In the waning moments of the Marvin Lewis era, it seemed like he would remain the Bengals’ head coach until he retired.
And just like that, he was gone.
Lewis’ 16-year tenure was the second-longest in the NFL, trailing only five-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick.
So, how does a coach last that long if he isn’t winning playoff games, let alone “world championships?”
It has a lot to do with what happened a decade before he got there.
In 1991, when Lewis was an intern with the 49ers, Bengals founder and owner Paul Brown passed away, and ownership of the team was handed over to his son, Mike. Sam Wyche, who was the head coach eight month prior when the Bengals won their last playoff game, only lasted a year under the junior Brown’s ownership.
Wyche’s replacement, Dave Shula, took over in 1992. Despite his impressive pedigree, Shula went 19-52 as a head coach, including a 1-6 start to the 1996 season. At the time, Shula’s .268 winning percentage was the worst in franchise history.
Shula was fired seven games into 1996 after only winning one game. Bruce Coslet was named as Shula’s replacement and nearly turned things around. Coslet went 7-2 in the remaining nine games of the season.
Coslet could never live up to his own bar of expectations, and he was unable record a winning season over the course of his tenure. After 60 games and going 21-39, Coslet resigned after going 0-3 in 2000.
The Bengals promoted their accomplished defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to replace Coslet. LeBeau would go on to top Shula’s franchise-worst winning percentage by one point, going .267 over two and a half seasons. LeBeau was finally let go after the only two-win season in franchise history in 2002.
Then, Marvin Lewis entered the scene.
Lewis went 35-29 in his first four seasons and won the AFC North in 2005. Lewis led a team to the playoffs that had not recorded a winning season in 14 years.
But it was not only the winning that kept Lewis in the Bengals’ employ. More than anything, it was his relationship with Brown.
Lewis was able to connect with Brown in a way that no other head coach over the previous decade could. He quickly gained Brown’s trust and was given a fair amount of control.
A perfect example of this is the story from T.J. Houshmandzadeh that came out this summer. Houshmandzadeh says that before Lewis was hired as the head coach, the team didn’t provide the players with water or gatorade. The former wide receiver said if anyone wanted water, they either had to go to the water fountain or hope that the cafeteria wasn’t locked. He also said that the team provided them with used jockstraps, so first-round draft picks Willie Anderson and Ki-Jana Carter bought their fellow rookies new ones.
Housh also said that the players stayed at home rather than at hotel rooms on Saturdays before home games. Sometimes, players would go straight from the club to the stadium on Sundays.
Housh said, “Once Marvin (Lewis) got there, he brought a level of professionalism and structure.”
Somehow, Lewis was able to turn things around once he got to Cincinnati. He was able to get Brown to supply the basics for his players after a decade of treating players like amateurs.
So when Lewis was hired, he was determined to put a winning product on the field. Brown felt comfortable with the job his head coach was doing, probably for the first time in his ownership. The two had a connection, and it got to the point where we though Lewis could do nothing to damage it.
After losing all seven playoff games Lewis had coached, Brown didn’t seem to be willing to pull the pin. When Lewis’ primetime record kept tanking, Brown held on to his head coach. Even though Lewis missed out on the playoffs for three straight seasons, it came as a surprise that he would be fired.
So, what was the final straw for Brown?
It wasn’t any playoff or primetime struggles. If that was the case, Lewis would have been gone years ago.
No, it had to do with the Bengals’ third straight losing season in 2018, and the way in which the Bengals lost this year.
It's hard to imagine a coach that went 4-12 twice would fall out of favor over a 6-10 season. But Lewis recorded his third-straight losing season, which is something he had never done before. Suffering a losing season is rough, but it's especially bad when it was supposed to be a winning season.
During the offseason, the Bengals looked like a different team than they had in years. Sick of going 7-9 again, the Bengals fired several members of their staff and made some attractive hires to replace them.
Most notably, the Bengals fired Paul Alexander, the offensive line coach who had kept his job for 23 years, and Cincinnati hired former Cowboys OL coach Frank Pollack. The Bengals usually like to keep their people around as an incentive for them to stay, but the Bengals let go of Alexander and hired one of the most sought-after OL coaches in the league.
Then, the Bengals cut veteran players like Adam Jones, Brandon LaFell and George Iloka to make room for the young guns coming up through the system. Again, the Bengals rarely cut veterans like this, so their message was clear: We want to win, and we want to win now.
For Lewis, this is completely different from what we had seen for the last 15 years. We never saw him take such risks, but it was clear that he thought this would help the Bengals win games.
Of course, we now know that it didn’t happen the way we had hoped. The Bengals ended up going 6-10, which was the worst season since 2010. The defense, despite hiring Teryl Austin to call the plays that offseason, as well as extending two key pieces on the defensive line, ended up becoming the worst in franchise history.
Brown must have made it clear to Lewis that he wouldn’t stay around if things continued the way they were going. So, Lewis made some philosophical changes and tried to turn things around. His failure to do so demonstrated to Brown that he could not turn the franchise around, no matter what his strategy was.
In other words, Marvin Lewis is Marvin Lewis, no matter what he says or does. Even when he acts different or talks different, he is still the same old head coach who can’t win “world championships.”
Before firing him, Brown gave Lewis one last chance to show him that he could be better. It was a do-or-die year for Lewis, and Lewis was unable to ride out the storm.
Yes, Lewis changed the culture in Cincinnati, but that ended up being his downfall. He led the Bengals to a 12-4 season in 2015—the best record the Bengals have had since 1988. But as early as 2016, the Bengals were already staring down the barrel of losing seasons.
Yes, Lewis elevated the Bengals, which is the most common argument for why he should have stayed around. But he elevated them too high for his own good. He changed the level of expectation and then failed to reach it later in his career.
So, for all the good Lewis did in his 16 years with the Bengals, he could never live up to the highest of standards that he set for himself.
Hopefully, whoever the Bengals hire to replace him will be able to pass that bar that Lewis set.