The incredible news that Marvin Lewis will be back for a 16th — and possibly/probably a 17th – season as head coach of the Bengals predictably was met with a landslide of frenzied criticism from fans, analysts, circus performers, trombone players … let’s just say everyone.
No one captured the mood more succinctly than @samparks7676 on Twitter:
In all honesty, this is worse than my parents divorce.
— SSJ Sam (@samparks7676) January 2, 2018
In discussing Lewis’ tenure as Bengals head coach, his critics deal in absolutes because absolutes are available to them. He never has won a playoff game. He has been in the playoffs seven times, which equals the franchise total for the 35 years before he arrived, but no coach ever has been in the playoffs as many times as Lewis without advancing at least once.
The situation with the Bengals and Lewis is more complex than many realize, however. Although NFL rules give all teams the opportunity to be equally competitive, they also give all teams the opportunity to run their organizations shoddily and still generate substantial profits.
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The Bengals still are skating by without an indoor practice facility. If they’d somehow managed to qualify for the 2017 NFL playoffs, they’d either be outside practicing in temperatures unfit for cross-country skiing or they’d have to beg their way into the University of Cincinnati’s on-campus bubble.
They’re still operating with a scouting staff that wouldn’t suffice for a Division II basketball program. The team currently lists a director of player personnel, three “personnel executives,” one scouting assistant and two consultants in its player personnel department. The Seahawks list 10 scouts in addition to the four people at the top of their player personnel department.
At his Monday press conference, after leading the Bengals to a victory that did nothing for the team save costing them a few spots in the 2018 draft but did knock the rival Ravens out of the playoffs, Lewis was expected to announce he would depart the organization and perhaps seek another job on this year’s coaching carousel. Instead, he stunned reporters by hinting he might return, intimating this would only happen on terms that would be more favorable to excelling in the future.
In an excellent breakdown that followed that revelation, Richard Skinner of Cincinnati TV station WKRC explained that this development could be a positive for the franchise’s future because it might bring needed progress to the organization.
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The problem, though, is what this really represents is owner Mike Brown recognizing Lewis is one of the few coaches with an actual chance to win given the handicaps in place, in part because he has shown he can do it and also because he has institutional knowledge about what the obstacles are.
A new coach might come in with fresh ideas, but Brown is not looking for fresh ideas. He is looking to continue operating as he has. A new coach either would demand greater control and more extensive changes to the organization, or he might arrive and fail in the same way as David Shula, Bruce Coslet and Dick LeBeau, Lewis’ predecessors, who compiled a 52-124 record over 12 seasons.
Lewis has demonstrated enough willingness to deal with Brown’s eccentricities that he’s now largely held responsible for them. There are many who believe the team’s policy of taking extreme character risks was conceived by Lewis; he has not had general control over personnel decisions, however.
Brown long has defended drafting or signing such problematic players as Adam Jones, Vontaze Burfict and Joe Mixon. Jones and Burfict committed consecutive 15-yard penalties in the final seconds of a 2015 playoff game that positioned the Steelers for a game-winning field goal; they’re still with the team two years later. Lewis’ failure to distance himself from the pair means he now owns the whole deal.
Last offseason, the Bengals allowed accomplished tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, a 2012 first-round pick, to depart as free agents. The team plunged from 13th in rushing to 31st and dropped from 15th to 26th in passing accuracy because quarterback Andy Dalton was forced to abandon so many plays.
It’s possible Lewis won an argument to gain greater control over such decisions in deciding to return, but it seems unlikely he achieved, with the meager leverage he owned after back-to-back seasons of missing the playoffs, the sort of structural change that would revolutionize the Bengals organization.
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The fan anger evident in response to this decision is not inconsequential. In a stadium that holds 65,535, the Bengals averaged a paid attendance of 53,242. Only the Chargers, playing in a soccer stadium with less than half the capacity, had a lower home attendance.
If Brown were responsive to his customer base, he would have beefed up the front office a decade earlier. Retaining Lewis might turn anger to apathy, but it does allow Brown the comfort to continue business as usual, perhaps with minor concessions.
Marvin Lewis is not the problem in Cincinnati, but neither is more Marvin the solution.