CINCINNATI -- It was long past time for a change.
The Cincinnati Bengals fired head coach Marvin Lewis on Monday, ending his 16-year tenure in Cincinnati with a 131-122-3 regular-season record. His 131 wins are 15 more than the next two winningest coaches in franchise history combined (Sam Wyche, 61, and Paul Brown, 55). Although he compiled the most wins, he will ultimately be remembered for his 0-7 playoff record.
The postseason record is a knock on the coach who took the Bengals out of the doldrums of the 1990s, but it’s certainly not the entire story. The Bengals went through 12 non-winning seasons before they hired Lewis in 2003, and he quickly turned them into playoff contenders.
He should certainly be praised for that, especially considering the unconventional way the Bengals operate. There are unique challenges to working for the Bengals, who run a small family-owned operation and don’t have a general manager. Lewis had to do more with less for many years, working within an organization that was reluctant to cede any control over personnel and the coaching staff, even forcing him to keep assistant coaches he didn’t hire.
There were things Lewis wanted from the organization and never got, such as the indoor practice facility that was once a point of contention between himself and Bengals owner Mike Brown. Those reasons almost led to a parting of ways after the 2010 season.
If Lewis and Brown hadn’t worked out a new contract that year, perhaps the Bengals wouldn’t have had the five-year playoff run from 2011 to 2015. Lewis might have been the best man for those five years that produced 52 wins.
It’s hard to say he is the best man for the job now.
The NFL has evolved in many ways since Lewis was hired, but the Bengals never seemed to truly evolve with the rest of the league. The things that plagued them five to 10 years ago are still problems.
The Bengals earned a reputation for lack of discipline under Lewis, and that was on full display the night they melted down against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2015 AFC wild-card game. Even though they cleaned up most of the off-the-field issues, the lack of discipline on the field never seemed to go away.
When the Bengals needed to hold off the Steelers early this season to preserve a win with two minutes left, a defensive penalty led to a game-winning drive. Those situations occurred more than once throughout the year with no reprieve, pointing to an issue with getting the message through to the players.
But the kind of 2018 season the Bengals endured would have been difficult for any organization. Not only did they have to fire defensive coordinator Teryl Austin midseason, but they were also decimated by injuries and lost their starting quarterback.
It certainly could be used as an excuse, but ultimately it shouldn’t be. The Bengals have been going the wrong way since the 2015 meltdown, and the fans so desperately craved a change that they stopped showing up to games.
The message was clear: They wanted to see the Bengals move forward instead of staying in place.
Lewis coached for 16 years in a league where a coach typically gets two or three years to prove himself. It was more than enough time to show that he could turn the Bengals into Super Bowl contenders. For whatever reason, he could never get there.
Why would one more year be any different?
If the Bengals kept Lewis through the 2019 season, it would have sent a message that they didn’t care about ticket sales or the fan base. They needed to take drastic measures to get their fans back, and this is a start.
Lewis did a lot of good for the organization, and that shouldn’t be forgotten. But he never evolved with the rest of the league, and the Bengals were never going to evolve as an organization if he stayed.
After 16 years, it was time.