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Coach Talk: Marvin Lewis talks keeping veterans and not trusting rookies

In his final press conference for the 2016 NFL season, Marvin Lewis gives some interesting answers. What did he say, and more importantly, what does it all mean?

Baltimore Ravens v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Is never winning a playoff game the definition of “great”? Are in-game coaching adjustments overrated (or just journalism jargon — more on that below)? Is it rational to sit rookies due to a fear they might make a mistake? And just how long is too long to hold onto a veteran player who is struggling, and costing your team victories? In a roundabout way, Bengals’ head coach Marvin Lewis addresses all of these questions in his most recent press conference to close out the season.

We’ll address his questions and our analysis for one final time this season.

Question: There was a time when nobody wanted to be here, what part did you play in turning that around?

Lewis’ response: Well, I don't know what part I played. I just think back in '03, when we began the discussion with Mike, my question was. ‘Do we want to be great in the NFL? Do we want to be a winning franchise?’ And that's what they told me. And that's what we've worked hard at being. And we fell short this year.

Commentary: Well, if the goal is to become great, they have fallen short every year that Lewis has been the head coach. Yet the team continues to employ him. So, either being great is not related to winning playoff games, or it is not as important to the franchise as Lewis implies it is.

Question: So you're not looking at a reboot, like in 2010?

Lewis’ response: I don't have any cool words yet.

Commentary: If Lewis wants a cool word, I’ll offer him “lacrimation” – now that’s a cool word. So is “asperges”. But labeling “reboot” as a cool word seems like a lame attempt to dismiss the question outright. And by dismissing the question, one could reasonably guess that Lewis doesn’t know what his team needs, which seems to match what he says after every loss – that his team needs to get better, but he’s not quite sure how.

Question: But you’re not flipping the house, it's more like a paint job?

Lewis’ response: I don't know, But we've got to be better, I just know that. That's what we'll spend the next couple weeks with the coaches and take a deep look at us.

Commentary: Getting with the coaches to identify the root cause seems like a silly endeavor, when it’s the coaches themselves who are significant cause of the problem. The massive loss in assistant coaches over the last few years seems to have played a key part in the team’s struggles in 2016. It’s like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping all over again, when the person, in hindsight, who the evidence showed as the primary suspect, was put in charge of the investigation.

Question: Are the fourth quarter struggles a matter of intangibles? Or is it competitiveness?... What about Xs and Os?

Lewis’ response: We have to figure out a way to get better at it...It’s not x’s and o’s.

Question: So you don’t think teams are adjusting?

Lewis’ response: No...the ‘adjustment,’ that’s more journalism jargon than truth.

Commentary: And now we finally have our answer to the Bengals’ second half struggles. The Bengals don’t make halftime adjustments, because they don’t believe such a thing exists. Put in another context, it would be like asking a police chief how he plans on addressing an increase in drug-related crimes in the city, only to have him reply that drugs are not related to criminal activities in any way, and that the connection is merely imaginary.

Question: This year in an eight game stretch, you gave up 15.4 points per game and went 3-5, that’s crazy ...

Lewis’ response: It is. Until you look at the converse of it. That’s what gets you beat. If you don’t score enough, you are going to get beat. It’s not like we turned it over. We weren’t foolish or careless with it. We didn’t beat ourselves with penalties, we didn’t beat ourselves with returns or gaffes on special teams or other things, field position … other than the fact we missed kicks. You miss kicks in critical moments, it gets you beat.

Commentary: Interesting that Lewis seems to recognize that missing kicks will cost you games, yet he waited years before finally replacing the kicker who was missing kicks and costing the team games. It could be that Lewis is a very slow learner?

Question: Do you like what Randy Bullock did, or will there be open competition?

Lewis’ response: I think we are up in the air right now...Randy is someone who we identified early on who could replace Mike (Nugent) when we looked for a replacement. We didn’t make the move one week, and Randy was unavailable for two weeks. Mike didn’t come out of it, and we made the move.

