The Highs and Lows of the Marvin Lewis Era

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Marvin Lewis is done as head coach in Cincinnati. This is hardly news—we wrote about the likely candidates to replace him in this space last week. It was reported by Adam Schefter (presumably by someone from Lewis’s “camp”) before last week’s game. But for whatever reason, Lewis seems to not want to admit it. Hey, after 15 long years at the helm, he’s earned the right to throw a “You can’t fire me—I quit” tantrum as his reign crumbles.

But we come today not to bury Marvin, but to praise him. Well, okay, to bury him as well. Seems like now, while his team limps to the finish, and any more wins will only anger fans hoping for the best possible draft position, is a good time to assess Lewis and the job he has done since taking over the team in 2003. For good and ill, he has been a critically important figure in Bengals history, and should be remembered as such.

So here is the best and worst of the Lewis Era (long may he reign!):

THE GOOD
HE LIFTED THE FRANCHISE OUT OF THE ‘BUNGLES’ AGE
The Bengals were actually as bad, if not worse, than the modern-day Browns back in the 1990s and early-2000s. Yes, youngsters, it was that bad.

Lewis changed that upon his hiring in 2003. He was hired, in the immortal words of Mike Brown, to “get our ox out of the ditch,” which he did. In that very first season, Cincinnati actually played for a postseason berth on the final weekend of the regular season (they lost the crucial game at home, of course, but after the previous decade-plus it felt like the Super Bowl). By 2005, the team was division champs. Yes, it went off the rails for a variety of reasons, and yes, he never won a postseason game, but for a time, Lewis was the Lombardi of the Ohio.

THEN HE DID IT AGAIN
After the godawful “T-Ocho” campaign of 2010, it seemed certain that Lewis would be fired, and worse, the franchise was slipping back into old, cheap, losing habits. Instead, Lewis somehow convinced owner Mike Brown to not only give the coach another shot, but to upgrade the entire operation, from practice facilities to training rooms to personnel departments. And lo and behold, the Bengals actually transformed into one of the more stable, well-run, quality NFL teams for a spell, with five straight playoff seasons from 2011-2015. Tragically, they never managed to get that playoff win as validation, but that shouldn’t hide the fact that the team vaulted to new heights of competence. And that Marvin was the man most responsible for that.

HE HIRED EXCELLENT UNDERLINGS
Lewis didn’t do it alone. One of his more overlooked achievements was consistently strong choices when filling out his staff. That four of his former assistants are now NFL head coaches is the obvious data point. Lewis is also a well-respected figure in coaching rooms throughout the league thanks to his treatment of underlings, particularly his defensive ones. Usually a head coach with an expertise on one side of the ball tends to clip the wings of his staff coaching that unit, either intentionally or just through force of personality and authority. But Lewis went the other way, allowing the likes of Mike Zimmer and Paul Guenther and Vance Joseph to shine. That’s a rare quality in the ego-driven world of football coaches, and one that should be celebrated.

HE MADE AN HISTORICALLY DEFENSE-FREE TEAM INTO A DEFENSIVELY-ORIENTED SQUAD
This could just be me, but I found the four decades of the Bengals being great on offense but a constant sieve on defense immensely frustrating. I watched other franchises build dominating defenses that allowed them to compete on the road and have the advantage in poor weather. Then Lewis came on board, having built the Ravens into a championship defense, and brought some of that to Cincinnati. He never managed to find a Ray Lewis or Ed Reed (a healthy, semi-well-behaved Burfict is probably the closest he came), but his defenses were usually in the top ten, and came to be viewed as the strength of the team.

Once the league leaned even more into the passing game, this was less of a benefit, and Lewis was unable to adjust.

Which leads us to…

THE BAD
HE WAS AS INFLEXIBLE AS REBAR
To me, this is the main criticism of the Bengals under Lewis, and the most fair. Lewis had “his way,” and nothing that happened—in a game, in the league, in the front office—could sway him to alter his plans midstream. The most obvious manifestation of this came in his aggravating inability to adjust at halftime (covered at length here), leading to the Bengals consistently being outplayed in the back thirty during his tenure.

But this flaw also showed up in personnel evaluation, which was every bit as maddening. The Bengals are loyal to a fault, but are also awful at scouting their own players. Or perhaps they refuse to believe what their eyes tell them. This is what leads to the “he knows the system” epigram that is attached to every Average Joe that gets brought on to the roster again and again. It’s what leads to keeping Jeremy Hill and letting Rex Burkhead walk, even though the former can only be effective out of an easily defensed scheme while the latter is an archetype of the league’s most versatile offensive approach. It leads to the insistence that Andy Dalton is an excellent quarterback, that rookies are better off watching, that Paul Alexander’s unorthodox teaching of line play is still viable, etc., etc.

The league changes quickly, and Lewis prizes doing it the same old way to a fault. That’s a bad combination.

HIS TEAMS ALWAYS FLINCHED
We’ve talked often in this column about how the Bengals are forever waiting for the other shoe to drop, especially in big games, and especially when the Steelers are on the opposing sideline. One of Marvin’s favorite mantras has always been “Don’t flinch!” but the words seldom translated into action. Indeed, the opposite was true. In a big spot, his quarterbacks always committed turnovers, his kickers always shanked field goals, his sturdy defenses always cracked. Sure, the players are a big part of it, but coaching is just as, if not more, important, both in establishing mindset and in putting the players in the best position to make plays. In this department, Lewis was an unqualified failure.

YES, HE PLAYED HIS PART IN THE CODDLING OF MALCONTENTS AND CRAZIES
Mike Brown surely is the main driver in this dynamic, but Lewis willing played along, if only to keep the paychecks rolling in. In the case of some talented knuckleheads, notably Vontaze Burfict, Lewis was the reason they were in the league. The lawless brigandry of the mid-aughts is long gone, and Lewis and the Bengals are and were hardly the only team willing to take chances on maladjusted individuals if they can run fast or hit hard enough. But the clichéd trope of the Bengals as a haven for divas and troublemakers, lazy though it may be, still hangs over the team more than any other, and Lewis has to take the hit for some of that.

HE NEVER COULD FIGURE OUT THE END OF HALVES
Overall, Lewis improved as a situational coach, particularly when it came to going for it on fourth down, and even when it came to replay challenges (once he was a punchline on both counts—he ends his Bengals fiefdom as competent enough). But one area in which he remains terrible is coaching the last two minutes of either half, especially the first. Ends of games tend to be reduced to zero-sum decisions, which takes some of the parsing out of the hands of the head coach, but in the opening stanza, Lewis remains awful. How often have the Bengals ran a give-up draw with 90 seconds left in the half, then changed their minds and attacked, only to miss out on points? Countless times. There is a balancing act between being aggressive and not wanting to turn the ball over and give the opponent free points, and somehow the Bengals consistently manage to fail at both. When you don’t have a practiced game plan, and don’t fully trust your quarterback, you often wind up slipping and landing with the tightrope between your legs.

That’s probably the defining image of Lewis’ coaching tenure, come to think of it; he lifted the franchise to new heights, and got most of the way across the canyon, only to slip and fall when the other side came into view.

Bengals fans can only hope his replacement makes it all the way across.

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.

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