It seems like every year the Bengals get better and better in the regular season, but fail to make an impact once the playoffs start for one reason or another. In 2011 they essentially hit the reset button following an abysmal 4-12 season and Carson Palmer's offseason trade demands. Many experts and analysts expected them to tank in 2011 as well.
Heading into the 2011 season, ESPN even went as far as to rank them all the way down at No. 32 in their preseason power rankings. Their response? They went 9-7 in Andy Dalton's rookie season and snuck into the playoffs with the AFC's No. 6 Wild Card seed. The next year they improved in the regular season (10-6), but still failed to capitalize in the post season. In 2013, it was the same story. They had an 11-5 regular season record, but failed to make noise in the playoffs.
In 2014 they took a bit of a step back due to a lot of key injuries and some key free agents who left in the offseason, but you've got to give Marvin Lewis and the coaching staff a lot of credit for still getting the the team into the playoffs.
In 2015, the Bengals got back on track by improving their regular season record from 12-4, but an epic meltdown in the Wild Card round led to a fifth consecutive heartbreaking loss.
Don't forget that prior to the disastrous 4-12 record that helped James Walker and the ESPN Power Rankings crew pick the Bengals as the worst team in the league, the Bengals were actually in the playoffs in the 2009 season with a 10-6 record. Once again, they failed to win even a single game in the playoffs. Go all the way back to 2005 and you'll find the same thing. You can probably blame that 2009 loss on Carson Palmer's knee injury. But, that's still seven first round exits in seven playoff appearances.
This last one was probably the worst of all of them. Sure, the loss in 2005 might have felt worse because it felt like the team was on the precipice of greatness after so many years of failure and we saw all of that hope quickly evaporated with Palmer's injury. But, this year the Bengals actually were good enough to win, even behind a backup quarterback. It was hard to see them really making much of an impact the following week without Andy Dalton, but the point was they had the Steelers beaten.
Or, rather, they almost did. It looked like they had finally conquered their playoff demons with an interception on Landry Jones by Vontaze Burfict. But, a fumble from Jeremy Hill and a pair of personal foul calls on Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones set the Steelers up in prime positioning for an easy field goal at the end of regulation. It gave the Steelers a slim 18-16 victory over the Bengals, as we all sat in disbelief of what had just happened.
It feels like we've analyzed this minute and a half long series of events into oblivion over the past month. But, it's still worth exploring the question: how responsible is Marvin Lewis for what happened? Did Lewis fumble the football with less than two minutes in the game deep in Steeler territory? No. Did he make contact with Antonio Brown's helmet at the 47 yard line? No. Did he lose his cool, after what he considered to be a poor call by the refs, resulting in an unsportsmanlike conduct call that added another 15 yards to Burfict's penalty? No.
However, what Lewis did do was put yet another unprepared team on the field in the playoffs. Unprepared this time, on how to handle themselves in the face of trouble. Yes, the players are to blame for their own mistakes. But, at some point, it's the head coach's job to get them ready for these situations. He's got to make them ready to be able to handle every scenario that might not go perfectly their way. When Lewis' teams are consistently unable to handle adversity at the most crucial times, it's time to blame the head coach.
At the same time, when a player scores a touchdown or secures a fumble recovery or snags an interception, rarely is Lewis getting credit for the positive plays taking place on the field.
Of course, I could be wrong. Plenty of people would like to point to how awful the team was before Lewis took the reigns. No winning seasons from 1992-2002? Yikes. For Lewis to take that product and get an 8-8 season in his first year is pretty good. For him to get winning seasons in eight of his 13 seasons as head coach and playoff appearances in seven, that's remarkable. The number of wins he has brought to this franchise has been unequaled by any other coach in franchise history. His win percentage is currently only beaten by Forrest Gregg, who was only around for 57 games. Overall, his team wins more games than they lose.
Just not when it counts. The way the 2015 season ended was a perfect example of that. Yes, they were playing with a backup quarterback. But, that backup quarterback was AJ McCarron, who has proven himself to be one of the best backups in the NFL right now. He wasn't perfect, but he did enough to win when it counted. He's not the one who fumbled the ball with 1:37 left. He's not the one who hit Antonio Brown at a bad angle. He's not the one who lost his cool on a penalty that he felt was unjust.
You've got to give credit to Ken Zampese for getting both of his guys (Andy Dalton and McCarron) ready to succeed this season. But, it's hard to give the same credit to Marvin Lewis. His job was to prepare the team for every situation, and he didn't. He prepared them to compete, but not to win in must-win situations.
As incredible of a job as he's done at turning this franchise around, I think his coaching ability has hit a wall with this team. Who knows, he could be the Bengals' Tony Dungy and the next guy could be their Jon Gruden. Lewis might go on to coach another team to the Super Bowl. But, do you approve of the job he did this season? I know I don't.
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