There are two coaches in the NFL who’ve earned the right to stay at their jobs as long as they see fit. One has 22 playoff victories with his team and the other has zero, but neither should ever find himself on the hot seat given the way both transformed the franchise they’ve coached for more than a decade.
The first, obviously, is Bill Belichick. Dude could get caught videotaping another team or having his quarterback alter game equipment and he’d still be teflon. The other, also pretty clear because of the headline of this post, is Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals coach who’s appeared on some hot-seat lists in the past few weeks with his 3-6-1 Bengals reeling and falling out of the AFC playoff race. It’s a disappointing season in Cincinnati, to be sure, with their playoff quarterback and one of the league’s top receivers barely able to get the team into the top half of the league’s passing stats and a defense, Lewis’s speciality, that bends just enough to break, no matter the opponent.
On the immediate level, things aren’t as bad as the record indicates. All seven losses or ties came against teams with a record of .500 or above. In their current 0-2-1 stretch, the Bengals have been outscored by five points. (Flip around one of those games and the Bengals are just a game, or a half-game, out of first place in the AFC North.)
But a hard-luck season isn’t why Marvin Lewis should stay. He should stay because 3-6-1 is now what’s considered a hard-luck season in Cincinnati.
Starting in 1992 after the departure of Sam Wyche and ending in 2003 with the arrival of Lewis, here’s how things went for the Bengals: 5-11, 3-13, 3-13, 7-9, 8-8, 7-9, 3-13, 4-12, 4-12, 6-10, 2-14. That’s 11 years without a winning record, just one .500 record and seven years that brought fewer than five wins. One-hundred-seventy-six games with a cumulative winning percentage of .295. It goes without saying there wasn’t a single playoff appearance to be had.
Then came Lewis, fresh off six quality years as a defensive coordinator in Baltimore and then one disappointing (but highly paid) season as the DC in Washington. In his first season, the Bengals improved six games to finish 8-8. In his third year, the team posted its highest win total (11) since 1988. Three lean years followed (8-8, 7-9, 4-11-1), but those bad seasons were still better than the marks of season’s past with David Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau. Whether Lewis’ job was ever in trouble, he saved that with another playoff berth (on a 10-6 season) and then, one season after that, a veritable Cincinnati dynasty began.
Five playoff appearances, two AFC North titles (no small thing in a division with teams that have have four Super Bowls this century) and a streak of four straight 10-win seasons unmatched in Bengals history. (Only once before had there even been back-to-back 10-win seasons.) Lewis changed the culture.
But he hasn’t won a playoff game! Let me tell you the old proverb about beggars and choosers. And then let me share those 11-year pre-Lewis records again with you: 5-11, 3-13, 3-13, 7-9, 8-8, 7-9, 3-13, 4-12, 4-12, 6-10, 2-14. Before Lewis, Bengals fans thought January was just that month you take down your Christmas decorations. Now it’s that month you lose to the Texans. But … progress!
There’s a perfectly valid line of thinking that you pat Lewis on the back, thank him for getting you this far and then go looking for someone else to take you to the NFL promised land. Or you could look in the mirror and realize that, oh yeah, you’re the Bengals and this is the most successful coach in a team history that includes eight seasons of the legendary Paul Brown.
I have no dog in this fight, though. Fire Lewis and see what happens. I can harbor a guess. You’ll be getting this chorus — don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone — stuck in your head for the next decade.