The Cincinnati Bengals and Marvin Lewis have parted ways after 16 tumultuous seasons of his head coaching tenure.
For some folks, it was a mercy killing that brought a sense of both relief and hope. Lewis hadn’t won a playoff game over the span, as his overall record (131-129-3) began to sniff that trademark .500 area that has plagued the Bengals since 2003.
For others, it brings in a sense of uneasiness. Through his many warts as a head coach, Lewis was able to modernize the Bengals and pushed the seemingly-immovable object in owner Mike Brown for even the most simple changes.
Call me one who has experienced the myriad of these emotions since the Lewis news broke on New Year’s Eve.
By standards held outside of the Paul Brown Stadium walls, Lewis’ achievements in this vein are paltry. For those of us who lived through seeing considerable quarterback snaps being taken by names like Paul Justin and Jay Schroeder, his tenure was a breath of life into a comatose franchise.
My colleague, Josh Kirkendall, summed up Lewis’ tenure and his impact on Cincinnati nicely in a recent post. I won’t re-hash some of what he mentioned, as his take was quite well-done and touched on points that resonate with many folks.
There has been a lot of talk about Lewis “changing the culture” of the Bengals upon his arrival. Some fans wonder about the forms and amount of power he wrangled away from ownership, but there are some very obvious clues.
If T.J. Houshmandzadeh’s comments this summer weren’t enough, former tight end, Reggie Kelly, recently paid homage to Lewis.
Thanks 2 Coach Lewis 4 his time as the HC of the @Bengals He brought me in as a free agent in 2003 & the culture immediately changed. There is a lot of mixed emotions out there, but let me say he is 1 of my favorites & it goes far beyond coaching. Love 2 hear ur thoughts. #WhoDey pic.twitter.com/l84cJs0KJ3— Reggie Kelly (@ReggieKelly82) December 31, 2018
For this, fans should be grateful, even though 16 years never netted a playoff win. At this point, the hope is that Lewis laid a foundation with Brown in which another coach can build upon and potentially win a Super Bowl.
While the Bengals are talking to a number of intriguing options, it’s going to take a charismatic guy with a track record of success like Lewis had to continue to push Cincinnati’s front office into the proper organizational practices.
Personally speaking, I’ve had my run-ins with Lewis on a handful of occasions and he was approachable every time. Even though the times we chatted weren’t necessarily convenient for him, it was difficult to tell that he was hard-pressed for time.
Before the Sunday Night Football clash against the Arizona Cardinals in 2015, our family ran into the former head coach in a hotel in downtown Phoenix. Lewis offered to take a picture with my nephew and was his usual affable self before a very entertaining game against their former quarterback, Carson Palmer.
And, the night before this year’s contest against the Chargers, my nephew and brother ran into Lewis once again. Even though he was in the middle of a very tough season, he offered to sign some items without being asked, spent time with both of them and, as always, flashed that trademark grin.
For those who don’t know much about me personally, I’m from Southern California. The first time I went to the city of Cincinnati was in 2004 for the sole purpose of going to a Bengals game.
In checking out the city that year, I specifically remember a banner being hung on the outside wall of a downtown bar. It read: “Welcome to Marvinnati”.
Looking back, it was hokey and somewhat-lame, but it did point to the hope and overall effect Lewis had on the Bengals and the city. His presence was all over The Queen City, which was specifically evident in his community endeavors.
However, Lewis’ biggest impact had to have been in the Bengals’ locker room. The constant theme?
“Marvin Lewis, the father figure”.
Running back Giovani Bernard said as much to the media after the news of Lewis’ departure, noting that his personality endeared him to his players.
“He really exemplified what a father would be for a lot of these guys and what a coach is.”@G_Bernard25 speaks in the locker room after hearing that the #Bengals and Marvin Lewis have agreed to part ways. pic.twitter.com/zR8IYs1yzr— Cincinnati Bengals (@Bengals) December 31, 2018
Two of the team’s biggest stars—Chad Johnson and Vontaze Burfict had also publicly given Lewis the mantle of “father figure” in varying capacities. For Johnson, perhaps one of the more memorable scenes was in 2009’s iteration of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” when Lewis explained some basic financial workings to the All-Pro wide receiver. It was much like a father sitting down with his son and explaining investing, saving, etc.
When Burfict was shooting up to stardom in his rookie season of 2012, he was quite candid about his relationship with his head coach. Obviously, Burfict felt a debt of gratitude to Lewis, who took a chance on him after he went undrafted.
“He (Lewis) wants the best out of me and that’s what I need at this level,” Burfict said at the time. “He’s the father, I’m the son. He sees the potential I have. He’s not setting any limits. Sometimes it gets under my skin, but that’s what I need in order to be better than Ray Lewis, or up to his level. I just need to be pushed.”
Those two players were just a couple in a long line of guys who were affected for the better after playing for Lewis. If you need further proof, his fielding of a totally decimated team with nothing to play for and their near-win against the Steelers at Heinz Field in Week 17 pointed to his team still being engaged.
Despite all of the “be a pro’s” and “do your job” chatter, Lewis was a coach who connected with the vast majority of his players. Sometimes it was to a fault, as both he and Brown hung on to troubled players longer than they should have, but even most of those lives were transformed for the better.
Through it all, the Lewis era should be one to be looked back on with fondness. Yes, the lack of playoff success is what will be pointed at by the longtime cynics, but the reality is that Lewis should be given heaps of credit.
Sure, the credit should be there for making the Bengals competitive once again and in setting many team records. He did this with a sort of in-job handicap, given the shortcomings he dealt with in the team’s management style.
That credit is deserved in the vein of the dirtying of his own hands while building a solid foundation for the team in the years ahead. Lewis poured the concrete and cemented the bricks to cover up a franchise long-built on sand, and it’s likely that another coach after him will take full advantage of his grunt work that took 16 years to complete.
Thanks for everything, coach.