Although it seemed abundantly clear that history may repeat itself, with the Bengals and Marvin Lewis opting to renew their vows at a time when either side could have walked away with no strings attached, many expected Lewis to leave. (A flurry of “Sunday splash” reports from December 17 regarding the coach’s “plan” to leave surely influenced that perception.)
But, just like they did in 2011, the Bengals and Lewis are sticking together again, to the dismay of many. It’s an odd reaction, which ignores just how bad the Bengals were in the dozen years before Lewis arrived.
In 1991, the year after the Bengals won their last playoff game, the wheels fell off, with the team plummeting to 3-13. Then came 5-11, 3-13, and 3-13 again. A respite in the form of 7-9, 8-8, and 7-9 followed, but next came the collapse: 3-13 in 1998, 4-12 in 1999, 4-12 in 2000, 6-10 (and last place in a six-team division in 2001), and 2-14 in 2002.
Enter Lewis, and the high-water mark from the prior 12 years became the floor. Instantly, the team picked up six wins, moving to 8-8. Then came another 8-8 season, followed by 11-5, a division title, and a playoff berth.
In 2006, the team was 8-8 again, which was still a far cry from 2-14. 7-9 in 2007 was a disappointment, as was 4-11-1 in 2008. But then came a rebound in 2009, with a 10-6 record and a division title.
In 2010, the Bengals had their worst year under Lewis at 4-12. But that was the last time the Bengals and Lewis decided, with a contract expiring, to keep working together.
The mutual decision paid off with five straight playoff appearances, and record of 9-7, 10-6, 11-5 (division title), 10-5-1, and 12-4.
Sure, they still haven’t won a playoff game since January 1991. And, yes, last year’s 6-9-1 and this year’s 7-9 were disappointing. But the 15 years under Lewis remain much better, all things considered, than the dozen campaigns before him.
And it’s more than just what Lewis has done as a coach. He has coaxed owner Mike Brown to spend more money on infrastructure, eventually breaking from a time when the front office was so understaffed that assistant coaches morphed into draft scouts after the season ended. Remember the rash of troubled players they routinely welcomed to Cincinnati? That happened not because Mike Brown wanted to run a reform school; it happened because, as players widely regarded as having the talent to be taken in round one slid for off-field reasons, taking those players in later rounds was a far safer proposition than relying on inherently flawed scouting processes, due to insufficiently funded practices. Put simply, they’d take a player who had plunged because they weren’t quite sure who to take instead of him.
So two more years makes plenty of sense, because the Bengals could do (and have done) a hell of a lot worse without Lewis. Lewis, in turn, could have done a hell of a lot worse by walking away from the only place he has worked for the last decade and a half.
If you’re still not convinced that Mike Brown should have brought Lewis back, ask a Browns fan what he or she would think if the last 15 years had played out in the northeast corner of the same state where the Bengals play.