Next Man Up

You may have missed it, but there was actually good news to come out of BengalsLand over the past few days. No, you silly fool, not the game itself, an expected 24-10 shellacking by the Broncos played in a half-full stadium that was never particularly competitive. The Bengals dropped to 5-7, and with the potent Chargers on the road next up, even the slightest crack in the playoff window has slammed shut.

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As mentioned last week, the dominant emotion in Cincinnati toward the Bengals today isn’t anger but indifference. That’s a dangerous place to be for a franchise, especially one with little tradition and a new soccer side sweeping up the devotion of younger fans.

And of course the good news wasn’t the sight of A.J. Green sobbing in pain and frustration as he was carted off the Paul Brown Stadium field, his comeback from a toe injury aborted almost immediately. As with Tyler Eifert, there is nothing more heart-wrenching than watching a player, especially one who has worked his way back from a previous injury, go down once again and know that all the difficult rehab work is once again at hand. I think we all wept with Adriel Jeremiah on Sunday.

Green is the 15th Bengal (yes, 15!) to go on injured reserve this season, and I would be shocked if the final month doesn’t push that number closer to 20. It’s been an injury hurricane that’s even worse than what we saw back in 2014, with the main difference being a) Dalton stayed healthy that season, and b) as a result the Bengals still made the playoffs.

Another critical reason that 2014 club managed to work its way into the postseason was an excellent job of coaching, something that’s been in short supply in Cincinnati of late—which brings us to the good news. An interesting tidbit came earlier this week in a report from NFL Network reporter Ian Rappaport: It seems Marvin Lewis didn’t sign a standard two-year contract back in January. The team has an option to escape the deal after this year, which certainly was welcome news and something that had previously gone unreported.

In other words, the Bengals wouldn’t have to fire Lewis and still pay him in 2019, a situation the franchise avoids at all costs (pun intended). They could axe Lewis at long last and get out of the deal that few believed would or should be offered in the first place at this time last year. This increases immensely the likelihood the team will actually change head coaches for the first time since 2003, which we all agree is long overdue.

Other tidbits have leaked out, possibly floated by Lewis himself, indicating that the coach won’t wait to be fired—he’s gonna quit first, perhaps taking a full fortnight at season’s end to mull it over. This echoes reports from last December as well, when it was widely assumed Lewis would bail before, you know, he didn’t.

Now that surely doesn’t mean the franchise will undergo the complete overhaul it sorely needs. There’s a sadly strong possibility that Hue Jackson takes over for Lewis, if he indeed steps aside or is canned, as has been rumored since before Hue left for his ignominious stretch in Cleveland. The fan rebellion at that point would be hard to stave off, but the Brown family has never been swayed by the fans.

Hiring Hue or in any way considering this Bengals bunch playoff-ready next year is folly, of course. All we can hope is that someone, anyone, in the organization realizes the need for a complete reboot. Dalton is almost certain to be back as the starter next year, but that shouldn’t preclude the team from drafting his replacement in April.

As for coach, assuming Lewis leaves (a big if) and Hue doesn’t ooze into his headphones, who might replace him? Bill Lazor hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory this season, though he’s certainly been hamstrung by injuries. Frank Pollack? Darrin Simmons? No current staffer gets the heart racing with possibility.

So while we can still dream before the crushing reality sets in, who are some outside candidates that might revivify the team in the manner Sean McVay de-Fishered the Rams? Obviously Mike McCarthy, recent loser in his power struggle with Aaron Rodgers, would be a candidate, though the way his methods grew ever more stale in Green Bay is somewhat reminiscent of Lewis. Rumors are that the Bengals have already reached out to McCarthy’s reps, though that could merely be due diligence. McCarthy seems far more likely to be prowling the Browns sideline in the near future, meaning we’ll be seeing him twice a season.

Josh McDaniels, New England’s offensive coordinator, will forever be a hot candidate so long as he works with Tom Brady. But he’s highly unlikely to come to the Bengals, and after last year’s jilting of the Colts at the altar it is extremely hard to envision Mike Brown beginning a walk down the aisle with McDaniels.

Likewise, top college names aren’t Cincinnati’s style, so forget about Jim Harbaugh or Lincoln Riley of Oklahoma. There is scuttlebutt that Ohio’s favorite son, Urban Meyer, should he recover from his medical issues and decide to return to a sideline (in the pros this time), would be a Bengals target. Seems unlikely, however.

Let’s face it: A little-known but highly regarded assistant coach is both most likely and preferred. Since the Bengals often live up to the NFL ad campaign “Football Is Family,” a former Striper would be ideal. Eric “Pubic” Bieniemy, who toted the rock for Cincinnati for four seasons during the 1990s and is offensive coordinator in Kansas City, fits the bill. Yes, the wild offensive success of the Chiefs is largely the work of Pat Mahomes and Andy Reid, but Bieniemy has an excellent reputation as an emerging schemer, and if he can bring over some Reid principles, he could be a great find. He’s also African-American, not a small consideration when replacing the longest-tenured black coach in NFL history.

The Rams are the other omnipotent club this season, and the head coach similarly gets most of the credit there. But a pair of bright young assistants, quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and passing game coordinator Shane Waldron, are thought of as the “next McVays” and could have a salutary effect on the Bengals offense.

It could be argued that with offenses exploding around the league, it might be better to go against the grain and find a defensive mind to counteract the explosiveness and start shutting down the likes of Baker Mayfield, Lamar Jackson, and dear old Ben R. One possible name to watch on that front is a different Patriots assistant, Brian Flores. He coaches linebackers and is the de facto defensive coordinator, calling the plays despite not actually having the title. He’s done a strong job replacing Matt Patricia in New England and is reminiscent of Titans head man Mike Vrabel in personality, toughness, and career path. His rep is that of a guy who gets along great with players even though (or perhaps due to) a personal style best described as “ass-kicking.”

The last time the Bengals looked outside the box for a head coach was probably when they put the overmatched Dave Shula in charge, and there’s reason to believe the Browns/Blackburns are still scarred by that experience. Lord knows I am. So speculating on any of these hot young names is no doubt mere time-killing.

But one day—maybe soon, though probably not—Marvin Lewis will at long last be out of our lives. What happens after that will determine our happiness for the following 15 seasons or so. No pressure.

 

 

 

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