**Insert Jeopardy “incorrect answer” buzzer sound here**
Incredibly, the coaching cockroach, Marvin Lewis, has wrangled a new two-year deal, after his epitaph in Cincinnati was written, published, and embossed in retirement gold. How on God’s green did this happen?! It’s a conspiracy between the NFL and the Steelers, right??? Lewis is kept around just so the NFL can have someone to point to when people slam the sham that is the Rooney Rule. Yeah, we all know teams don’t seriously interview minority candidates, but look! Marvin Lewis is still on the job! Meanwhile, the NFL continues to get Rooney’s marquee Steelers in the playoffs year after year, at our expense, with those highly rated AFC North Mad Max rumbles thrown in to boot.
Far-fetched? Maybe, but I’ve got no other answer here.
Clearly, this decision falls on ownership. Patience is a virtue, but c’mon. What more does Mike Brown need to see? The record, which I can’t reiterate yet again, speaks for itself. The lack of discipline, the schematic blandness, the inability to adapt, etc, etc. Lewis is a good coach (no one disputes that) and a good man (ditto), but the time has long since come for a change with the Bengals. This isn’t change for change’s sake—it’s change for the good of the franchise.
I can’t decide if Brown is old and afraid of change, or old and too exhausted to search for a replacement, or just old and doddering, or all of the above. It’s retirement village ownership. “A new head coach? Get off my lawn!” Where is Katie Blackburn in this? Or Duke Tobin? I thought the young Turks had Brown’s ear? I guess they are comfortable with mediocrity as well. Or perhaps no one can speak Brownese like Lewis.
I find it odd that in a year when the NFL showed real vulnerability in terms of audience, the Bengals choose to extend a middle finger to an already disgruntled fan base. I know, I know—Mike Brown doesn’t care about the fans. I know, I know—he makes an obscene profit from the TV deals and a ridiculous stadium deal even if no one actually attends the games at PBS (the Bengals had the third-lowest attendance in the NFL this year). I know, I know—he’s a miser. But still, he has to know this move is massively unpopular, right? Winning will wipe away pretty much everything, but unless the team somehow morphs back into a 12-4 club, too many fans have already tasted life without caring about and spending on the Bengals. And it went on just fine—better, in fact. Pushing more fans further away seems like bad business to me.
So what’s next? At this point, any predictions would just be speculation. The staff under Lewis remains fluid. Offensive coordinator Bill Lazor is set to stay, even though the Bengals were at or near the bottom in most offensive categories this year. Obviously, that wasn’t all on him, as the team had to overhaul the offense put in place by Ken Zampese, who was canned after Week 2. The offense tended to look good early, then fall apart after it got off script and the opposition adjusted. The Bengals can’t possibly continue to be a team that only scores before the last two minutes of the first half. Special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons will also be back, despite a middling performance this year by his units (21st in DVOA in ’17).
Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is set to depart, as is offensive line coach Paul Alexander, moves that should elicit a “shrug emoticon” and a “finally!” from fans, respectively. Replacements are anyone’s guess. At DC, does Jim Haslett move up? Just ousted Oakland coach (and Lewis’s good buddy) Jack Del Rio? Adam Zimmer (Mike’s son), perhaps? And at OL, the list is even more wide open. It will likely be either someone you never heard of, or retired legend Jim McNally, currently a consultant, could pick up his whistle once again for a year or two.
At Wednesday’s press conference Lewis talked about another “fresh start,” a la 2003 and 2011. Let’s hope that’s true, starting with self-scouting. Cincy’s inability to be honest about their own roster and its shortcomings has consistently hindered the franchise. Taking just one example: The offensive line actually looked plausible the last couple weeks. That was while high draft choices Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher were on the shelf with injuries, while previously buried Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond were in the lineup and played well. For too long, the Bengals have gone with “what worked before” and “he’s a loyal clubhouse guy” instead of “who is the best player?” That absolutely has to change.
That starts, of course, at quarterback. One need look only to San Francisco to see how an excellent QB changes everything, even with a dearth of talent around him. We all know Andy Dalton’s pros and cons by now—one great throw to eliminate the hated Ravens shouldn’t change things. If the coach isn’t going to change, the quarterback must. This combo is going nowhere.
If Lewis is serious about a “fresh start,” it begins with a new QB. He pointed in this direction at the press conference, saying the team needed to get the most out of that position. Alas, the Bengals played their way out of a top five draft pick over the last couple of weeks (and maybe a new coach?), perhaps missing out on a shot at a new franchise-level signal caller. That game-winner against Baltimore may have ironically cost the Bengals more than it helped, in multiple ways. (It sure felt good, though. You’re welcome, Buffalo!)
Maybe, since the Bills are so full of love for Ginger at the moment, Cincy should seize the moment and deal Dalton to Buffalo? Draft a replacement (I like Oklahoma State’s less heralded Mason Rudolph, personally), and use Tyrod Taylor, or a re-signed A.J. McCarron, as a bridge QB? Splash out for Kirk Cousins? Really splash out for Jimmy Garappolo? None of those seem particularly plausible, but something, anything, has to change—we all know this.
Lewis also intimated that the annual process of high-quality Bengals leaving town in free agency may end, or at least they will be replaced by other quality veterans, for once. “We are going to have to do a better job of adding some guys from other clubs,” Lewis said. Easier said than done, but the strategy of building solely through the draft, successful for several years, has shown to be flawed. When you stack a couple of bad drafts, and don’t replace departed vets with equal talent, the team suffers. That has to change, or the team will be stuck in the league’s Middle Kingdom for the foreseeable future.
On the subject of drafts, the only person more upset with the return of Lewis than the average Bengals fan must be John Ross. More Marv means more years of drafting highly talented players, then ignoring them. One assumes this is a Lewis thing, not something ordered on him by Brown, so any “fresh start” has to include a new willingness by the coach to play his first-rounders, even at the expense of seasoned vets. If nothing else, William Jackson’s quality play this season should convince the coaches that experience isn’t always better than ability.
I’d like to end this season of columns on an upbeat note, but it’s hard to muster much optimism at the moment. Hopefully, things will happen in the next few months that alter that (starting with a Pittsburgh playoff loss in the divisional round). But as 2018 begins, there is far too much Auld Lang Syne in the Cincinnati air for comfort.
Robert Weintraub is a Fulcher 2 Stay contributor and has written for The New York Times, Grantland, Slate, Deadspin, and Football Outsiders. He is also the author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter at @robwein.