The 2014 season will mark Marvin Lewis’ twelfth year with the Bengals. He originally took over a team that enjoyed only two winning seasons since 1990. Since his acquisition in 2003 Lewis has done much to improve this organization while establishing a higher expectation for the team. Lewis has essentially built two quality teams during his tenure; the first team existing from 2003-2010 and the second being the current team which began in 2011. His tenure with the team has seen its highs and lows and has elicited varied feelings from the fan base. In the end a fan’s opinion of Lewis’ tenure is formed through how he/she views the Bengals’ history. Some will point to the extreme lows the team experienced prior to Lewis’ acquisition and see today as vastly better. Others view the history as progressive, but having plateaued in recent years, which causes frustration amongst a fan base that has been deprived of success for so long. Lewis was signed to a one year extension this March which has him under contract through the 2015 season. This will allow Lewis to be in charge through, what could be, the entirety of the Dalton era. Lewis’ future may be tied to Dalton’s performance, but is this really fair? Should Lewis’ job really be in question?
Lewis became the head coach following the worst season in Bengals history when they finished with a record of 2-14 in 2002. They suffered their second worst point differential for a season at -177 (only 1998 was worse when the team finished 3-13 with -184 point differential). In a year’s time, Lewis improved the team’s record to 8-8 while drafting their franchise quarterback in Carson Palmer. He continued to improve the team despite trading franchise running back Corey Dillon following the 2003 season and Mike Brown’s investment in several players of questionable character; a topic that was well covered in 2006 and led to Brown infamously referring to himself as a “redeemer.” This team enjoyed early success but crumbled when Palmer suffered a devastating knee injury during the team’s first playoff appearance since 1990 in 2005. Palmer was never the same quarterback and clearly struggled with the identity of the team amid a string of arrests; more than likely it played into Palmer’s decision-making when considering his future with the team after a disastrous 2010 season. Palmer was lost again in 2008 due to a serious elbow injury and the team continued its downfall. Mike Brown’s “redeemer” efforts seriously impacted this team from 2006-2010. In 2006 nine different players were arrested in just over a year period. Marvin Lewis supported the release of Chris Henry when he was arrested for a fifth time, but ever the “redeemer,” Mike Brown brought him back promptly. In 2009, Henry’s untimely death, following yet another off-field issue, certainly hurt the team. Chad Johnson’s antics were yet another hurdle for the Bengals as he became the constant focus of the team and the Bengals morphed into something of a side show. Between the Palmer injuries that couldn’t be helped, the arrests that Marvin Lewis wanted to address, and the antics of players such as Corey Dillon and Chad Johnson, it’s hard for me to see how Lewis was doing any coaching. It seems much more likely that Lewis spent the majority of his time and energy trying to bring a new identity to a very troubled team while a stubborn owner persisted in his ways. But Marvin Lewis persisted and made his stand in January 2011 that has redefined the Bengals since. After declining a previous extension offer, Lewis demanded the Bengals upgrade their training facilities and its player personnel department. He must have struck a few chords along the way because enough changes were agreed upon to convince Lewis to resign with the team. Mike Brown’s statement following the agreement really says a lot.
“We are close to being the kind of team we can be. I think continuity will give us the best shot at becoming that team. We have a good relationship, Marvin and I. We work well together. It isn’t an easy relationship, but it’s a good one.”
It seems that Brown acknowledges that Lewis has a whole different mindset than he does and that Lewis has had some good points; almost as if he’s saying that Lewis is the balance to his mindset. And with this realization Lewis was allowed a greater influence when creating HIS “second” team.
The team began this process by trading the attention-crazed Chad Johnson to the Patriots to acquire a 2012 fifth-round pick and 2013 sixth-round pick. Just prior to this trade, Carson Palmer demanded his own trade from the Bengals. At first the Bengals held to their position that he should remain with the team, but eventually they traded Palmer to the Raiders to acquire a 2012 first-round pick and a 2013 second-round pick. Lewis and the Bengals decided to replace Palmer and Johnson by drafting Andy Dalton and AJ Green respectively in 2011. By drafting two dedicated, hard-working players the team set the tone for the beginning of this era in Bengals history. They have since continued to weed out the troubled players, such as Jerome Simpson, and have focused on acquiring true professionals such as Benjarvus Green-Ellis and Rex Burkhead. By creating a roster of high-character players who can act as positive role models, the Bengals have enabled themselves to take calculated risks on low-risk, high-reward players such as Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones; essentially allowing Brown to continue to offer “redemption” for players, which is an admirable quality but only worth it if done correctly. The Bengals have found the correct formula for this approach by finding the balance between Brown’s and Lewis’ ways and it’s created successful stories for several players. They have been able to transform their troubled image into a successful one including their ability to help players, who need it, find their “redemption” or revive their careers (such as Terence Newman and Reggie Nelson). Brown has even taken responsibility for his past transgressions when it comes to player personnel and acknowledged the need for a change of culture. The team has now made the playoffs three years in a row, but has yet to achieve that illusive playoff win. It’s because of this fact that some fans find themselves frustrated and seeking a change at head coach.
In this world of instant gratification it’s hard for many fans to see the big picture and appreciate how much has been accomplished by Marvin Lewis. How easy could it have been to change the stubborn and obtuse Mike Brown that we’ve loved for so long? Lewis has been the one person that Brown has entrusted a change with. He’s allowed Lewis to make decisions and many have proved to be successful. The team is on the upswing and now the entirety of the fan base’s frustration and impatience has revolved around a quarterback who has yet to complete his rookie deal. It’s a positive to finally see the team recognize their quarterback’s strengths and weaknesses as Dalton has played in a run-emphasizing offense since his successful days at TCU successful. He was labeled at “winner” when drafted, but was foolishly forced into an unfamiliar role these past years under Jay Gruden’s tutelage. Lewis and Co. have now addressed that and I anticipate improvement this year for the team; Lewis seems to be modeling this team after the 2000 Ravens’ team that found success without emphasizing the pass. If Dalton cannot begin to improve, and especially within an offense tailored more to his abilities, then it may be time to move on from both he and Lewis; there is something to be said for being 0-3 in the playoffs with this “second” team and 0-5 overall. But even with the negatives in mind, is completely moving on from Lewis the right idea?
There is one intriguing option if it becomes apparent that Lewis is not the man for the head coaching job going forward. Mike Brown is only one of two owners who also acts as his team’s general manager: the other…Jerry Jones. Fans could categorize both the Bengals and Cowboys as teams having achieved only mediocre success as both have struggled in the playoffs. Lewis clearly understands how to build a team and excels at drafting while possessing a talent for finding and developing UDFAs. Considering how much Mike Brown trusts Lewis and the “good” relationship he has built with him, Brown could consider making his most substantial compromise yet by relinquishing his GM duties to Lewis. The roster would make the potential head coaching job an extremely appealing one, so options would inevitably present themselves. Whether the Bengals find success in 2014 or not, a separation from Marvin Lewis would be the wrong path. So as a head coach, he should be on the “hot seat,” but as a Bengal, he should be safe.