Barring a fairly spectacular turnaround for a 2-3 team that has to travel to New England on Sunday, the Cincinnati Bengals are a safe bet to miss the postseason for the first time in six years.
And should that occur, no matter how it happens or how close they come, it’s also a safe bet the front office finally cut ties with the NFL’s second-longest tenured head coach, Marvin Lewis.
If that does become a reality sometime shortly after New Year’s Day, it will be surprising, but not shocking, unusual, but not unprecedented. And while most of the blame will fall on Lewis himself, there are a handful of outside factors that doomed his career in Cincinnati.
One reason Lewis has been unable to usher the franchise from good to great is the collection of malcontents and troubled players that have peppered his roster. And while players being unhappy with their contracts or contract offers — like Carson Palmer or incoming rookies such as Andre Smith, Keith Rivers and David Pollack— didn’t help Lewis, it’s a few players who were under contract and on the roster that cost him more.
Adam “Pacman” Jones, Odell Thurman, Chris Henry and Vontaze Burfict have all been either suspended or committed egregious, devastating penalties in key moments of essential games.
It’s problematic to assign Lewis blame for these players’ mistakes: He’s not a babysitter or hall monitor. But he does have plenty of input to who is on his roster, and especially who is on the field. Consider the end of Cincinnati’s crushing playoff loss last year. Had it not been for consecutive personal foul penalties to Jones and Burfict in the final minute of the Bengals’ playoff game against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati might have won the game instead of losing, 18-16. Burfict and Jones are tremendous football players, but both have a history of using poor judgment and playing without discipline.
There was considerable controversy over how that playoff loss ended and whether or not the Bengals deserved those crippling penalties. But what’s inarguable is how poorly Cincinnati played throughout the first three quarters of that showdown. The Steelers thoroughly dominated the Bengals in Cincinnati, shutting them out through three quarters.
That alone is not an indictment of Lewis’ ability, especially given the injury that sidelined Andy Dalton. Plenty of great coaches — Bill Belichick in 2009 and 2010, Tony Dungy in 2005, Mike Shanahan in 1996, Bill Walsh in 1987, Tom Landry in 1979 — have laid an egg in an opening playoff game at home. But Lewis’ teams have always underperformed in the postseason, losing in the wild-card round every single time they’ve reached the playoffs. Under Lewis, the Bengals have made the playoff seven times, hosting a wild-card game four times, and never won.
Worse yet, in those seven losses, the Bengals never have scored more than 17 points and lost by double digits all but twice. Of course, the competition and intensity of playoff games is far greater in the postseason than in the regular season, but that’s less an excuse for the Bengals’ underperformances and more an explanation. His teams have either been unprepared, not focused enough or he and his staff has been too uptight and conservative.
The truth is, coaches with far better postseason résumés — Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Mike Smith in Atlanta, Steve Mariucci in San Francisco, both Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay, and both Mike Shanahan and John Fox in Denver — have been fired in recent years for less.
One of the most ironic elements to Lewis’ coaching career is how much success his protégés seem to have had. Jay Gruden, Leslie Frazier and Mike Zimmer all reached the postseason after leaving Lewis’ staff, and Hue Jackson was one of the most highly coveted head coaching candidates this past winter. Each of those four former coordinators did not or have yet to win a single playoff game in their new jobs but they’ve also won as many as their former boss.
Still, the most significant problem with Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati doesn’t reside within the coach himself. Throughout the franchise’s pre-Lewis doldrums — in which they won less than 29 percent of their games from 1991 to 2002 — a main knock on the organization was ownership’s unwillingness to spend money, be it scouting, infrastructure, assistant coaches, free agents or rookies.
Lewis’ tenure saw much of that change, but not all, and it has cost him in the past (Justin Smith and Carson Palmer are the most noteworthy) and might very well have cost him this year. Not only did the free-agent departures of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones take from Cincinnati two important complements to A.J. Green, but now Sanu is an important role player for Atlanta and Jones leads the NFL in receiving yards.
When Lewis was hired prior to the start of the 2003 season, the franchise had virtually nowhere to go but up. Expectations were so low at that time that even posting a winning record — which they had not done since 1990 — would sanctify him a miracle worker. But today, after 114 regular season wins, six 10-win seasons, four division titles and seven playoff berths, Lewis is a victim of his own success. The Bengals have shed the label of irrelevant, perpetual losers, and by not advancing past that point he likely will pay the price, regardless of who’s to blame.