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Coach Talk, with Dr. Hodgie: Marvin Lewis and the art of witchcraft

Can Marvin Lewis use his magic to keep his job amid a disastrous start?

Houston Texans v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

I think I finally “get” Marvin Lewis and the magical effect he seems to have on Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown.

After all, despite the fact that he has never won a playoff game, he remains the longest-tenured coach the Bengals have had and the second-longest-tenured in the NFL behind the winningest coach in Patriots’ history, Bill Belichick. Why is Mike Brown so enthralled? I highly suggest you watch Lewis at a press conference, so you can “get” it too.

After having lost three straight games this season, two at home, the most recent against the Packers with a halftime lead, anyone else would show up as sorry-looking as a person who owns a video rental store.

But, at a press conference, as he warms up to the press, he laughs, he smiles, he reminds them that there’s more to life than winning. And they begin to laugh too. I’m guessing that his affability and carefree attitude have hypnotized Mike Brown. My hunch is that, after each loss, they go out for Quinoa. Mike begins to complain, “Hey, are we going to win a game this season?”

And Marvin begins to smile and cut Mike’s gluten-free bread. The next thing Mike knows, he’s walking into his mansion, chuckling to himself about something Marvin said.

What I’ve come to understand is that Lewis’ faith in himself, his method, and his team is unshakable, even in the face of over a decade of failure. And there’s something appealing about that. He averts blame the way I avert questions about my weight. To penetrate the complexity of this mastermind, and to get past his bewitching smiles, you’ll need me to interpret his shadowy language and mind-games for you. Here are some of his comments from September 25, after the Bengals-Packers game, as well as my translation.

ML: We have to do a better job of being around with the receivers. We can’t have the fouls that are being called. They seem to be pretty grey. But we have to make sure they’re not being called all the time. And we’re not getting any breaks, where they’re the other way, when they’re being grabbed, blatantly. But that’s part of it. We have to make breaks.

TRANSLATION: We have to be good despite the reputation we have for being a dirty team that causes referees to look at our players closely.

INTERPRETATION: Lewis is right. The Bengals do have a reputation for playing dirty, one that largely results from the shenanigans of linebacker and ball-of-nuclear-energy Vontaze Burfict. Chris Chase, for example, ranks the Bengals as the second-dirtiest team in the NFL, behind the Patriots (whose ball-deflations became prime time news).

It’s interesting that Lewis seems to have little interest in changing that reputation. It is—as a wise man once said—what it is.

ML: Just, do your job. It’s a simple thing, a simple and fundamental thing. Do your job. And I’ve got to get them to do their jobs better, throughout, when everything’s going off around them.

TRANSLATION: If something’s not working, we need to do more of it.

INTERPRETATION: Lewis’ philosophy is summed up in this quotation. He earnestly believes that as long as a team is consistent and works hard, then winning will just happen. Fancy strategies, major personnel changes, none of that is Lewis’ style.

Q: Do you expect Vontaze to play this week?

ML: Yes.

Q: Why is he such a difference-maker for this defense?

ML: You said that [big smile]. So, you can answer your own question. [Laughs, then begins laughing loudly.] We’ll see come Sunday. He’ll make a difference in the game. He’s, uh, he’s a good football player [holding back another laugh].

TRANSLATION: Vontaze, wherefore art thou Vontaze? After all, that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

INTERPRETATION: When Marvin Lewis has faith in a player, that faith is like the Rock of Gibraltar. To Lewis, Vontaze is the heart of this team—as I’ve discussed in detail before.

And he might be right, but, whether he is or he isn’t, it says a lot. It tells us that the reputation the Bengals have might not be an accident. It might result from a culture that Lewis has cultivated in Cincinnati. That culture involves old-world values: loyalty, effort, and zero tolerance for crybabies. Vontaze is the poster child for Marvin Lewis’ sort of football.

And this gets us to the big, red, sore thumb that Lewis is so willing to ignore: Andy Dalton. As Jeff Diamond tells us, now is the time to try McCarron—now that Cincinnati’s offense is faltering like a senior citizen at the top of a staircase. Why? Because if A.J. McCarron does the job, then there’s no need to draft a QB in the first round. And if he doesn’t, he certainly cannot be worse than Andy Dalton, who is currently ranked dead last in the NFL. As Diamond says:

Lewis treats Dalton as if he's a superstar who should never be pulled. Sorry, Marvin, but nobody is mistaking Dalton for Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. Beyond his college success, McCarron has a decent NFL track record in his limited opportunities. When Dalton was out with a fractured thumb late in the 2015 season, McCarron played well with a 97.1 passer rating (six touchdowns and two interceptions) and nearly pulled off an upset of the Steelers in an 18-16 playoff loss.

But we know that that won’t happen. It won’t happen because, again, in Lewis’ mind sweeping reform isn’t needed. Subtle changes and “doing one’s job” will work, in the end. Moreover, Andy Dalton—despite his lack of QB skills—is a tough guy. When the time comes, he’ll catch a pass. He isn’t very injury prone. He doesn’t complain much, or go on prima donna ego trips. He is, in a nutshell, Marvin Lewis’ vision of a ball player. That’s great for Andy Dalton, but not so great for those who have to watch the weekly tooth-pulling that has become the Bengals offensive playing style.

For more of my thoughts on this matter, please watch my show:

And if things keep getting worse for the Bengals, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.