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Bengals have a Marvin Lewis problem

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The Cincinnati Bengals season is over. They have much work to do before the 2019 season, starting with Marvin Lewis.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals Media Day The Cincinnati Enquirer-USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s over.

Mercifully.

The 2018 season has ended and what painfully dull experience it was. What began as a surprising 4-1 start led to nine losses in the final 11 games, impacted by a series of injuries on offense and a fired coordinator on defense.

From quarterback Andy Dalton, tight end Tyler Eifert, and wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd, the Bengals offense was decimated by season-ending injuries with few “next man up” options. Surprisingly, it was the Bengals last-ranked defense that buried Cincinnati six-feet under. From the 35-point difference against Kansas City on Sunday Night Football, the 51 points allowed to New Orleans, and the 500 yards allowed in three consecutive games (an NFL record), the defense was an embarrassment in 2018.

Clearly, there are difficult questions that require painful solutions. Cincinnati needs help on offense, a new defensive philosophy, better talent evaluation, a modified free agency outlook, and the injection of talent... everywhere.

This franchise needs a complete overhaul.

Yet, before those questions can be addressed, the first thing Cincinnati must deal with is Marvin Lewis.

Imagine this.

You’re the head coach of a professional football team that’s submitted a losing record in each of the last three years — each year seemingly worse than the one before it. Not only would you be soldered to the proverbial hot seat, in most cases you’re already fired. Built-in excuses overwhelm the narrative sometimes; injuries at key positions, a late-season run providing ownership with optimism. These excuses feature prominently in saving Marvin Lewis’ career.

According to a report last week, Vance Joseph, Denver’s head coach who is facing his own firing squad, could be a candidate as the team’s next defensive coordinator. “If the Denver Broncos part ways with head coach Vance Joseph, he is expected to emerge as a candidate for the Cincinnati Bengals’ defensive coordinator job,” writes ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter. His termination may occur by the time you’re reading these words.

Joseph and Cincinnati is a natural, and obvious, marriage. He spent two seasons (2014-15) as the team’s defensive backs coach before moving to Miami as their defensive coordinator and finally Denver’s head coach in 2017. Cincinnati — rarely playing the risky card of an unknown — usually retains folks they’re most familiar with and Joseph has been accumulating experience as a coordinator and head coach.

Yet, there was a blurb that really grabs your attention.

Schefter continued with his original report, writing that Vance could be a candidate for head coach “when Marvin Lewis decides he has had enough of coaching.”

Wait.

What?

If true — and we have no reason to believe otherwise — ownership could be allowing Lewis to write his own ending. It’s the “you’ve done so much, you deserve to leave on your terms” approach usually afforded to coaches with a Super Bowl win or two (unless you’re Mike McCarthy). This approach is typically ill-advised because it delays an inevitable change that should have happened much sooner.

NFL Insider Ian Rapoport suggested much of the same:

Unlike last year, there is no expectation owner Mike Brown will move on from coach Marvin Lewis. But that could change during a meeting between the two parties, which is likely to take place Tuesday. Lewis could also retire.

Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio offered a handful of possibilities:

  • Lewis could stay.
  • Lewis could re-sign.
  • Lewis could retire and go into broadcasting.
  • Arizona, who “considered making a run at Lewis” last year, could make another run after a “failed season with Steve Wilks.”

Cincinnati will finished the season with a losing record for a third-straight year. Their last-ranked defense is only matched by their last-ranked offense from 2017.

Lewis should be celebrated for modernizing the franchise, pulling it from the depths of despair. Amenities improved. December games had meaning. A culture was changed. If Cincinnati had a hall of fame, or ring of honor, Lewis has earned his place among this franchise’s best coaches.

However, blemishes exist, from personnel decisions to primetime and postseason performances.

While they’ve drafted quality players, they’ve also selected some duds. Their transition at offensive tackle self-destructed like a megaton bomb. Cedric Ogbuehi shouldn’t be in Cincinnati next season, or an NFL roster — at least until he can change opinions. In the meantime, the player Ogbuehi and/or Jake Fisher were set to replace, Andrew Whitworth, the guy too old to secure a reasonable deal, is vying for another Super Bowl opportunity in Los Angeles after having also earned his second First-team All-Pro designation last year.

This is a failure on two levels — inability to judge and enhance incoming talent, and a failure to recognize when one of your premiere players is actually declining. Granted, this isn’t entirely on Lewis, but he has as much influence and participation as anyone in the building.

Injuries clearly happen in the NFL — ignoring that is silly. Yet, Cincinnati’s backup players, nearly two-thirds of their active roster, have spectacularly failed with the “next man up” philosophy despite ample opportunities. Tyler Boyd is emerging as a number two and deserves credit as one of the team’s emerging offensive stars. The remaining backup receivers haven’t stepped into a role to improve their putrid offense — they’re like bodies to ensure 11 men are on the field, not unlike every preseason finale. John Ross is slowly making progress, but as a No. 9 overall pick, expectations were much higher. The offensive line is a mess, the talent in the secondary has a significant drop-off after the regulars and their linebackers are slow (and disappointing).

Admittedly, not every instance of failure should be attributed to Lewis. Plans don’t always work out. However, a new approach is necessary.

Before the Bengals can work towards rebuilding for 2019, they have to resolve their Marvin Lewis problem.