BREAKING: #Bengals & Marvin Lewis have mutually decided to part ways.
Statement from Mike Brown: “The team is very appreciative of all that Marvin has accomplished over the past 16 years. I thank him for what he’s meant to this franchise.”
Lewis’ 131 wins is 1st in team history
— Marisa Contipelli (@BengalsMarisa) December 31, 2018
Lewis, the second-longest tenured head coach in the league, was relieved of his duties Monday, ending a 16-year career in southwestern Ohio. Lewis had piloted his team through depressing lows and some encouraging regular season highs, but his inability to win when it mattered most — he was 0-7 in the postseason in Cincinnati — will ultimately be his legacy as an NFL head coach.
The thing is, Bengals’ ownership didn’t seem to mind that much. From 2011 to 2015, Cincinnati was a one-and-done playoff team five times. Instead of firing the head coach who seemed incapable of clearing the NFL’s hurdles when they were raised even an inch, the Brown family gave Lewis multiple opportunities to prove himself over and over again. In the end, he rewarded that faith with three straight losing seasons — including an injury-marred 2018 campaign that saw a 4-1 start dissolve into a 6-10 finish.
How did the Bengals get here?
Lewis’s journey to lead the Bengals up from awfulness to mediocrity, then from mediocrity to something resembling legitimacy, and then from legitimacy back to mediocrity, was a long road. It began in 2003, when he turned a 2-14 team into an 8-8 unit. By 2005, he’d engineered the franchise’s first winning season since 1990, engendering the goodwill that would carry his career through some disappointing campaigns.
And there were several.
Lewis maxed the Bengals out at the AFC North title
Cincinnati had several good years under Lewis. He had zero great ones.
The veteran head coach guided the Bengals to four AFC North titles in 16 years and snuck into the playoffs in three more. But never in that span was he good enough to qualify for a first-round bye, and every one of those postseason appearances ended with a defeat of varying heartbreak on Wild Card weekend.
There was the 2005 game against the Steelers that saw Carson Palmer shred his ACL moments after delivering a 66-yard pass. In 2009, a healthy Palmer got soundly outplayed by Mark Sanchez. The 2013 team gave up 20 unanswered second half points at home against the Chargers.
And the 2016 game that pit a 12-win Bengals team against the Steelers? That may have been the most painful loss of all.
Lewis’ post-Chad Johnson offenses never scared anyone
Lewis was able to surround Palmer with some top-notch talent in the mid-00s thanks to the presence of Johnson (later Ochocinco), whose production paints him as a Hall of Famer, regardless of what voters may think. Johnson, tailback Rudi Johnson, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh made the Bengals’ offense of Lewis’s early years a formidable force.
But as those players aged and left Cincinnati, the franchise was left struggling to find playmakers. Andy Dalton has been a proficient, occasionally great quarterback, but his offenses have ranked in the top 10 when it comes to yards gained just once since he took over behind center — and that was in 2013, when the Bengals clocked in at No. 10. Tailbacks like Cedric Benson, Kenny Watson, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have come and gone while topping out at “decent.” A.J Green has been amazing, but a lack of support has left him double teamed while the rest of the Bengals have struggled to absorb the sunshine he’s left elsewhere downfield.
He re-hired Hue Jackson after it was clear he was toxic
Jackson left his post as the Bengals’ offensive coordinator to take over as the Browns’ head coach in 2016. In two-plus seasons there, he went 3-36-1.
So, naturally, Lewis was happy to hire him after the Browns finally put him out of his misery in 2018. As a defensive assistant who could, in a pinch, take over as the team’s next head coach.
But 2018’s spiral proved too much for even the league’s most forgiving ownership
The Brown family gave Lewis several opportunities to build a contender in Cincinnati. While that faith hadn’t been rewarded with even a single playoff win, Lewis was in position to earn his eighth shot at the postseason in 2018. The Bengals shot to the top of the AFC North after a 4-1 start that included wins over contenders like the Colts and Ravens.
And then everything fell apart. Injuries cut Dalton, Green, and tight end Tyler Eifert’s seasons short. A brutal midseason schedule effectively ended the club’s postseason hopes as it finished the year on a 2-10 skid. And the defense fell to pieces, ranking dead last in the league in both yards and points allowed in 2018.
What’s next for the Bengals?
Cincinnati’s in a tricky spot. They have an entrenched starting quarterback, but Andy Dalton is more Joe Flacco than Aaron Rodgers at this point in his career. The Bengals could be in the market for a changing of the guard behind center, and whomever replaces Lewis will have to decide whether or not Dalton is the kind of passer who can lead the Bengals to a playoff win. Dalton with a healthy Green, Eifert, and Tyler Boyd is a strong aerial attack — but not an especially reliable one based on how 2018 unfolded.
The more pressing issue will be upgrading a deficient defense. Geno Atkins remains a force up front. Jessie Bates had an electric rookie campaign. Everyone else is open for an upgrade.
Who should the Bengals target as their next coach?
Well, not Hue Jackson, for starters.
Cincinnati will be looking to replace 16 years of frustration by naming Lewis’s successor. The key for the Bengals will be to bring in a fresh name who can build excitement and mold the franchise in his image, unlocking the top end of Dalton’s potential while rebuilding a chewed-up defense. A guy like Mike McCarthy or Chuck Pagano doesn’t fit that bill, although their experience could be tempting for a team that obviously prizes continuity on the sideline.
But a budding offensive mind like Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor or Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy could provide a greater risk/reward proposition for a team with little to lose. Go big, Bengals. Bet on an underdog. What’s the worst your new coach could do — go 0-7 in the playoffs?