Marvin Lewis is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL, despite the fact that the Bengals have yet to win a postseason game under his watch. Owner Mike Brown has shown great trust and admiration for Cincinnati's head coach over the years. However, after some hesitation, Brown extended Lewis in April, but only for a year, a sign that the Bengals' owner may want to go in a different direction if the Bengals' season ends in postseason failure once again. But - assuming we see similar results this year - does Lewis deserve to go? This is the topic of the latest episode of "Sorry If I Spit When I Speak":
It is also the topic of the following debate:
Marvin Lewis Must Stay in Cincinnati
We Need to Shake Things Up
Dadio W. McDuck
Dr. Hodgie E. Smodgie
When Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati on January 14, 2003, the Bengals had a record of 55-149 under Mike Brown. You know how people take turns poking fun at the Jaguars and the Browns? Well, there was no turns back then. The Bengals were the unquestioned laughingstock of the league. We all still cringe when we hear our nickname from those times, "the Bungles."
Now let me give you a little list: The New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers, the Denver Broncos and the Cincinnati Bengals. Those are the four teams to make the playoffs every season the last four years. The first three teams have arguably the top three quarterbacks in the league, superstars who are at the heart of their success. The Bengals have Andy Dalton, God bless him. Our identity, our superstar, the reason people have learned to take us seriously is Marvin Lewis. Say what?! I'll explain. But first let’s take a look back at Lewis’resumé to see why the Bengals hired him in the first place.
Lewis was the defensive coordinator of a 2000 Baltimore Ravens team that is considered one of the best of all time. That team allowed 970 yards on the ground and only 165 points, both NFL records for a 16-game season. In the Super Bowl, their opponent, the New York Giants, had 16 possessions: 11 punts, four interceptions, and the clock running out to end the game. Lewis deservedly won multiple awards for assistant coach of the year.
After Tampa Bay backed out of an offer to make him head coach in 2002, Lewis became the defensive coordinator and assistant coach of the Washington Redskins. Their defense skyrocketed to fifth best in the league in total yards and increased their sack total from the previous year by 15. In 2003, Lewis was clearly a hot coaching commodity.
So, when Lewis came in, obviously he must have replaced some nobody who didn’t know anything about coaching, right? How else could the team have gone 2-14 the previous year? Well, the man Lewis replaced was Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau. That’s right, even a legend, defensive genius and innovator, who helped guide the Pittsburgh Steelers [shudders] to two championships could not save this franchise. You know that horrible roster poor LeBeau was stuck with in Cincinnati? Lewis won eight games with essentially the same guys. By 2005, we were 11-5 and in the playoffs. I was shocked. It felt like winning the Super Bowl. We hadn’t made the playoffs for 14 years.
Now, I’m not saying we should get complacent. But I don’t think a lot of us realize just how hard it is to turn around a franchise. It takes time. The Browns, let’s admit it, were a good organization before they left for Baltimore, having made the playoffs nine times in their last sixteen seasons (1980-1995). Now, the Ravens are (in terms of winning on the football field) a quality franchise, having made the playoffs 10 times and winning two Super Bowls in 19 years. And, the new inception of the Browns, created in 1999, has been a mess, only making the playoffs once in sixteen years. And the disaster Lewis inherited was probably worse than the expansion team version of the Browns.
Lewis has built perhaps the most talented roster in the league. We keep more of the players we draft than any other franchise, including that seemingly-perfect franchise in Green Bay. While director of player personnel Duke Tobin is largely to thank, I believe it is Lewis’ vision and decision-making that drives this franchise.
Lastly, it’s important to think where we might be without Lewis. Don’t think if he’s fired we’ll bring in some big-name coaching hire. It’ll either be Hue Jackson or Vance Joseph. Jackson’s tenure in Oakland does not suggest he’d be more successful than Lewis. And Joseph is a position coach. He may indeed be a rising star, but he is an unknown. And that’s just in terms of coaching.
In terms of personnel, I don’t think it will be as easy for someone like Tobin to gain Mike Brown’s trust the way Lewis has. Remember in 2011 when Lewis refused to re-up with the Bengals until he saw some changes in facilities and the player personnel department? He got those changes. And the Bengals have seen a tremendous turnaround on the field since then.
