It was the question heard ‘round the world.
After the Cincinnati Bengals’ humiliating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, Marvin Lewis was asked what his “thinking” was, when going for it on fourth-and-one. The play ended in a Bengals touchdown.
“To score a touchdown,” responded Lewis, who then seemed to lose patience with the reporters, in his usual ironic way. Smiling, but clearly frustrated, Lewis continued: “I mean come on.” Then, as if to dare them, while laughing, shrugging, and walking away, he added, "Anything else?"
This exchange has received quite a bit of attention, perhaps because it encapsulates the dying hopes of the Cincinnati Bengals’ 2017 season. And, while I usually translate Marvin Lewis’ guarded comments at press conferences, today, I just want to focus on this one climactic event.
If this were a Shakespearean play, Marvin Lewis would be in his fifth act. This would be the part where the hero falls on his own sword, staring at the heavens, saying “the rest is silence.”
And Marvin Lewis’ tragic flaw? Only a refusal to change, and a refusal to accept when received wisdom no longer works.
Yes, the reporter certainly asked a silly question. But, having watched more of these press conferences with Marvin Lewis than I would care to, I can tell you that it isn’t easy to ask a question that coach will like.
Ask a question about the future, and he will smile, promising you that you will know nothing until the day the players play, the drums beat, and the Bengals lose. In fact, that is the very sort of answer he gave about John Ross. Jokingly, or rather sarcastically, Lewis compared it to a refusal to predict the weather:
Q: Care to give us a John Ross forecast?
ML: “No. It’s raining outside today, isn’t it” [He laughs.] ... There will be no forecast. When John Ross is out there and suited up, he will be out there and suited up.”
The problem with responses like these, at this point, is that they are indicative of Bengals management’s attitude—or at least the way it appears. Lewis can dismiss questions because he feels indebted to no one, not even the fans, who are represented by reporters at these press conferences.
Bengals fans care about John Ross because there is so little to be hopeful about when a team as talented as Cincinnati’s is 2-4, with one of those wins against the Browns (which shouldn’t even count). They want to see John Ross play (although I doubt he will ever be consistently healthy, since, after all, there is a reason fragile sprinters don’t do well in the NFL).
They want to see Mixon throughout the game, especially when he blows through the Steelers defense in the first half of a contentious match. They are, rightfully, sick of the mystery, sick of the secrets, because magic tricks only work when the rabbit disappears, not when it shows up dead.
And if this is indeed a Shakespearean tragedy then the figure of Iago or Caius Cassius, that is, the figure of the traitor who brings down our tragic figure, is none other than Mike Brown himself.
After all, every time he renews Lewis’s contract, we die a little inside. Mike Brown has enabled Marvin Lewis, by making Lewis the second-longest tenured head coach in the league, after a man who deserves the tenure he has been given, Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Mike Brown knows, and we do too, that he has no intention of hiring an expensive, high-caliber coach. So he will settle for decent, and Marvin Lewis is decent. His defense is consistently good, but never good enough. His offense has the basic skills to win the number of games needed to make it into a playoff game, but never enough to win one.
So, perhaps the reason why Marvin lost it on a question about going for it on “fourth down” is because his career is at its end, at its “do or die” point. Metaphorically, Marvin Lewis is on fourth-and-one. And he’s going for it. He’s trying to have one last successful season as a coach. His failure at Pittsburgh was, in other words, a sign that he won’t be making it on fourth-and-one.
The tears in his eyes at the start of that press conference were tragic—everything I know about Marvin Lewis tells me that he is an upright man who cares for his players.
Yet, like with every tragic hero, there comes a time to take a bow and exit the stage.