With their backs against the wall, the Cincinnati Bengals and Marvin Lewis went to Green Bay looking for a spark to turn their season around. In the beginning of the game, it looked like they had found what was missing in the first two weeks of the season, but the ending was far too predictable and it’s time for many, not just myself, to address the illness that continues to plague this franchise.
Cincinnati is trying to avoid missing the playoffs for the second consecutive year and is still seeking its first postseason since the 1990 season. Lewis hasn’t received an extension and is fighting for his long-term job security, which he might lose in January if things don’t quickly improve.
It’s not necessarily about talent, as the Bengals have probably their deepest and most talented roster in recent history and one that many teams covet—especially at the skill positions. The franchise cornerstones are entering the prime of their careers, and the team finally cut loose some of its underperforming veterans who had managed to stick around despite the presence of better, cheaper and younger options.
The Bengals and owner Mike Brown are scared of going back to the 1990s, when the team was the laughing stock of the NFL and didn’t manage a single winning season, including three records of 3-13 in a four-year span and another one in which they only won 11 games in three years. When Lewis came to The Queen City, he saved the franchise and for that, he will always be revered by Bengals fans.
The fear of returning to the 90s-style Bengals is reflected throughout most of the rest of the team’s structure. They came back from the land of the dead and they have found a safe place, even making it to the playoffs in six out of the last eight seasons. This includes five consecutive appearances and also claiming three division titles in Lewis’ tenure, creating a safe zone for the Brown family.
Though the Bengals haven’t won in the postseason, this stretch is still way better than the “Lost Decade” and is also, not coincidentally, more profitable. And, that’s the main reason why the powers-that-be are so reluctant to change even the smallest of things.
The Bengals’ front office values personal relationships over the pursuit of new information, as they have far too few scouts and rely on what coaches tell them. Using coaches as one of the team’s primary sources of scouting information is a practice that is passé in today’s NFL, but one the Brown family still uses.
Loyalty, a quality that stems back to Paul Brown, for better or worse, sometimes takes precedence over ambition, complacency and even winning, because this formula got the Bengals out of a 12-year coma and they’re scared of the unknown. The Brown family continues to cling to any semblance of hope under Lewis, as just doesn’t want to go back to the tough times witnessed in the years preceding his arrival.
Lewis appears to be adapting to the same mindset. He’s the one that gave Ken Zampese a promotion because it was his turn after what it felt like a century in the same job as quarterbacks coach and the trust in their “promote-from-within” mantra. The Bengals’ head coach is the one who doesn’t seem to make any adjustments at halftime, or when the game is on the line because, to use one of his own idioms, they just “need to execute better”.
Lewis is the one that refuses to scheme his receivers open, instead claiming they just “have to execute better and come up with those tough throws and catches”. He’s the one that keeps running the football from under center, despite the lack of results in doing so since 2015, when Hue Jackson ran the dynamic offense.
Lewis is the one that kept at the Taylor Mays experiment after it failed numerous times. He’s the one that despite being aware of the lack of talent on the offensive line went with somebody he already knew, Andre Smith, instead of trying to pull a trade or sign a different free agent.
Did we mention that Lewis said Smith would play guard this offseason after spending his entire career at tackle? Even with his summertime coach-speak, we saw No. 71 come in to play against the Packers after so many offensive line issues have plagued the team already this year.
Zampese was only fired out of desperation, likely as a move to temporarily save Lewis’ job, but he didn’t change the status quo in many other respects. Jeremy Hill still got the start at running back and they didn’t manage any offense after the 20 or so plays they had scripted against the Packers. Bill Lazor tweaked things a little bit and it worked for one and a half quarters, but then the Bengals regressed to what they’ve become since Jackson’s departure.
In short, this team has stalled. They had a great chance to be aggressive and beat one of the best quarterbacks in his generation on the road and played not to lose, only to get beaten in overtime after getting the ball first and punting.
Cincinnati gave away a two-touchdown halftime lead in a game that could have re-shaped their entire 2017 season. An Achilles heel of Lewis as the Bengals’ head coach is his lack of getting his team to step on the throat of the opposition when needed. This was again painfully apparent on Sunday evening.
Andy Dalton hasn’t avoided the regression bug either, after his predecessor, Carson Palmer, also failed in a similar manner. Palmer made it known he would never play again in a Bengals uniform after getting fed up with a number of different factors he never publicly stated.
Dalton is obviously scared from the lack of protection up front and he’s playing tight. He sees pressure on the rare occasion of when the pocket is actually clean and he hesitates on clear throws to receivers who are open.
He doesn’t seem to be able to adjust a play, or react to what the opposing defenses throw at him. It’s a not only a product of the franchise ecosystem, but it’s a stark contrast from the near-MVP campaign we saw in 2015.
The Bengals talked so much over the years about how just making it to the playoffs is not enough, but sometimes actions speak louder than words. They’re not ambitious, be it in moving up in the draft or in outside free agency, and that has visibly taken a toll on their fans and their players.
Cincinnati’s ownership lives in its comfort zone and won’t risk major upheaval for what they perceive as a potential slim chance of winning it all. They struck gold when they thought they were heading for a long rebuild after Palmer quit on them, thanks to excellent draft hauls in 2010 and 2011, but other classes have since been disappointing.
The problem is, they have had good chances for deep postseason runs during the A.J. Green/Dalton era and that window might now be closing. So many good players that have gone unnoticed by the league and common fans because of the Bengals shortcoming are now facing the end of the peaks of their careers without postseason fanfare.
Think about this: Green (six), Dalton (three), Carlos Dunlap (two), Geno Atkins (five), Vontaze Burfict (one) and Tyler Eifert (one) have combined for 18 Pro Bowl berths, but haven’t netted a single postseason win.
Going 7-9 this season might not be enough to save Lewis, but his exit might not be enough to change this franchise’s course either. As Nathan Palmer over at WhoDey U.K. put it, we’re going enduring “a safe and steady descent through familiarity”.
They desperately need new voices, not a different guy under the same status quo. It’s simply not enough and if Brown moves on from Lewis, it will be interesting to see if someone new has similar leverage we’ve heard the long-tenured head coach has within the front office.
Since 2003, the Bengals have tried to emulate the Pittsburgh Steelers and sought steadiness since 1991. While they have found a somewhat-successful form of it under Lewis, they have also hit a ceiling. If things don’t turn around for the rest of 2017, the Brown family faces a risk in potentially moving on from Lewis, but they also know what they have netted from him as their head coach over the past 15 years.