Based on the opening day starting lineup and what we are looking at as the Cincinnati Bengals take the field in Week 14, it’s going to be a much different-looking team taking the field against the Los Angeles Chargers. If you count Vontaze Burfict, who was out of the Week 1 lineup because of a suspension, about seven of 22 starters won’t be suiting up on Sunday afternoon.
The prevailing belief is that Mike Brown will lean on the massive amount of injuries (and they’ve been overwhelming at times) in a possible effort to make excuses for minimal change in 2019. Whether that centers around Lewis sticking with the club remains to be seen, but it did prompt some listeners on the most recent episode of The Orange and Black Insider Bengals podcast to wonder what Lewis has to do to keep his job in this final month of the season.
While the contractual scenarios last offseason and this season are different (the team can decide not to exercise the 2019 option this offseason, while Lewis was a free agent coach last January), parallels can be drawn. Lewis’ Bengals beat two playoff-bound squads to end the 2017 season, as Brown pointed to those wins as a big reason for a new contract.
Because of how poorly the Bengals have played in this 1-6 stretch, many forget, or simply brush off the idea that the team is actually mathematically alive for the postseason. So, if Lewis can somehow get his team to win these last four games and get them in the playoffs with a backup quarterback, he’ll be back in Cincinnati.
In all likelihood, an 8-8 finish would allow him to be back, regardless of who those three wins are against. Common opinions have Brown similarly pointing to “the team not giving up on its coach” as the reasoning for letting Lewis finish the final year of his deal.
There is a scenario where 7-9 could also save Lewis’ job. Coupling wins against Cleveland (a matchup Brown obsesses over) and Pittsburgh with the injury excuse could also prompt a 17th season with Lewis as the head coach.
Really, there are a number of scenarios to be played out here and not all of them end in Lewis leaving. In fact, there is still a realistic shot that he’s back to continue the rebuild for one more year.
If the Bengals are to actually move on from Lewis this offseason, it will be the first time a different head coach will roam those sidelines in 16 years. And, with a potential change comes questions on just how much power a new coach can wrestle from owner Mike Brown.
Of course, the potential answer to this question comes with who is hired—and by that we mean an “outsider”, or someone who is familiar to the old man. If Lewis is shown the door, Brown might opt for someone who is an up-and-comer, as was the case with Marvin back in 2003.
The bright-siders could look at the groundwork Lewis has laid with the team and say that Brown has budged. The same glass-is-half-full folks would say that even though these changes have been slow-moving, another young go-getter could prompt even further changes to benefit the franchise.
The en vogue name right now is Sean McVay. As John Sheeran has noted in recent OBI episodes, any team that is embarking on the tumultuous journey that is an NFL coaching search is looking for the next McVay or Sean Payton.
And, when you look at McVay and the Rams, it isn’t just his energy level that is affecting the locker room. It’s his ability to concoct an innovative scheme, find the right players for it and in his pushing of ownership to make significant moves to bolster the roster that has fans of almost every other base green with envy.
Lewis has had enough clout to move Brown into organizational practices that are uncomfortable for the old school owner, but it’s still not enough to classify the team as “modern” by most standards. Might a younger and more charismatic coach get even more out of this stubborn front office?
Then again, would Brown even be willing to hire someone of this ilk? Bringing someone in that challenges his deep-rooted ways could turn him off, even with his publicly-stated desire to win a championship.
But, that’s an entirely different topic for another time.
A lot of folks believe that Hue Jackson was brought back into the organization to take over for Lewis. I don’t buy into it as much as others do, but it’s definitely a realistic option, though. Regardless, most Bengals fans aren’t ecstatic about the possibility because of it being too much of a similar situation to what they’ve experienced over the past 16 years—if not worse.
However, if there’s one positive thing Jackson could bring as the Bengals’ head coach, it’s in his experience and trustworthiness in the eyes of the Brown family. Couple that with some learned approaches by Lewis and he could continue to push Brown to more slow changes towards modernity.
The most likely scenario though, especially for an outside hire, is that he will need to win in spite of the organizational shortcomings, gain some internal clout because of the success and then use that leverage on the front office. Then again, Brown could point to said success under the “doing things my way” file and not opt for changes on his M.O.
See what we’re dealing with here?
Anyone who over 30 years old and has been a Bengals fan for most of those years probably remember the abysmal stretch of football witnessed from 1991-2002. “The Lost Decade”, which actually spanned 12 years, was littered with poor draft decisions, bad coaching hires and stories of abhorrent organizational practices that have since lived in infamy.
After five straight trips to the postseason and the team turning a corner since Lewis arrived, a tangible fear is collecting within the Bengals’ faithful that a return to these dark ages is drawing near. The team is on the precipice of their third straight losing season, as it appears the window of a championship is closing with A.J. Green, Andy Dalton, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins still on the roster.
The calls here at CJ and on our podcast have grown loud, as both worries and apathy build with another year in the rearview. Here at Cincy Jungle we recently outlined some of the draft issues, while ESPN’s Katherine Terrell expanded further on questionable decisions leading to this blase stretch from 2016-2018.
It’s possible that Lewis has a magical run left in him—especially with a healthy roster. Or, Brown could hire a wunderkind to replace him and build a dynasty. It’s also possible that Jackson, or another Brown crony could consistently bring in those lovely 3-13 seasons we became accustomed to in the David Shula/Bruce Coslet/Dick LeBeau days.
As we stand here today, it’s hard to imagine a young coach grab success in Cincinnati and be able to sustain it, given the organizational shortcomings. Even though fans have a right to be upset with Carson Palmer and his quitting on the team back in 2011, it’s one of the only messages that has seemingly gotten through to Brown over the years.
That message? His way doesn’t work.
The way the parity-based NFL is designed today, Cincinnati will really have to try hard to re-enter the Black Plague that was the 1990s. However, aside from a late-life epiphany and/or changes in subsequent ownership regimes, it seems that the Bengals will stumble onto the flash-in-the-pan season, but they won’t gain consistency with the way they operate.
Doing the little things with care is important, of course, but there are many big operational practices that also need addressing. In short, the Brown family will need to make an edict that they’re committed to striving for the best in all endeavors and will make the changes to repair their reputation.
Really, any successful business owner should have this focus. NFL ownership is a bit different, in terms of the business world, but the cliche still holds true. Unfortunately, the way that the league is set up paves the way for complacency from some groups.
I’m not ready to accuse the Brown family of exuding that adjective, but it’s obvious that they aren’t known as a flagship franchise around the NFL. Top-notch facilities, a constant willingness to open up the wallet for proper transactions and the beefing up of staffed areas (medical and scouting, anyone?) should all be part of the priorities.
Until the Bengals start internally operating like big boys, they’ll continue to lose to the true ones on the field. One can only hope that the Brown family will soon realize this tough lesson.
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