The Bengals are currently struggling through a 3-7-1 season to forget. For many teams, this would be grounds for dismissal of the head coach – especially one who has been with the team for 14 years and has yet to collect a solitary playoff victory. But to understand why the Bengals could possibly retain Marvin Lewis beyond the current dismal season, one has to go back and retrace the team’s history.
The year 1988 was a great one for the Bengals. They had a great team with great players. They tied the team record with a 12-4 season, and reached the Super Bowl for only the second time in their history. Ultimately they lost the Super Bowl, but it was a good year to be a Bengals’ fan. In 1989, the team fell short of the playoffs at 8-8, but had a solid season. They returned to the playoffs in 1990, advancing to the second round of the playoffs before falling to the Oakland Raiders in what would be Bo Jackson’s final NFL game. Those teams were coached by Sam Wyche, who was generally considered to be a good and innovative coach. He was brought in by and favored by Paul Brown. But shortly before the 1991 season, Brown died, and control of the team moved to his son Mike Brown.
That year was a rough one for the Bengals. Not only did 1991 see their founder pass away, but the Bengals went 3-13, which was their worst season in over two decades. Sam Wyche had publically and privately butted heads with Mike Brown, and wanted an expanded role in running the team. This was a reasonable request, since Mike Brown was not the football mind that his father, Paul Brown was. Whether it was a reaction to the bad 3-13 season, or the request for more control, or the disagreement of personalities, Wyche was no longer employed by the team following the 1991 season. The team announced that Wyche had resigned, while Wyche claimed he was fired. There were still years and money on his contract, and Wyche stood to lose $1,000,000 of it if he chose to quit the team. So it made no sense for Wyche to quit, and he turned over the matter to his lawyers. Regardless of the circumstances behind Wyche’s ended employment, the younger Brown made the team his own.
Brown brought in David Shula as his head coach, and Brown played a heavy role in the draft and personnel decisions. As many know, the results were abysmal. In Shula’s first three seasons, the team went 11-37. In the 11 year after Wyche was removed as head coach, the team went from Shula to Bruce Coslet, and to Dick LeBeau, all the while failing to garner a single winning season, going 52-124 over that span. The last five years of that run were particularly bad, as the team was 19-61 with only one season with more than four wins (six wins in 2001).
In 2003 the team brought in their fourth head coach since getting rid of Wyche, and hired Marvin Lewis. Immediately, things improved from horrible to mediocre. His first two seasons were 8-8 campaigns, and his third season was the first time the team had a winning record or playoff appearance since Wyche was coaching the team back in 1990. Unfortunately, that excitement of 2005 was short-lived, as the team got progressively worse in 2006 and 2007, before an awful 4-11-1 season in 2008.
With only one winning season in 6 years, which saw a one-and-done playoff exit, many teams would be ready to move on to another head coach – especially since the team had progressively gotten worse in four straight years, including an especially bad 4-11-1 season. But for whatever reason, Brown stuck with Lewis. Lewis’ first six seasons were not great, but they were much better than the team’s previous dozen, and so the team opted for mediocre, afraid of going back to awful if they made a coaching change.
The move to keep Lewis initially seemed to pay off, as the team responded with a winning record and playoff appearance. It was only their second such season since 1991. But as with four years earlier, 2009 saw a quick exit from the playoffs. The following season was an awful 4-12 year. Lewis’ 2008-2010 seasons accounted for an 18-29-1 record. On most teams, that would again be grounds for dismissal. Only two winning seasons in eight years, with an 0-2 playoff record is not be a good sign. But again, Brown stuck with Marvin Lewis. Why Lewis was retained following a second horrible season is up for debate. And while it struck many as frustratingly odd, it showed that Brown was willing to stick with Lewis, despite a bad year here or there.
Following a couple good (lucky?) drafts, which brought in some great players: Carlos Dunlap (2010), Geno Atkins (2010), A.J. Green (2011), and Andy Dalton (2011), the team went on a run of five straight playoff appearances. In 2011 the Bengals just barely made the playoffs. Despite losing in Week 17 to the Ravens in a win-to-get-in game, both the Chargers upset the Raiders, and the Dolphins upset to Jets, to push the reluctant Bengals into the playoffs. The Bengals’ next four playoff appearances were made a little more securely, and the team went 52-27-1 from 2011 through 2015. But despite all five of these seasons resulting in playoff appearances, they also all resulted in defeats during Wild Card weekend.
The Bengals are now struggling through a very bad 3-7-1 season, and many in the national media, and many fans, are assuming that the Bengals will fire Marvin Lewis. But not only are the Bengals suffering through a bad season, they seem to have many issues stemming from the head coach position: poor in-game management, an apparent lack of leadership, lackluster drafts, an inability to adjust during the game, and a frustrating unwillingness to move on from bad players on their roster (Mike Nugent, Domata Peko, Russell Bodine, etc...). While all of these factors would be grounds for most teams to move on from their head coach, Mike Brown has shown that a bad season and a lack of playoff success are not necessarily factors in determining Lewis’ employment.
It seems that perhaps Brown realized his mistake in firing Wyche, and a horrible decade of awful teams, awful hiring decisions, and awful personnel moves made Brown realize that finding a good head coach isn’t as easy as finding a good banana in the produce section of the grocery store. Based on this, it would make sense why Lewis seemingly has permanent job security with Brown controlling the team, if Brown is willing to tolerate a bad season now and again. The only other alternative he has known as an owner is the absolutely awful teams he was responsible for in the decade after he got rid of Wyche.
There is an old adage that “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”. For those familiar with the phrase, the Bengals are clearly a team that prefers to keep the one bird in their hand.