Marvin Lewis will serve his 15th season as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017. No other Bengals coach has ever come close to spending that long with the team in the top spot. Paul Brown and Sam Wyche are tied for the next longest tenure at eight years as head coach. In fact, only Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots has a longer active streak with one team at 18 years. In addition, only 12 other coaches have stayed with a team longer throughout NFL history.
The biggest difference between Lewis and those 13 coaches? 11 of those coaches won at least one Super Bowl or pre-Super Bowl championship. Jeff Fisher and Dan Reeves are the exceptions, but both coaches at least appeared in the Super Bowl. Lewis has had much less success with the Bengals, and fans are understandably frustrated with the team continuously extending his tenure.
There was a time when Bengals fans loved Lewis for pulling the team out of a seemingly endless cycle of mediocrity in the 1990s and early 2000s. But, his reputation has consistently eroded away during the last 10 years with such little progress being made after turning things around. If Lewis wants to restore his reputation in the eyes of Bengals fans and the NFL, he will need to improve in these key areas:
Before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati, the Bengals had a reputation as being absolutely pitiful in the draft. Highlighted by notable busts such as David Klingler, Ki-Jana Carter, Dan Wilkinson, Peter Warrick, and Akili Smith, the Bengals made a lot of bad decisions and very few good ones in the decade before Lewis. Since then, the Bengals have repaired that reputation and have become known as draft masters, finders of latent talent in all rounds with draft busts being a very rare phenomenon.
That said, as nice as it is to bring in a plethora of new, exciting talent every year, it would be far more exciting to see those players develop into a great team during the season. Constantly bringing in new guys who are talented, but fail to win, says a lot about Lewis’ ability to develop the talented players he finds.
There is no point in making great moves in the draft, if those players contribute to a decidedly average team during the course of their career. Bengals fans love seeing guys like Jeremy Hill take the NFL by storm in their rookie seasons, but it is frustrating to constantly watch those same players make vital mistakes in crucial situations that inhibit the team’s overall success. And while Hill’s rookie season was amazing, why hasn’t he been able to sustain that success. One of a coach’s primary duties is to help his players achieve greatness, which is one area in which Lewis has failed spectacularly in his career with the Bengals.
To have any chance of restoring his reputation with Bengals fans, after 14 years of the same-old, same-old, Lewis’ Bengals will need to shake off the rust of a rough 2016 season immediately and return to double-digit wins in 2017. 11 of Lewis’ 14 seasons so far have not resulted in division championships. By contrast, Belichick’s Patriots have won their division in 14 of his 16 seasons with the team. For that reason and many more, no one questions Belichick’s run in New England while nearly everyone outside of Cincinnati questions Lewis’ extended stint in Cincinnati.
It is too late for Lewis to catch up with Belichick’s reputation, but a series of division championships—starting with gaining back the throne to the AFC North in 2017—would certainly go a long way toward giving Bengals fans something positive to remember him by. Then again, winning the division and making the playoffs is only the first part of the equation to a successful season, which brings me to my final point...
End the playoff drought
The Bengals have not won a playoff game since defeating the Houston Oilers 41-14 in the wild card round of the 1990-91 NFL playoffs. Granted, Lewis can’t be blamed for the 12 years of the drought before his tenure with the Bengals began. But, he does share blame for continuing to not win a playoff game in his 14 seasons so far.
There is no changing that part of his reputation. The damage has already been done and a pathetic playoff reputation has been established. However, if the Bengals win a playoff game this season (hopefully multiple playoff games), earn Lewis a new contract, and then continue to make noise in the playoffs through the rest of his tenure, the playoff futility can be spun into a more positive narrative. If the Bengals start winning in the playoffs, Lewis would be thought of as a great repairman. Turning the once-worst team in the NFL into a perennial playoff contender and finally getting the team over the playoff hump would show unmatched dedication and determination that would have ended the careers of so many other coaches.
Win the Super Bowl
If Marvin Lewis wins a Super Bowl with the Bengals every negative moment could easily be erased from the minds of Bengals fans. Enough said.
All that said, time is running out for Lewis. 2017 will be the final year of his tenure as the Bengals’ head coach if he can not prove he deserves another extension. Things will need to turn around soon if he wants to avoid his career being marred by questions of ‘what could have been’.