This feels like a good time to talk about the Cincinnati Bengals. No, not because it’s Halloween weekend and they wear orange and black uniforms; but because of where they are, where they’ve been, and where they might be headed.
Sunday afternoon they’ll visit the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that has participated in three of the past 10 Super Bowls and won two of them. Meanwhile, in that same span, Cincinnati has gone winless in six postseason contests. That’s a stark differential, one that certainly speaks to Pittsburgh’s proven track record as one of the NFL’s most capable organizations. But on the morning of the 2006 Wild Card Playoff game between the Steelers and Bengals—the match that kicked off Pittsburgh’s underdog Super Bowl run, or, as some call it, “That Month Where Everyone Was Talking About How Cool it Would Be For Jerome Bettis to Ride Off Into the Sunset as a Champion in His Hometown”—it would’ve been easy to argue that it was actually Cincinnati who was poised to move on that day and enjoy a decade of exorbitant success.
Up until that season, Cincinnati had been nursing a drought of 14 consecutive years without a playoff appearance. When Marvin Lewis was hired as head coach in 2003, the Bengals immediately mustered up two respectable 8-8 seasons, but it took the franchise another year to fully break out of its slump. By the time 2005 rolled around, Cincinnati had developed into an offensive powerhouse, led by All-Pro
diva receiver Chad Johnson, and featuring young Pro Bowlers in QB Carson Palmer and RB Rudi Johnson. The team captured its first division title since 1990 and looked like it had enough firepower to do some real postseason damage.
But apparently, the powers that be disagreed.
When Palmer got smashed by Pittsburgh lineman Kimo von Oelhoffen and suffered ACL/MCL tears, he was coming off the heels of a huge downfield pass and had the Bengals offense rolling early in the first quarter. He was playing at home and had even beaten the Steelers on the road just a month earlier. If the injury doesn’t happen, who knows how far he could’ve taken that talented ’05 squad? Maybe he wouldn’t have even needed the help of blown calls to beat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL!
Although Palmer recovered in the offseason, the mojo of that late-2000s Bengals’ core never did. By the time the defense finally stepped it up and became one of the league’s top units, the offense had slipped back into mediocrity. Cincinnati rode its D to a division title in 2009, but got embarrassed by at home by Mark freaking Sanchez and a pesky Jets team in the Wild Card round. By the end of 2010, Palmer began clashing with the Bengals’ notoriously terrible ownership and it got to a point where he somehow preferred being traded to Oakland than continuing to play for the franchise.
That’s where the Marvin Lewis era could’ve ended. That’s where management could’ve said, “Screw it, this guy has never won us anything; we need a fresh start, let’s clean house.” After all, that’s what pretty much every other struggling team was doing at the time. By the end of the 2010 season, the following head coaches had been relieved of their duties: Wade Phillips via Dallas, Brad Childress via Minnesota, Josh McDaniels via Denver, Mike Singletary via San Francisco, John Fox via Carolina, Eric Mangini via Cleveland, Tom Cable via Oakland, and Jeff Fisher via Tennessee. Then, after the next season, they were joined in the unemployment line by Jack Del Rio via Jacksonville, Todd Haley via Kansas City, Tony Sparano via Miami, Steve Spagnuolo via St. Louis, Raheem Morris via Tampa Bay, Hue Jackson via Oakland (how’d that trade work out Carson?), and Jim Caldwell via Indianapolis. For those who aren’t doing the math, that’s 15 coaches, making it one short of 50 per cent of the entire league (or the same number of firings that Donald Trump had to make in Season 1 of The Apprentice) in a two-year span.
Go through that list and you’ll find quite a few accomplished individuals. Fox, Fisher, and Caldwell had all reached the Super Bowl with those franchises; Phillips, Childress, and Del Rio had each won playoff games during their tenures. Yet somehow, Marvin Lewis—who had nothing to show for himself after eight years at the helm except two Wild Card losses—was spared.
