Marvin Lewis’ nine-year run in Cincinnati has been marked by many things—an inability to win a playoff game, a lack of consecutive winning seasons, and scores of goofy smiles, just to name a few. But from an outsider’s perspective (Ed's note: and insider's), it has always been his timid play calling/decision making that has been especially maddening.
I took a look at Cincinnati’s fourth down attempts and conversion numbers during Lewis’ tenure to see if my inclination was accurate. Why fourth down conversions? Well, for two reasons. One is because those are the decisions that always come from the head coach. Offensive coordinators, stat nerds and petulant quarterbacks can chime in, but the head coach always has veto power. The second reason is that I think it is a fairly good indicator of a team’s (and by association, a coach’s) aggressiveness in high-pressure situations. (I understand there are mitigating factors that contribute to fourth down attempts—for instance, a team that is always losing may tend to go for it more than others, in which case the fourth down attempts would be more of a survival instinct than an aggressive play. But the Bengals have largely been a .500 team under Lewis, so the fourth down is more representative of aggressiveness than survival.)
The numbers were just about what I expected.
From 2003-2009, the Bengals never had more than 14 fourth down attempts in a season and never ranked higher than 18th in the league in that category. In 2010, Marv and friends were feeling a little saucy and totaled 19 fourth down attempts, good for seventh most in the league. That proved to be an anomaly, however, as the Bengals reverted to their old ways by having just 10 fourth down attempts last year.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to a 5-5 start to this season. Lewis has abandoned his Tressellian play-calling for a more Honey Badger-ian approach.
This year, the Bengals have attempted 14 fourth down conversions, fifth-most in the league. The total is already tied for the second most conversion attempts during the Lewis era.
Last week against Kansas City, the Bengals went 3-3 on fourth down conversions, including two in the second drive of the game. That last note is especially important and represents a subtle change in Lewis’ philosophy.
Backed up at their own 29 yard line on fourth down, no one would have faulted Lewis for deciding to punt. Instead, Lewis decided to run a fake punt—the same fake punt that was successful against the Jaguars in Week 3.
So what do these plays have in common? Well, aside from being the same play run to opposite sides, and apart from being inside their own 35-yard line, and besides the fact that both were an attempt to kickstart an offense that had yet to produce a touchdown, and regardless of the fact that both fakes led to touchdowns later in the drive...there is one key similarity that says a little something about Marvin Lewis.
Both fakes came against teams that are really, really bad at playing football. The Bengals offense came out sluggish in both cases, and instead of playing like they were in a tight playoff game, Lewis treated the opposition like the doormats they have proved to be this year.
That’s what I want out of a coach—one that abandons traditional logic and trusts his team to execute against inferior talent. And that’s something that has been a rarity under Lewis. Until, perhaps, this season.
4th down attempts
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