Bengals’ Lewis Should Take Page From Sam Wyche’s Book

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Oct 30, 2016; London, United Kingdom; Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis reacts in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins during game 17 of the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; London, United Kingdom; Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis reacts in the second quarter against the Washington Redskins during game 17 of the NFL International Series at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports /
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Marvin Lewis will be back for a 15th season as the Bengals’ head coach. Heading into 2017, he should take a page out of Sam Wyche’s book, the last coach to win a playoff game in the Queen City.

The year was 1987. The Bengals, searching for a 2-0 start, hosted Bill Walsh and the 49ers on a 62-degree, mid-September afternoon along the Ohio River.

A pair of Jim Breech field goals gave Cincinnati a 26-20 lead, and they were ready to celebrate after getting the ball back with less than a minute remaining. Facing a fourth down with just six seconds left at their own 29-yard line, head coach Sam Wyche decided against a punt or an intentional safety. Opting instead for a sweep to run out the clock.

Running back James Brooks took the handoff and was immediately dropped on the Riverfront Stadium turf by 49ers’ rookie defensive end Kevin Fagan, leaving two seconds on the clock.

Joe Montana was given one play and found Jerry Rice leaping over rookie corner Eric Thomas for a game-winning 25-yard touchdown as time expired. Cincinnati dropped to 1-1 and one week later NFL players went on strike.

The final 13 games were a nightmare for Wyche. The Bengals finished 4-11 and in the cellar of the AFC Central, losing six games where they led in the fourth quarter.

For 1988, Wyche coined the term “finish everything” in hopes his team could find a way to win close contests. It worked. The ’88 Bengals’ 4-0 start came by a combined 23 points. To cap off a 12-4 season, Cincinnati beat Washington with a game-winning field goal in overtime.

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In the playoffs, they held on to beat Seattle by eight, then Dick LeBeau‘s defense intercepted Jim Kelly three times and pitched a second-half shutout of the Buffalo Bills one week later to capture the conference championship.

2016 second-half woes

Much-maligned head coach Marvin Lewis should be spreading the same message in 2017. Of all the issues with the Bengals in 2016, finishing was at the top of the list. After a tie with Washington in London, the Bengals could not make the big play late in games to pull out close wins.

Their final five losses were by a combined 16 points:

@NYG: (L 21-20) — Led 20-14 at start of 4th quarter

vs. BUF: (L 16-12) — Two-point halftime lead, shutout in second half

@ BAL: (L 19-14) — Turnover inside Baltimore red zone with 1:12 left in the game

vs. PIT: (L 24-20) — Had a pair of 14-point leads, shutout in second half

@ HOU: (L 12-10) — Led by four with nine minutes left, missed game-winning field goal as time expired 

Zero…zilch…nada

Much of the close-game frustration comes from offensive second-half struggles. Since 2011, the Bengals have been shutout in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium twice (2014 vs. CLE, 2015 vs. HOU). They dubiously matched that number in 2016, getting blanked in the second half in home losses to Buffalo and Pittsburgh down the stretch.

Brandon LaFell‘s 86-yard catch and run in Houston was the Bengals’ first fourth-quarter touchdown since the tie with Washington.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports /

Overall, Cincinnati was outscored, 94-65, in the fourth quarter this season.

If fans need a reason to be optimistic about 2017, it’s that this year’s club was not getting blown out. This wasn’t the ’08 Bengals, a team that lost four games by 28-plus points. This season draws in resemblance to the 2010 club, a team that lost six straight one-possession games after a 2-1 start.

If the Bengals could have pulled off the London draw and just a couple of the games listed above, we’re talking about a team that might have won 10 games and leapfrogged the Dolphins (via the head-to-head tiebreaker) for the final Wild Card berth.

But you can’t build a season off of what might have been. No one knows this better than Lewis, who is 57-58-3 in regular-season games decided by one possession over 14 seasons.

Hard-knock life

In his case, sometimes the cards are not dealt in your favor. Thus is the life of an NFL head coach.

In 2003, his first in Cincinnati, Lewis coached his team to eight one-possession victories, only to have Browns’ rookie running back Lee Suggs gash the Bengals for 186 yards and two touchdowns in an eight-point loss on the final day of the regular season that eliminated the Bengals from playoff contention.

Three years later, the pieces were there again. Carson Palmer was the first QB in franchise history to throw for over 4,000 yards and the 8-6 Bengals needed just one win in the final two weeks to clinch a playoff berth. Two heart-breaking losses followed, though. First on Christmas Eve in Denver on a bad snap by Brad St. Louis on a game-tying PAT.

Then there was the season-finale against Pittsburgh at PBS. Shayne Graham, the most accurate kicker in the league at the time, pushed a 39-yarder wide right as time expired. The game went into overtime where Santonio Holmes ended it with a 67-yard touchdown reception on the third play.

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History shows us that as the Bengals’ one-possession record goes, so does their postseason chances.

Of the seven years Lewis has been over .500 in one-possession games, the Bengals have missed the playoffs once (2003). In the seven times they’ve finished .500 or worse in such games, they’ve only made the playoffs once (2011).

“Finish everything” should be a top priority for the 2017 Bengals.

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