I know that the NFL is a parity driven, win-now league. I know that replacing a struggling longtime coach with a new coach can usher in a new era or light a fire under an underachieving team (hello Dan Campbell!). But when it comes to evaluating coaches who have achieved success, I don’t understand the tendency to hastily give up on them when things have begun to go slightly sour. When Tampa Bay fired Jon Gruden in 2008, wouldn’t it have been better off letting the Super Bowl-winning coach try and turn things around, rather than play the odds with some unproven candidate? Sometimes it works out and teams luck into landing a Jim/John Harbaugh or Bruce Arians type of guy, but in Tampa’s case, they stumbled into five fruitless years of Morris and Greg Schiano. Sure, Ron Rivera eventually morphed into a riverboat gambler and got things going in Carolina; but isn’t it just as likely—if not more so—that John Fox would’ve accomplished the same thing if he was armed with Cam Newton and high defensive draft picks in his arsenal? We’ll never know—he was too busy leading Denver to a division title behind Tim Tebow (who couldn’t make an NFL roster two years later) and to the Super Bowl with Peyton Manning (something of a rarity despite Manning’s prodigious talent).
That’s just the sad reality of the NFL. The average professional generally has the opportunity to improve over time in his or her position. Nobody will fire them unless they do something egregiously bad. An NFL head coach rarely has that luxury. Even a Super Bowl ring only buys you so much time—just ask Gruden, Brian Billick, and Mike Shanahan. Today, the list of the longest tenured coaches in the league starts off like this:
1. Bill Belichick, 16 seasons
2. Marvin Lewis, 13 seasons
3. Tom Coughlin, 12 seasons
4. Mike McCarthy, 10 seasons
5. Sean Payton, 10 seasons
6. Mike Tomlin, 9 seasons
7. John Harbaugh, 8 seasons
Every single one of them except for Lewis has won a Super Bowl. Just as you can play the ‘what-if game’ with Palmer’s brutal injury, you can play it with fired coaches. What if Lovie Smith didn’t have to take the fall for Jay Cutler’s mediocrity? What if Rex Ryan hadn’t been working with a historically abysmal slate of quarterbacks for six years in NYC? What if Rob Chudzinski hadn’t been dealt the absolute worst possible hand by Browns ownership? What if Shanahan hadn’t lost out on a healthier RGIII era because the QB was repeatedly mishandled during games? (Oh, wait a sec, that was completely Shanahan’s fault).
Maybe if Cincinnati hadn’t scooped up Andy Dalton in the 2011 draft—or had given up on him after first-round playoff loss number four—we’d be asking the same questions about Marvin Lewis. But we’re not. And here are the 2015 Cincinnati Bengals, sitting pretty at 6-0 with the third best offense in football. In the past five years, the team has adeptly reloaded with key pieces like Dalton, A.J. Green, Geno Atkins, and Tyler Eifert. Barring a highly unlikely turn of events, this year’s Bengals will give the franchise its best shot at a Super Bowl since that ill-fated 2005 campaign—probably even a better one.
You can criticize Dalton and the team all you want for not showing up in the playoffs, but at least they earned the right to literally show up. Over the course of their four-year postseason streak, there’s 10 teams that haven’t punched a single ticket to the big dance—oh, and those organizations have employed a combined 23 coaches during that span.
Under Marvin Lewis, the Cincinnati Bengals have gone from hapless franchise to Super Bowl contenders to briefly struggling franchise to respectable playoff participants to contenders once again. There are times along the way where lucky circumstances enabled their success (nabbing Dalton in the second round when busts like Christian Ponder/Blaine Gabbert had already been picked, playing in relatively weak 2009/2013 divisions) and times where misfortune robbed them of it (the Palmer injury, off-field player issues). But that’s just life in the NFL (or life in general). Those breaks tend to even out over a reasonable amount of time, but most coaches aren’t given that kind of time—even the established ones.
I don’t know if the Bengals will break their postseason win drought in January, but I do know that they’ve invested in continuity, and it’s paid off in an enormous way. Four-year playoff streaks are a rare thing in the NFL—giving a capable head coach the chance to reload on the fly is even rarer.