After 15 seasons as head coach of the Bengals, Marvin Lewis appears ready to move on, and so does the front office.
The man who rescued the much-maligned franchise from the pit of misery of professional football has dismissed reports that he won’t stay in Cincinnati past 2017, but where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire. Both he and the team should embrace the opportunity of a fresh start.
I’m young and, relatively, a new fan of this team. When I started rooting for them, they already had Cason Palmer, Rudi Johnson and Chad Johnson. In fact, they were mostly the appeal for me to become a fan — in no particular order.
I’d be lying if I said I understood the pains of supporters that cheered on this team despite all the pain during the 90s and early 2000s, during the Dave Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau times, during the era where the Bengals and not the Browns were the laughingstock of the entire NFL.
I do understand the impact Lewis had in changing that. He led the turnaround, twice. As Paul Daugherty from The Enquirer said recently, “Lewis moved a mountain here.”
But he never won in the playoffs, and that took a toll, not only on him but also on the front office and the squad. That might be what people — other than most Bengals fans, remember of him when he leaves Paul Brown Stadium, but that is not fair. He had many flaws, and those were enlarged after that painful 2015 Wild Card loss to the Steelers.
They never recovered.
You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.
And he was a hero for many of those years, as he was the one that took team control off of Mike Brown’s hands and tried to build a more professional franchise that could, and did, compete with the powerhouses in the league. That is why his impact might end up being a mixed bag when it didn’t have to.
Lewis is not the only one to blame for how things turned out after taking the Bengals to five consecutive playoffs trips that included two division titles. The front office allowed this to happen and will now face the uncertain for the first time in a long time.
I wrote back in the beginning of the season that this franchise was afraid of changes. The 90s were so dark that the Brown family was deeply scared of going back and was happy to live in the eight-to-nine win scenario that was a safe bet for as long as Marvin Lewis could keep the machine working.
That fear — and maybe not having a lot of cash helped too — made them stay away from free agency, presumably to avoid another Owens, and made them believers of familiarity above everything that was embraced by Lewis too.
That is why we can clearly divide Lewis’ ending tenure with the Bengals in two parts, and not only because of his two different quarterback-wide receiver combo, but also by the team-building philosophy used in each era. Lewis and the front office were together in the last one, making responsibilities very difficult to assign. They’re both equally at fault, or at least in my opinion.
Death by status quo could be a perfect epitaph to Lewis’ reign in Cincinnati. Stagnation and inertia are two other good words that can be applied here. They are the reasons why Lewis is leaving in such a bad taste when it should’ve been quite the opposite, as he was the one that changed and modernized a franchise that might have been the Las Vegas Bengals had the painful losing continued.
On the other hand, having won in the playoffs just once might have changed all this. And they had good opportunities in the post-Palmer era, like against a Chargers quad they’d beat in San Diego on that same 2013 season, or against the Steelers when Jeremy Hill fumbled away the game two years ago.
But that didn’t happen, and it quickly went downward.
To say that Lewis lost the edge, it might be an understatement. The way he’s handled the team in recent times suggests that he has, including failing to address the reports that he is leaving after the season with his players.
That is the ultimate showing of how his tenure has stagnated, something he was partly responsible for after he promoted quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese to offensive coordinator, just because it was his turn.
Or in the same way they still ran almost every time on first down when they were unable to produce anything on the ground, and the opponents knew it. Or in the same way he’s kept playing under-producing veterans over rookies despite their clear poor play.
You can also argue that he allowed too many players with bad behavior to erode team chemistry, but I wasn’t there personally and can’t tell how much of an impact it had.
But the front office has allowed and contributed to this. They’ve experimented a success the team hadn’t seen since Paul Brown passed away, and they wanted to keep it alive for as long as they could.
That is why they reinforced that philosophy of familiarity above all, which left them in very bad shape without hitting home runs in every single draft. That, combined with the wrong goal of stockpiling compensation picks, has led to a decline in the quality of the squad that has led to two-straight losing seasons for the Bengals, something not seen since 2008.
After nailing the 2011 (Andy Dalton, A.J. Green, Clint Boling) and 2012 drafts (Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin Zeitler, Mohamed Sanu, Marvin Jones, George Iloka), they started to get less production from their rookie classes.
Some will correctly point that they got Giovani Bernard, Shawn Williams and Tyler Eifert in 2013, but they also wasted a second-round pick on a 26-year-old raw punt blocker (Margus Hunt), and Eifert has missed considerable time due to many different injuries.
One election can summarize this, though. In 2014, Michael Johnson left in free agency after a successful five-year stint in Cincy. The Bengals picked a project to replace him in the third round of the draft in the same year (Will Clarke) and hoped their swiss-army knife in the defensive line, Wallace Gilberry, could fill the hole created.
If the draft is your only vehicle to add talent, and you’re a contender, you must add immediate contributors. But the front office and Lewis were repeat offenders the following year when they doubled down in offensive tackles in the first two rounds, despite the fact that their two starters were still under contract and playing well.
Hindsight is 20/20, but the fact that the Bengals’ roster has declined in talent is one of the main reasons why Lewis is leaving the way he is, and Cincinnati is recording back-to-back losing seasons for the first time in a decade.
And it has declined because both the Brown family and Lewis have stuck with what they know and have worked for years, and stagnation is one of the likely results of that philosophy. They could have nailed every single draft and added 3-4 studs every year, but that is mighty hard.
With Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer gone — the two guys that offered fresh looks for this franchise — the Bengals entered the bumpy road they’re now on, and the only way out is forward.
So yes, Lewis has a lot of blame for wasting the prime of some of the most talented players the Bengals franchise has seen, and he’s getting the heat from fans and pundits for it.
But the front office that he helped professionalize when he first got to Cincinnati should shoulder part of that blame too, and not only for keeping Lewis long past his expiration date, but also for enforcing a flawed team-building philosophy that has cost them when they had a chance to win it all.
Lewis will be remembered differently in time, and he’ll get his due, I’m sure.
So long, and thanks for all of the fish, Marvin.