Commentary: Yikes! Re-read that last part of what Lewis said. This means the team was looking to dump Nugent after the 16-12 loss to the Bills in Week 11, when Nugent missed both of his extra point attempts. It also means the team had no interest in a young kicker with upside like Ka’imi Fairbairn, but had locked in on Bullock with tunnel vision. But instead of dropping Nugent after the Week 1 loss, they stuck with him for one more week which included another missed extra point attempt in a 19-14 loss to the Ravens. Then Bullock signed with the Steelers, and the Bengals stuck with Nugent for two more weeks, which included missed extra point attempts in games against the Eagles and Browns. Only after Bullock was released by the Steelers, the Bengals finally dropped Nugent and added Bullock. The scariest part is that if Bullock had not been released by the Steelers, it’s quite possible the Bengals would have kept Nugent for the entirety of the 2016 NFL season. Yikes, again!

Question: Is Mike Nugent a possibility to be part of the competition?

Lewis’ response: No. I don’t think so.

Commentary: Well, there seems to be two ways of interpreting this. Either Lewis plans to do what he does every other year and hand the job to Nugent without competition, which would mean that Mike Nugent is not part of a competition. Or, Lewis has finally learned his lesson, and will not hand the starting job to a subpar kicker without looking to upgrade. I think it’s the latter.

Question: So there will be training camp competition?

Lewis’ response: I don’t know that...

Commentary: The Bengals’ kicker is a pending free agent. The team is likely unwilling to pony up to sign Steven Hauschka, assuming he hits free agency, and the next tier of potential free agents (Greg Zuerlein, Connor Barth, Randy Bullock or Robbie Gould), are not good enough to be named sure starters without any competition. So it’s bizarre to avow that there is no foresight whether the team will or will not have a competition in 2017. The only possibility would be that the team drafts a kicker, but given their aversion to drafting kickers, and miserable results when they do draft a kicker, this seems highly unlikely.

Question: Is there more value on the kicker now than previously?

Lewis’ response: We’ve been fortunate to have good kickers. I fully expected Randy to make the kick in Houston.

Commentary: Um, Nugent has been in the lower half of the league in kicking accuracy since joining the Bengals. If that’s a “good” kicker, Lewis is certainly grading on a very generous curve.

Question: So what do you like about it? What wakes you up in the morning?

Lewis’ response: ...At 4:50 this morning, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ But it just drives you to be better. I mean, it’s a competitive thing...

Commentary: I would have guessed the alarm clock is what wakes him up in the morning.

Question: Hindsight is 20/20, but do you look back and think maybe we should have made the move with Nugent?

Lewis’ response: It's way easier to look back. But again, the decision made with Mike was a tough a decision when it was made. It was discussed many other times.

Commentary: It is interesting that the release of Nugent was discussed many times before it was actually done. It makes one ponder how much this fear of releasing underperforming veterans permeates the organization, and how much it holds them back from winning more games.

Question: (Hindsight is 20/20, but do you look back and think) ... maybe some of these younger guys should have been worked in sooner?

Lewis’ me, it's got to be a competitive thing. It's got to be what does he know, what does he not know...I think that's the hard part, to put everybody in jeopardy. So you've got to prove it. It's harder this way in the NFL. Our time is constricted (more) than what it used to be...

Commentary: Going back to this fear of releasing underperforming veterans, Lewis essentially shows that the team is afraid of a rookie making a rookie mistake, and would rather rely on subpar veterans over a younger player who is not given an opportunity to prove what they can do. This has been a common theme during Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati.

Question: This draft is shaping up to be pretty intriguing – you’ve got a lot of picks – do you sense this draft will have a big impact on what you’re doing?

Lewis response: ...Obviously the guys picked early in the draft have a great opportunity to come in and make substantial contributions early on, and that will be great for this team...

Commentary: This is a very odd thing for Lewis to say, since it basically contradicts everything that he does. Young players rarely get any opportunity to make substantial contributions early on, let alone a great opportunity. First round pick William Jackson III was kept on the bench in favor of an aging special teams player. Darqueze Dennard and Dre Kirkpatrick rarely saw the field in their first few seasons. Tyler Eifert was criminally under-utilized in his rookie season. And so on.