From the time the Bengals hired Marvin Lewis as their head coach in 2003 to now, he has done some amazing things. He helped pull the team out of the lost decade of the '90s and sent them to the playoffs as the AFC North champions in just two years. The Bengals have been to the playoffs 11 times in franchise history and four times with Lewis as the team's head coach, which is one more than Paul Brown and more post season trips than any other Bengals coach.
He rebuilt the Bengals with Carson Palmer under center and then amazingly rebuilt them once again with Andy Dalton at quarterback. He has, along with Mike Zimmer, built one of the more feared defenses in the league. But perhaps most importantly, he has helped the Bengals shed the Bungles image and turned them into a year-in and year-out competitor.
Does he have the capability to take the Bengals to the Super Bowl, though?
Over the last few years we've seen a big change in the Bengals' front office and management style. Mike Brown has gone from one of the worst owners in professional sports to one of the better team managers in the league. The evidence is everywhere. Not only have the Bengals gone to the playoffs in three of the last four years, but their success in the draft, as well as the Carson Palmer trade have helped build one of the youngest and most talented rosters in the league.
Many believe, though, that Marvin Lewis, over the last decade, has slowly but surely wrestled some control of the team away from Brown. In 2011 there were rumors that Brown wanted to select Ryan Mallet out of Arkansas to replace Palmer. Mallet was possibly the best pure passer in the draft class and has a cannon for an arm, but he also had a lot of off field issues, which were responsible for his fall into the third round.
Having recently hired Jay Gruden as the team's new offensive coordinator and adopted his West Coast system, a quarterback like Mallet wasn't necessary. The Bengals needed a smart, accurate passer who was a good leader. Gruden and Lewis liked Andy Dalton. That's the way the team went. Whether or not they had to convince Brown that was the way to go or whether or not they had to talk him out of selecting Mallett is completely unknown, but rumors exist for a reason most of the time.
There was also the Palmer trade. When the Bengals' former savior demanded a trade and threatened retirement, Brown was a brick wall. He refused to trade Palmer fearing it would open the door to other players to bully their way out of their contract. His stance made sense, but at the same time, with a former No. 1 overall pick with the capabilities of Palmer, losing him for nothing is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
In the end, though, the Bengals dealt Palmer to the Raiders in one of the most one-sided trades in NFL history. The Raiders will still paying for Palmer after they already traded him away for a seventh-round pick. Lewis may have had something to do with the trade, but he may not. It could have simply been a case of Brown unwilling to pass up a deal nearly too good to be true.
While it appears Lewis may have wrestled some control away from Brown and while the Bengals have found more success on the field, they seem to have hit a wall. They have been knocked out of the playoffs two years in a row in the first round, both times by the Texans. Both times the game was out of hand quickly and both times the Bengals were shown they weren't quite ready.
The Bengals have added a lot of talent in the offseason and may have one of the best overall rosters in team history heading into 2013. It's so good that when final cuts are made, the Bengals will have some very hard decisions to make and may cut players that could go on to start for other teams. That's a good position to be in. Still, there seems to be a large gap between the Bengals and teams like the Ravens, Patriots, Broncos and even the Steelers at times.
Under Lewis, the Bengals have struggled with game management and many believe they have struggled to utilize certain players the right way. They struggle at times during big games and recently, the offense hits a downhill trend late in the season. In order for the Bengals to win the Super Bowl, these things would need to be reversed. The 2012 Baltimore Ravens are a good example.
They struggled during the season at times, but when the playoffs began, the won the big games and the offense exploded when it needed to. They defeated the Colts and then upset the Broncos and Patriots on their way to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, which is something many think the Bengals aren't ready to do.
Despite Lewis' success, Cincy Jungle's staff is somewhat split on Lewis' ability to lead the Bengals to the Super Bowl.
Can he? Yes. Will he? Likely not, unfortunately. I think he has a lot of great qualities that you ask of your head coach--good motivator of young men, has a pretty good eye for football talent and has been a part of three other organizations that have a winning track record (Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington).
Still, there are things that happen in-game that puzzle me. He doesn't seem to have a consistent grasp on game management and has the dubious quality of getting rattled in a big game. If you were to take the team's biggest games in the Marvin Lewis era, there would likely be a losing record and an 0-4 record in the playoffs doesn't bring me confidence. On top of all of that, the Bengals are just now beginning to act like a big boy franchise and time may run out on Lewis before they fully hit their stride.
All of that being said, I think that this is one of the most all-around talented rosters that he has had, and if it were to get done (win a championship, that is) it would be within the next 2-3 seasons. Otherwise, the window may close on him.
I think he is capable of leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl, but only if he treats the big games like any other regular season game. In a typical game, Marvin in likely to go for it on fourth-down, surprising the other team with a fake punt and swinging momentum to his favor. In a big game, Marvin is likely to waste both of his challenges on meaningless plays that have almost no chance of being overturned. In a typical game, Marvin will allow the offense to come out and unleash a 70-yard wildcat pass to instantly set the tone of the game. In a big game, Marvin is likely to stick to a conservative approach that relies on the offense to succeed without the element of surprise, instead of allowing them to react to what the defense gives them. I think he needs to get out of his own way.
Can Marvin Lewis lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl victory?
Short answer, yes. I think that as a talent evaluator, Marvin Lewis is top notch. Before the draft we detailed his picks for the Bengals and on most occasions the drafts were solid. Marvin has also hit some "home runs" in free agent and undrafted rookie signings that make the Bengals a stronger team. That being said I don't trust that Marvin alone could pilot this team through the playoffs. We have seen too many times Marvin mismanage the team in game situations that ended up hurting the outcome. I also wonder if it is his influence in game over the direction of the offense. Sometimes in big games it looks like the Bengals should stick to the run but try and establish a pass or vice versa and they end up losing because of it. I believe this is the fault of Marvin by either his order or by his lack of recognition to change the course. So by talent, I think he has put the Bengals in a great place, I hope the other staff can push through on game days in execution.
Nick Seuberling (host of Who Dey Weekly):
If you were to put Marvin Lewis as the head coach of the New England Patriots, I believe he has the ability to win multiple Super Bowls. Instead, he's the head coach of a franchise that is just now becoming relevant in today's NFL. It's going to take this roster time to learn what life is like in the postseason. Can he win the Super Bowl as the head coach of the Bengals? My guess is no.
While the success and failure of a team's offense and defense is a reflection of the offensive and defensive coordinators, the overall success of the team all rests on the head coach's shoulders. The Bengals' goal is now to win the Super Bowl. If Lewis can't do that, Brown may look for a head coach that can.
Do you think he can do it?