Coach Ad Infinitum

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Given the bizarre outcome of Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium—the Bengals and Panthers combined for the fourth tie in the NFL since 2012—there’s no better time to reflect on the long, strange road Cincinnati has traveled since Marvin Lewis became the franchise’s ninth head coach on Jan. 14, 2003.

The Bengals have undoubtedly taken Andrew Whitworth-sized steps forward under Lewis:

  • Eight seasons with a .500 record or better. From 1991-2002 the Bengals posted zero winning records and finished at .500 just once (1996).
  • Five playoff appearances. From the franchise’s first season in 1968 to Lewis’ hiring—a span of 35 seasons—the Bengals qualified for the postseason on just seven occasions.

So why isn’t Lewis revered in Cincinnati?

  • The Bengals are winless in playoff games under Lewis, having been outscored 132-64. The franchise still hasn’t prevailed in a postseason game since Jan. 6, 1991.
  • In the regular season, the Bengals have typically flopped in primetime or when the stakes were high. Cincinnati is 2-5 in prime-time games since 2011, and has suffered through its fair share of crushing losses—particularly to end the 2006 season.
  • Though they have cleaned up their image in recent seasons, the Bengals have been among the NFL’s bad news kingpins.

And given the recent hard-luck nature of major sports in the Cincinnati area, even outside of the Bengals—the Kenyon Martin injury and the Reds collapse vs. the Giants in 2012 being the most prominent examples—it’s a safe bet that most local Bengals fans view Lewis with a glass half-empty perspective.

In the same way his tenure with the Bengals has been decidedly two-faced, Marvin Lewis walked a long, strange road to become the head coach of a professional football team.

Before becoming an assistant for the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, Lewis cut his teeth instructing linebackers in Pocatello, Idaho; Long Beach, California; and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Those places don’t exactly drum up images of college football hotbeds like Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Norman, Oklahoma; or Columbus, Ohio.

After emerging as a star at his Pittsburgh-area high school, Lewis was all set to walk-on at Purdue. Then, a family friend found out about an open football scholarship at Idaho State University. Marvin wound up being one of the best players in ISU history, and helped the Bengals—yes, the ISU Bengals—to a Division I-AA National Championship during the 1981-82 season, the same year the Cincinnati Bengals went to their first Super Bowl.

After his playing days, Lewis coached at ISU for four years. Then he moved on to Long Beach State for two years. Then the University of New Mexico for three years. Then the University of Pittsburgh for two years. He coached linebackers at each stop.

Lewis’s leap to the NFL came when rookie Pittsburgh head coach Bill Cowher hired him prior to the 1992 season. Lewis eventually left to coordinate one of the most fearsome defenses in NFL history in Baltimore, and was the Head Ball Coach’s defensive coordinator in Washington for a season before Mike Brown hired him to coach the Cincinnati Bengals prior to the 2003 season. The son of a steelworker was now an NFL boss after spending 22 years of manufacturing football players across America.

Currently, aside from Patriots head honcho Bill Belichick, Lewis is the longest-tenured head coach in the NFL—a strange fact because at two different points in Cincinnati, Lewis could’ve easily been fired.

In 2007, the Bengals finished 7-9 (they started 2-6) before the bottom fell out in 2008. Cincinnati—with an injured Carson Palmer limited to playing only four games—lost its first eight contests en route to a 4-11-1 season.

But whether it was blind faith or a Jedi mind trick, Brown retained Lewis and was rewarded with a 10-6 season in 2009—though it was capped off by another first-round playoff exit. The bad vibes of the playoff loss to the Jets hung around, and the Bengals sunk to 4-12 in 2010.

Then there was the Press Conference from Hell on Jan. 4, 2011, where the Bengals announced Lewis would return yet again as head coach. The presser was vague, filled with platitudes, and looked uncomfortable for everyone involved. It was very bizarre, and I can vividly remember fan outrage—mostly directed at Brown—reaching a boiling point for seemingly rewarding Lewis for presiding over the franchise’s latest stretch of mediocrity.

Oddly enough, the stinker season in 2010 and the PCFH may have been the best thing to happen to the franchise. Management nailed the 2011 draft by picking A.J. Green and Andy Dalton with its first two picks, and has done well in every draft since. Seasons of 9-7, 10-6 and 11-5 followed.

When he was initially hired, Lewis reportedly got the job over Mike Mularkey (then the offensive coordinator of the Steelers) and Tom Coughlin (then the former head coach of the Jaguars), as well as former Bengal assistants Jim Anderson and Mark Duffner.

It’s crazy to think how the Bengals fortunes could have twisted and turned at any moment under Lewis. Would the franchise have benefitted from hiring Coughlin, an experienced NFL head coach, over Lewis? Aside from shredding Carson Palmer’s knee, what sort of mental wreckage did Bengal-turned-Steeler Kimo von Oelhoffen impart on the Bengals in the 2005 playoffs? Just how close was Lewis to leaving/being dismissed after the 2008 and 2010 seasons, and where did Brown find the you-know-whats to bring him back?

The 2014 season is a pivotal one for the Bengals. Given the team’s Jekyll (Ravens, Falcons, Titans), Hyde (Patriots) and tie performances through five games (resulting in a 3-1-1 record), it looks like 2014 won’t be short on bizarre moments either—par for the course with the Lewis-era Bengals. And surely Lewis knows that unless it ends with a playoff victory—thereby absolving the city of Cincinnati of some of its playoff heartbreak—his long, strange road with the Bengals may come to an end…or he might net yet another extension from Brown.

Grant Freking is a co-editor for The Ohioan. He can be reached on Twitter or via email at gfreking@gmail.com

 

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