You can say the Bengals’ problems started with Marvin Lewis (or more specifically Mike Brown), but their issues went beyond their head coach of 16 seasons.
There’s no better time for the organization known for its conservatism and love of continuity to continue deviating miles from their modus operandi than right now, and it appears they’re taking this advice.
Under Lewis, the Bengals have dealt with plenty offseason transitions, but none will be quite like the one they’re about to undergo. The Bengals have changed their offensive coordinator three times, defensive coordinators four times, and have drafted a quarterback in the first two rounds just twice in Lewis’ 16-year tenure.
It’s possible that they do all three within the next four months, perhaps with the exception of drafting a quarterback — but they shouldn’t eliminate that possibility like they did for the last two years.
For so long, familiar faces have populated the locker room and sidelines of Paul Brown Stadium along with Lewis. They’ve shared his successes, failures and everything in between with him. But with Lewis’ departure finally coming to fruition, some — if not most — of those players and coaches need to suffer the same fate if the Bengals want to truly move forward. This process has been a few years in the making, but the dial needs to be turned to 11 over the course of the next several weeks.
Starting with the coaches, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor has shown his play-calling abilities rest somewhere between Ken Zampese and Jay Gruden. On a roster that oozes offensive talent and depth, he can produce competent results, but the team can do much better than him. Lazor has been interviewed for the head coaching gig as an in-house candidate, but he wasn’t the only one.
Hue Jackson, perhaps more than anybody in this article, needs to be following Lewis out of the door. Jackson will also be interviewed for Lewis’ job, but he proved that he is not capable of leading an NFL franchise. Jackson and Lewis are obviously close friends, but Cincinnati would be best to part ways with him for good right now, while Jackson’s one connection has been terminated.
Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons is the third and final in-house interviewee and could prove to showcase his leadership skills with increased power, but they need to be thinking bigger. Simmons can keep his job though, no one would complain about that. But would he be able to do so under a brand new management?
An out-of-house hiring no only needs to happen in Cincinnati, but he needs to be given the same power Lewis has accumulated for so many years. If the choice comes between promoting an assistant under Lewis and bringing in a new face that would likely purge the remaining staff for his own preferred coaches, then there isn’t a choice at all.
Of course, the coaches shouldn’t be the only ones worried.
Lewis was a player’s coach, there’s no denying that. Throughout the years he’s developed countless close relationships with players that he watched grow up before his own eyes. A good number of those players have established long careers in Cincinnati, or seemed to find their way back to Lewis’ Bengals after previously leaving. Sometimes this was an advantage to the team, other times it was a detriment.
The vast majority of those players that have overstayed their welcome or received one-too many contracts to come back are gone or retired now, but there remains some notable players that could still play for the new coach in 2019. The defense is where we’ll find most of these players.
10-year veteran Michael Johnson has played more games under Lewis than any other current Bengal (aside from specialists Kevin Huber and Clark Harris) and will become a free agent once more in 2019. He has developed into a quality defensive end, but his days of playing are winding down rapidly. He deserves all the respect in the world, but it’s time to move on for good.
The linebacker position could see a mass exodus this offseason as well, and rightfully so. Vincent Rey hasn’t the number of career starts as Johnson, but should be equally respected for the way he’s composed himself. Hardy Nickerson, the son of a former player who played under Lewis back in the 90s, isn’t good enough to warrant a roster spot and like Jackson, he has no pull now that Lewis is gone.
Vontaze Burfict of course is the primary focal point of this group, and his connection with Lewis cannot be understated. Burfict’s antics were tolerated under Lewis’ reign, but would they under a different coach? Even beyond his extra-curricular activities, Burfict’s concussions are the more pressing issues for him and they may just be enough to prohibit him from playing under his pricey contract, at least that’s how the new coach could look at it.
Then, there’s Andy Dalton.
The new coach will have a huge impact on the Bengals’ potential progression, but Dalton is still Dalton, and they’ll ultimately go as far as he takes them. There’s no need to deny the fact that Dalton has earned respect as an NFL starter, just like his clear limitations are just as obvious.
The eight-year veteran will turn 32 next season, and over the past several years, he’s exemplified the threshold between a franchise quarterback, and a replaceable starter. When all the pieces were in place, Dalton performed well; when some pieces were taken out, he struggled accordingly.
A new coach who doesn’t inherit a quarterback with multiple years left on his rookie contract will typically try to bring in one of his own sooner rather than later. Dalton’s contract doesn’t expire until the conclusion of the 2020 season, but he can now be cut without any cap penalties. Without a true heir on the roster (Jeff Driskel ain’t it), it’s more likely that the team will plan on keeping Dalton for as long as he’s the best option at the position.
But that shouldn’t be for long. Is he safe for now? Yes. But as soon as the new coach gets settled in with his staff, he should be looking at future replacements immediately. No longer should the Bengals be solely focused on building around Dalton, they need to be thinking about the future beyond him.
From a macro-perspective, the Bengals have a handful of foundation pieces that will help the transition to leadership. But the franchise will not be able to completely move on from the Marvin Lewis era until the numerous names that have long been associated with him are out of the picture.
The Bengals’ organization needs a fresh start, not a re-tool — and they can’t do the latter anymore with Lewis gone.