So, you have to ask yourselves: do you want to hand this team back over to Brown? Because, despite Brown’s age, that is entirely in the realm of possibility if Lewis leaves. At the very least, he would appoint someone close to him, maybe a family member, to be involved in football matters, with Katie Blackburn and her husband handling the financial side.
Lewis is, in my opinion, a Bengals legend. He has expressed that he would leave after this season if Cincinnati were to win it all. He’s also discussed the possibility of Joseph taking his spot as soon as next year. If Lewis does indeed leave, it should be on his terms and not because he isn’t getting the job done.
"Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive."
"When a great team loses through complacency, it will constantly search for new and more intricate explanations to explain away defeat."
"Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, [makes squish gesture] get squish, just like grape. Here, karate, same thing. Either you karate do 'yes' or karate do 'no.' You karate do 'guess so,' [makes squish gesture] just like grape. Understand?"
I’m not going to deny anything my co-host, the great Dadio McDuck, wrote about the impact Marvin Lewis has had on the Bengals. Fans in Cincinnati are still licking their wounds from the '90’s. Those were hard times. I get it. Lewis transformed this franchise. No doubt about that one.
But at a certain point, it becomes apparent a team simply needs to go in a different direction. It’s like we’re Elmo trying to climb Mount Everest. Lewis is Sheepa the Sherpa, who gets us halfway there, but then abandons us at the first sign of fear. When Sheepa leaves, Elmo is scared and all alone. In comes the Yeti, and Elmo is terrified. But, as it turns out, it is actually that very abominable snowman who gets him to the mountain top. I know we may find the idea of a new coach terrifying after what we’ve been through. But we might not realize that our very fears may be the key to our success.
Think about the 2014-15 Golden State Warriors of the NBA. Mark Jackson took a sorry franchise and made them relevant in a loaded Western Conference. But it took five-time champion, Steve Kerr and his larger-than-life personality, a sort of hybrid between Doogie Howser and Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, to get them that ring.
Or think about the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tony Dungy took a moribund franchise and made them, much like these Bengals, regular participants in the playoffs. But it was Jon Gruden, a spunky quarterback guru from Sandusky, Ohio, who would win them the Super Bowl in his very first year as coach.
Look, Lewis is the perfect assistant. He’s a defensive wizard and a sincerely good guy. But if congeniality were important for a head coach in the NFL, Sandra Bullock would be counting her Super Bowl rings, and Bill Belichick would be out of a job.
Being nice is just part of a bigger problem: Lewis is weak. He likes to play everything safe. On the field, we’ve seen a lot of predictable game plans. But Lewis also takes zero risk when it comes to the roster. In our last column, I expressed my opposition to extending Rey Maualuga and allowing Domata Peko to remain on the team. But he also keeps offensive players like Brandon Tate around years after they've worn out their welcome. And, unfortunately, Lewis’ biggest soft spot is reserved for the most important position on the team.
When people called for the head of quarterback Andy Dalton after the Bengals’ most recent playoff disaster, Lewis responded by saying he has "no problem with Andy Dalton" and that the Bengals "don't have time to waste time with another quarterback." Lewis was the one who made sure we signed Dalton to a big deal, even though Mike Brown was hesitant. Dalton and Lewis are tied at the hip, and appropriately so. They both are good enough to keep their jobs. And they both inspire complacency in the great fans of Cincinnati.
But it's time to let go. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. We’re not going back to the ‘90’s. Brown is too old for those shenanigans. And Duke Tobin is in place to make sure we keep drafting well. After we bench Dalton for A.J. McCarron, all that will remain is finding a top notch head coach. A guy with some real cajones. My vote is for Bill Parcells. It would take some convincing, sure. But if he could do for Cincinnati what he’s done for so many other franchises (i.e., take them to the next level), he’d be in the discussion for the greatest coach of all time.
Dadio wrote an article about bringing Parcells to the Bengals a little less than a year ago. Dadio claims he was ill at the time, but it was actually the one time he made sense. I’m open to other suggestions for head coach, but I strongly believe we must bring in someone of a similar pedigree.
So who are other coaches I’d support coming to Cincinnati? I think Jimmy Johnson could get guys to listen and play hard when it matters. And, of course, my dear friend Sam Wyche is always welcome back in Cincinnati. Those guys are head coaches, not company men or assistant coaches. They command a room. And they, like that Yeti, can take us to the mountain top.