The last time the Cincinnati Bengals took the field in a game that counted was the most Bengals outcome of all-time, a tight postseason loss featuring boneheaded plays that changed the game’s course.
The question left to answer is whether it’s a Marvin Lewis outcome, too. Separating the two in any way has been a challenge for owner Mike Brown since he hired the former defensive coordinator of the Ravens 13 years ago. In the same span, every other team has replaced its head coach at least once except the Patriots.
It’s worth wondering: What would it take for Mike Brown to fire Marvin Lewis?
In the context of the high-pressure stakes of the NFL, Lewis should have lost his job a long time ago. It’s not that he deserved to, but it’s often what the state of the league demands. The five coaches who join Lewis in having logged at least seven consecutive years with their current franchise have survived on startlingly different results:
- Bill Belichick, Patriots: 16 years, .730 winning percentage, 22 playoff wins, 4 Super Bowls
- Marvin Lewis, Bengals: 13 years, .543 winning percentage, 0 playoff wins, 0 Super Bowls
- Mike McCarthy, Packers: 9 years, .653 winning percentage, 8 playoff wins, 1 Super Bowl
- Sean Payton, Saints: 9 years, .604 winning percentage, 6 playoff wins, 1 Super Bowl
- Mike Tomlin, Steelers: 8 years, .639 winning percentage, 6 playoff wins, 1 Super Bowl
- John Harbaugh, Ravens: 7 years, .602 winning percentage, 10 playoff wins, 1 Super Bowl
The Bengals like to operate on a different wavelength than other teams in the pursuit of success. They have a reputation for playing it cheap, from running good players out of town to employing a thin scouting department.
Considering the roster turnover and the additional job responsibilities, Lewis has done commendable work in his time in Cincinnati. He’s found a way to streamline the scouting process to allow the Bengals to become one of the better organizations at drafting and developing players who fit their schemes. He’s kept those systems in place by overseeing some of the best up-and-coming assistants in the game, from future head coaches like Mike Zimmer, Jay Gruden and Hue Jackson to new Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Allen.
Still, the circumstances don’t negate the bottom line in the NFL. Despite strong regular seasons and a formula to compete in the playoffs — such as a top-flight wide receiver in A.J. Green and an elite pass defense — Lewis’ teams have dropped all seven chances, with five of them coming by double digits. At a time of the year that demands ultimate composure, the Bengals tend to wilt.
And yet despite the uncompetitive losses — Lewis’ Bengals have lost three playoff games by three scores — the closest of them might be the most damaging to the psyche. In January’s 18-16 wildcard defeat to the Steelers, the Bengals did everything to put themselves in a position to win. They scored 16 straight points to take a lead with less than a minute to go only to lose the game at the same time they lost their composure.
Back-to-back personal fouls by Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pac-Man” Jones to put the Steelers in field-goal range might never have been part of Lewis’ plan, but they fit the culture of the loose ship he’s long run in Cincinnati. They created questions about how much control the head coach has over his team after seven playoff losses. They’re questions that should receive some answers this season.
It’s hard to see how more of the same out of Lewis and the Bengals would result in a change from Brown. The stubborn owner appears more than content with the current results as long as he has a coach he likes and a brand that feels semi-successful. What might finally instigate a move toward new head coach could be if the effects of that final drive of the Steelers lingers into the team’s play this season. If the players have any doubt about Lewis’ ability to manage a team or if the message has grown stale after years of postseason failures, it’s conceivable the struggles could make cameo appearances in close regular-season games. And given the offseason losses in the passing offense and passing defense, it could mean a down year for the Bengals in the ultra-competitive AFC North.
Emotional hangovers happen in the NFL. Until the past couple years have bred a tier of Super Bowl contenders like the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks, it was a tradition for the teams that reached the final game to take a significant step back the next season. And after the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl on Russell Wilson’s goal-line interception, Seattle came stumbling to a 4-5 start last season behind an offense that struggled.
Despite not winning a playoff game in 13 years, Lewis has waded through circumstances well enough in his owner’s eyes to become the league’s second-most tenured coach. If this year produces the team’s first miss of the postseason in six seasons, however, Brown’s patience with the coach he has trusted for so long will be tested.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.