Marvin Lewis’s lame duck status as head coach has been a background storyline in Cincinnati all season. It’s had twists and turns, but the feeling has always been that barring some unforeseen postseason run, this would be Marvin’s swan song on the Bengals sideline.
After the left-right combo of the Monday night Steelers gag-o-rama and Sunday’s debacle against the Bears (the 33-7 drilling at home ranks with the worst efforts of the Lewis Era), the fact that there will be a coaching change now seems a fait accompli. That we are even discussing a coach without a postseason victory in 15 years at the helm is looking-glass stuff, but that’s the way it goes in BengaLand.
So let’s go ahead and presume Marvin’s demise. Who should take over, and what is the likelihood his successor will actually improve the team?
To my mind, these are the best candidates:
Currently the Patriots offensive coordinator, he went through ups and (mostly) downs in his first go-round as head coach with the Broncos. There is always a bit of danger when going with Patriots assistants, as the Brady-Belichick combo has proven successful even after cycling through any number of coordinators, many of whom failed in their attempts at the top job (remember when the Pats were doomed after losing Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weis, etc?). But McDaniels is clearly a creative offensive mind, and can have only learned from his mistakes (much like a one-time failure named Belichick did). He could well be another Sean McVay with seasoning, and that will surely mean he will be in high demand once the coaching carousel spins in earnest after the season ends.
JMcD can pretty much choose his next destination, and working under the Bengals financial restraints isn’t a selling point. There are also rumors that he will be part of a package deal with Pats personnel man Nick Caserio, which makes the chances of McDaniels landing in Cincy even more remote.
Frank Reich/John DeFilippo
Hiring one of the coaches who guided Carson Wentz to MVP-status in Philadelphia (before his injury) would be a case of McDaniels-lite. Reich is the coordinator, DeFilippo the QB coach, so hiring the latter would mean a cheaper price but a greater risk. Both are creative minds, and would provide a whole new “culture in the building,” as the pigskin commentariat likes to say.
Both guys will be talked about, and if either has a fantastic interview or is willing to work for peanuts, that could be the tipping factor. Reich in particular would be an interesting hire—for that reason alone, he’ll probably get better offers from more attractive franchises.
As we all know, the Brown/Blackburn MO is to hire from within whenever possible. (Lewis was actually the anomaly.) The Bengals defensive coordinator has had some ups and downs this season, but overall has done an admirable job replacing Mike Zimmer and is well regarded around the league.
The Bengals are in desperate need of an offensive boost, not to mention some fresh ideas, and hiring another defensive coordinator for the top job isn’t exactly a step toward maximizing Andy Dalton (or whomever the QB is going forward). But Guenther “knows the building,” and he will come cheap, so he has to be considered a favorite, if not the favorite.
Color me skeptical that Hue (color, Hue—see what I did there? ) will still be coaching the Browns in 2018 if he goes winless this season, or even 1-15 again, especially with a new GM in Cleveland looking to leave his imprint on the team top to bottom. Assuming Marvin gets a front office or consultancy gig in Cincy as a salve to his axing (which seems inevitable, right?), he would certainly work well with his good buddy Hue.
Jackson has somehow avoided much of the responsibility for the Browns disaster thanks to his devoted apple polishing with national and local media, but would the Bengals really take on a Cleveland reject with an abominable record, just because they are comfortable with him? Nothing would surprise me, but I like to think there would be something a little more inventive in the works.
I don’t think he’ll be losing his job in D.C., but it’s not impossible, and if Kirk Cousins is definitively out the door, Gruden might be looking for an exit strategy. He fits the bill as an ex-Bengal, obviously knows and works well with Dalton, and has done a more credible job as head coach than expected (or compared to Jackson, for that matter).
Working for Dan Snyder is one of the few gigs worse than working for Mike Brown. Still, Gruden is unlikely to simply walk out on his contract, and only slightly more likely to be canned.
Only if Mike Brown appealed to the spirit of Zimmer’s time in Cincinnati (and the fuzzy feelings the team and fanbase showered on him) would the beloved former defensive coordinator even ponder leaving a great gig with a potent Super Bowl contender in Minnesota to come back to Cincy. Even then…
The Stanford head coach has been rumored to be a pro candidate for several years, but has yet to emerge as a serious possibility. The Cardinal program has slipped a bit, however, and it could be time to snag the highly intelligent Shaw, who is well versed in the pro style and could have an impact not unlike his mentor, Jim Harbaugh.
This may fall closer to “wishful thinking” than “actual possibility,” but I can see this scenario having more legs than it might at first glance. Shaw would bring a combination of top quality as well as affordability, and the fact that Brown would be replacing one African-American coach with another is a factor that shouldn’t be discounted.
An under-the radar-candidate, Toub represents the special teams coaches who seldom get opportunities as head man, though they often have a very good balance between offense and defense and know the personnel well. Toub has done an excellent job in Kansas City, and despite his unappreciated role, commands respect around the league.
Giving Toub a chance would be the kind of outside the box move that could potentially work wonders, much as the Ravens hire of special teams maven John Harbaugh paid dividends. But the Bengals aren’t that sort of franchise, and asymmetric candidates would need to be surrounded by top-class facilities, support staff, scouting departments, front office, ownership—everything the Bengals either do without or on the cheap. Toub would be a fascinating experiment, but an aging Mike Brown doesn’t seem like a man looking to take a chance on his next coach.
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.