Considering Unpopular Bengals Coaching Decisions

The last two times the Bengals brought back a wildly unpopular head coach, the team responded immediately with a fantastic year.


That’s the Bengals Ticket Hotline, provided today so that dear readers of this column will not miss out on the upcoming and great 2018 season. The “8383” numbers correspond to “TDTD” on your keypad, and you figure to score big for football entertainment, especially if you can snag some of the great seats that others — regrettably lacking a proper sense of history — will be abandoning.

No, I’m not working for the team any more. (I retired.) And no, I’m not out of my mind. Really, I’m not even all that serious.

But still folks, I’m just sayin’:

The last two times the Bengals brought back a head coach and almost everyone considered it worse than reintroducing New Coke, the team responded immediately with a fantastic year.

In 1988, for goodness sakes, Sam Wyche took the Bengals to within 34 seconds of a Super Bowl win. The fans wanted Sam fired after 1987, and media generally agreed. Wyche had missed the playoffs with his first four teams, and the ’87 edition’s 4-11 performance was even uglier than the record. Wyche’s helmsmanship had been seen as most erratic as the team endured a contentious campaign marked by a three-game leaguewide players’ strike.

But Paul Brown spat in the wind of public opinion, called the ’87 campaign an “aberration” and honored the final year of Wyche’s five-year contract. The team went on to go 12-4 in supremely entertaining fashion, as QB Boomer Esiason became a hero and Wyche was proclaimed an innovative game-changer. The team rolled to two playoff wins, surviving a terribly mistaken league initiative to shut down Wyche’s “no-huddle” offense (exceedingly bold at the time, but have you noticed that the huddle is now virtually extinct?).  Cincinnati’s 20-16 nailbiter of a Super Bowl loss to San Francisco was proclaimed by Commissioner Pete Rozelle as the most exciting in the game’s then-23-year history.

And then there was Marvin Lewis in 2011. Lewis’s contract had expired after 2010, and what a mess ’10 was. The team had a bushel-basket of seeming veteran standouts, but it went 4-12, including a 10-game losing streak. (Believe me, those 10-game skids will wreck your season every time.)

The veteran atmosphere turned toxic, led by the worn-out act of Chad Johnson and the reliably cancer-causing presence of Terrell Owens, and it was widely assumed that Lewis and Mike Brown would agree to part company. Though Lewis had brought the Bengals a long way from the disaster years of 1991-2002, he had only two playoff berths and no playoff wins to show for eight seasons.

But darned if Mike Brown and Lewis didn’t agree on a new deal. And even after QB Carson Palmer subsequently refused to honor his contract for ’11, threatening his own high-profile NFL career and dealing the franchise a massive embarrassment, Lewis somehow guided the team back to the playoffs.

The club wasn’t great, but 9-7 seemed like heaven to a fan base which had been told by most analysts to expect another 4-12 or even worse. Rookie QB Andy Dalton cured the Palmer sickness like a wonder drug, rookie WR A.J. Green marked himself as a future Hall of Famer and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden appeared in hindsight as a marvelous Lewis hire.

Lewis’s Bengals went on after ’11 to make the playoffs another four straight years, remarkable for a franchise that only once before had reached even twice in a row. The man must be given his due. But the seeds of a strange and frustrating fan discontent were slowly germinating again, as Team Tease was never able to win a playoff game.

The last two seasons have been losers, and now we’re into 2018 with Lewis coming back for a 16th and a 17th season, thanks to the new two-year deal announced Jan. 2. Public approval on the move is polling at 15 percent tops, based on my unscientific observation, and the reason can be summed up in a few simple numbers:

Lewis has coached 240 regular-season games without moving on to a playoff win, the most in NFL history by 73. Jim Mora of the New Orleans Saints is second at 167, and Ted Marchibroda of the Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts stands third, 102 back of Lewis at 138.

One could easily choose to blame the organization as much or more than Lewis for that. Over my 23 years with the Bengals, I never saw Lewis work less than tremendously hard, and even though he couldn’t end what now is an NFL-long streak of 27 straight years without a playoff win, he at least had the cojones to change the team’s stated goal from “winning seasons” to “winning Super Bowls.”

But I never saw the Bengals front office work less than tremendously hard, either, and though its ways have been bottom-line proven as less than successful, it’s not fair to say Lewis has been absolutely hamstrung by an ownership unwilling to spend money on players. The Bengals have spent for years to the limit of the NFL salary cap, and nobody would be missing the free agent departure of offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth if his carefully scouted draft replacements had not turned out so far to be busts.

Draft busts happen in the NFL, to all teams, and the Bengals were rated by analysts as draft masters during that five-year playoff run.

But the bottom line for me is simply great surprise that the Bengals are willing to risk the colossal fan fatigue that seems inevitable with the re-upping of Lewis. It’s already very serious, as evidenced by 2017 attendance figures, and one could go just plain batty searching last week’s announcements for signs of a playoff-winning change.

Lewis’s post-renewal comments were gauzy and intangible. (I continue to feel, as stated previously in this space, that his key could be more iron discipline toward miscreant players.) And Mike Brown, for all his usual acuity, came off as not realizing reality in prepared remarks that led with his calling Lewis “an important member of the Cincinnati community.”

True enough, but the fans still coming to PBS aren’t there for the halftime presentations of the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. Brown also pledged confidence Lewis will “re-establish winning football in 2018,” but that’s the kind of tepid stuff Lewis has tried to eliminate from the vocabulary. Does that mean 9-7, and either losing in the playoffs again or missing them entirely? That is not going to sell ticket one.

So do I really think the Bengals will pull a third straight rabbit from the hat and thrive in ’18, as they so surprisingly did in ’88 and ’11?

To unsarcastically borrow what sarcasm-dripping wide receiver Carl Pickens used to say when refusing his 100th or 1,000th straight routine request from public relations, “I’d like to, but I just can’t.”

CONTACT JACK BRENNAN: [email protected]

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