Just a few months ago, the Bengals were 22 seconds away from securing the franchise’s first playoff victory since the 1990 season, and coach Marvin Lewis was 22 seconds away from quieting—maybe even banishing—the narrative that he cannot win playoff games, which has followed him for nearly a decade. Instead, Lewis is working through another off-season without a playoff victory to his name. And while his regular-season success is undeniable, there’s no question that Lewis is facing the pressure to get that elusive win this year.
When the Bengals hired Lewis as their coach in 2003, the franchise was struggling through hard times, to say the least. Coming off a 2–14 record in ’02, Cincinnati hadn’t put up a winning season since 1990 and had finished last in the division six times in that time span, coming nowhere near reaching the playoffs.
Over the next 13 years, Lewis reversed the team’s fortunes, leading Cincinnati to seven winning seasons, seven playoff berths—the first just three years into his tenure, and the other six in the last seven years—and four division titles. Lewis is now the winningest coach in team history.
No one would call that a coaching failure by any means. But amid those wins, there’s one glaring stain on his résumé. Becoming the first coach to lose five playoff games in a row isn’t what the franchise wants to see. Cincinnati owner Mike Brown has been notoriously patient with Lewis—maybe even to a fault—but Lewis needs to prove that he can win when it really matters.
Only the Patriots’ Bill Belichick has been with his team longer than Lewis has been with the Bengals. But look at rest of the names at the top of that list: The six longest-tenured coaches in the NFL (Belichick, Lewis, Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh), all have Super Bowl rings, except Lewis. Lewis doesn’t even have a postseason win.
Last season, arguably the best of Lewis’s tenure, a playoff win was almost expected. The Bengals jumped out to a franchise-best 8–0 start, led by Andy Dalton, who was putting up career numbers before a broken thumb late in the season forced backup quarterback AJ McCarron to steer the team to a division title.
In a wild-card weekend matchup with the Steelers on a rainy night in Cincinnati, the Bengals rallied to take a late 16–15 lead, but dysfunction reigned supreme. A vicious hit on Antonio Brown over the middle by Vontaze Burfict followed up by a personal foul on Adam Jones gave the Steelers 40 free yards, and Pittsburgh knocked in a field goal with 18 seconds remaining to lock up the victory.
Cincinnati’s other playoff losses haven’t always been so close. In the Bengals’ previous six playoff appearances under Lewis, all in the wild-card round, their smallest margin of defeat was six points against the Texans in 2012; the largest was 21 against the Steelers in ’05.
Lewis stands out for his lack of January success, and the franchise can only handle their lack of playoff wins for so long until the owners and the fans call for more. So here we are—Brown simply cannot give his coach more chances to figure out how to win under the spotlight.
What is it about Lewis? Why has Brown kept Lewis on for so long? Certainly the Bengals’ front office can’t be pleased with the lack of playoff wins in the last quarter-decade. Some owners would even deem it unacceptable. Plenty of other coaches have experienced greater playoff success but were shown the door.
Take a quick look at Cincinnati’s history in the last 25 years, and anyone can recognize and should appreciate where Lewis has carried the franchise. It’s no secret that they preach continuity and stability in Cincinnati, and while Brown remains the de facto GM, Lewis manages most day-to-day matters.
Even after an uncharacteristic 4–12 season in 2010, the Bengals renewed Lewis’s contract (after drafting Dalton and WR A.J. Green, they made the playoffs the next year). The franchise is also known to promote from within—QB coach Ken Zampese was elevated to offensive coordinator in the wake of Hue Jackson’s departure for the Browns’ top job—and with their last two offensive coordinators now holding head coaching positions elsewhere, it’s possible that Brown feels there’s a lack of appropriate replacements.
Lewis is a remarkable regular-season coach, he’s achieved great regular-season success, and that’s nothing to scoff at, especially in the AFC North, where the Steelers and Ravens are first-class opponents and have been wildly successful during Lewis’s tenure. But that simply isn’t good enough in today’s NFL, unfortunately. It’s all about postseason success, and Lewis doesn’t have that yet. All eyes are on Lewis to reverse that trend in 2016, and if he doesn’t, he should be shown the door.