viewed as a can't miss wide receiver with athletic talent that comes along every 5-10 years, identified a need to help rebuild Cincinnati's offense. But the question was really about quarterback. With the fourth overall pick, the Bengals deemed value over need, selecting Green then allowing the dust to settle with the risky hope that their quarterback would still be available. Which quarterback? Bengals President Mike Brown favored Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallet. Lewis and recently hired offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wanted TCU quarterback Andy Dalton. The coaches won. Mike Brown, known for decades as being this bull-headed, hard to convince owner when his mind was already made-up, deferred to his coaching staff. A shocking victory with significant implications. Change was truly here.
Yet the philosophical shift depended on Mike Zimmer and the Bengals defense. After impressive rookie seasons from Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, the Bengals began to identify and bolster a defensive line that could be considered the best in the NFL today. Offensively the team vastly rebuilt a crusty unit, from the quarterback to wide receivers, to athletically gifted tight ends and the promising rise of interior offensive linemen squeezed between two very good offensive tackles.
Unlike his previous rebuilding project, taking a 2-14 team in 2002 and charging head first into the 2005 playoffs, Marvin Lewis has headlined another significant rebuilding project. However, instead of keeping those cancerous cells that plagued Cincinnati prior to 2011, the Bengals wiped out as much as they could, developing a roster that would do something that the Bengals haven't done in 30 years. Gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
Now there's another window. It's a bigger window. Far more sustainable, developing rookies today to replace players that could leave tomorrow. It's a window that doesn't rely on one person with the promise that this could develop into something much more special. One of those legendary all-time teams in franchise history.
But there is one more thing for Lewis.
Though he's a fantastic coach to rebuild teams, Lewis remains a coach with a career .500 record and no postseason wins. It's one thing to rebuild teams -- a resume that will keep someone in the NFL for many years. Now it's on Lewis to follow-up with his latest rebuilding project and take Cincinnati where they haven't been before. A Super Bowl win.
That would be the true masterpiece.