It's a legitimate question.
Did Saturday's 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers cost Marvin Lewis his job? We know enough about Mike Brown that there's a low probability Cincinnati will make a head coaching change during the offseason. However, it's reached a point, even among steadfast defenders of Lewis, that the energy for a defense (and its arguments for it) are fading.
In addition to losing his seventh postseason game -- an NFL record for head coaches without a playoff win -- the resulting confrontation at the end of Saturday's game may initiate difficult questions during the offseason. Do I believe Brown will fire Lewis this offseason? No. Do I believe Cincinnati's future should be given substantive thought, especially with Lewis entering the final year of his contract? Yes.
Yet, you have to ask: Was Saturday's meltdown Lewis' fault?
At issue are Vontaze Burfict's actions, armed with an earned reputation, and Adam Jones' uncontrolled outbursts, usually forcing concerned teammates to seek out Jones when there's a confrontation (even if he's not directly involved). Is Lewis unable to control these players? Better yet, is anyone? Clearly Lewis isn't instructing these guys to lose their composure or add 30 yards of conduct penalties.
There are players in Cincinnati's locker room, not only saying that Lewis deserves every bit of criticism that he can't control these players, but also wondering if it cost Lewis his job. Per NFL Network reporter Mike Silver:
(Adam) Jones conceded, however, that many outsiders would blame Lewis for failing to control his team. And, truth be told, several players inside the Bengals' locker room -- none of whom wanted his name used, for obvious reasons -- felt that Lewis deserved the criticism, citing a season-long lack of discipline among some defensive players in games, practices and meetings.
"Eventually," one player said, "this (expletive) catches up to you."
Said another: "You put up with enough (expletive) for enough time, guys think they can continually do it."
Questioning the identify of these players is only natural.
However, it doesn't change the fact that there are players feeling this way; we would like to acknowledge that postgame reactions, especially after a loss like this, tend to be raw; these emotions could subside with a cooling down period. Maybe. ESPN NFL analyst Jeff Saturday remarked that this type of loss could splinter a locker room, CBS' Pete Prisco said the same on Twitter. It wouldn't be a first, as Lewis nearly lost a segmented locker room when Carson Palmer "retired" before Andrew Whitworth finally got everyone on board.
Former players, like CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, are speaking out. "If Marvin Lewis can't control his players, then maybe Marvin shouldn't be on the sidelines coaching that dreck." Esiason also said on live TV that he was embarrassed to be a Bengal last night.
If Cincinnati decides to replace Lewis, the leading candidate would be defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, according to CBS Sports NFL Insider Jason La Canfora. Cincinnati views Guenther as a "Mike Zimmer in the making" and the Bengals don't want to lose him. Guenther is currently a candidate for the vacant head coaching spot in Cleveland; however there are disputed reports about whether an interview has actually been scheduled.
Will the Bengals replace Lewis?
Granted, the Bengals haven't won a postseason game since Jan. 6, 1991. They've also put themselves in position to play those games for five straight seasons and in six of the last seven years. You can credit Lewis for that.
However, it's not enough anymore.
During last year's offseason, Lewis was entering a contract year in 2015. During March, Mike Brown was noncommittal about extending Lewis beyond this season.
"I think Marvin has done a fine job with us," Brown said. "He's been with us for a long time now. We have a good relationship. I hope that relationship goes forward into the future. But we aren't at the future yet. We don't have to make this decision until after this year. He doesn't have to make this decision until next year. Right now he's under contract and he's fulfilling it as we would expect and he knows he should. "
Eventually, Lewis signed a one-year extension through 2016.
Lewis shouldn't feel safe anymore either, as Mike Brown is obviously displeased about failing to achieve the unachievable. "We're a pretty good team. I think we can give a good account of ourselves,'' Brown said during the annual media luncheon last July. "We haven't driven the nail home. It doesn't please me.''
There are talking points and counterpoints supporting Lewis, as well as arguments against the Bengals coach for 13 years. Knowing Brown, Lewis will probably remain on Cincinnati's sideline in 2016. It is, however, interesting to see how the team approaches Lewis beyond next season without a postseason win.