He has interviewed at least twice for NFL head coaching jobs this winter, and there is reason to believe those conversations, this time, were more than ceremonial. It should be time for Marvin Lewis to receive another opportunity to coach in the league, and perhaps it is.
Lewis is an ideal candidate for a head coaching job interview: decades in the coaching business, Super Bowl-level success as a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, four division championships as an NFL head coach. Oh, and if your organization speaks with him, it officially checks the box labeled “Rooney Rule.”
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That should not be the reason for Lewis’ phone to ring, though. He is not merely an ideal person to interview; he’s an excellent candidate to hire. He’s that good, and he is plenty available. NFL analyst Solomon Wilcots of Pro Football Focus told Sporting News that he believes the time for Lewis to return quite possibly has arrived.
“I think this year it’s a real shot,” Wilcots said. “Last year, I would have probably said differently. It’s unfortunate that it takes, sometimes, political or societal shifts to help people maybe to understand, when it comes to hiring, what you should be looking for.
“Whether you agree with some of the social trends we’ve seen recently, whether you agree with it or not as an owner, I think every last one of them have to at least take into account that, ‘I better get a coach that can communicate with these players.’”
The mistake so many NFL franchises make when hiring a coach is failing to understand the most important element to success. It is not whether one has innovative ideas or years spent standing next to a genius. It’s whether one understands how to build — or maintain — a winning culture. That’s what Seattle got right in hiring Pete Carroll. That’s how Kansas City hit the Powerball with Andy Reid.
What Lewis achieved that even they did not was to construct such an operation in a relative desert.
“He raised the Titanic,” Wilcots said. “The team was sitting at the bottom of the ocean, and he raised to respectability. Free agents wanted to come here. You didn’t have to pay now to go and get free agents, where prior to his arrival, you had to overpay people to stay. If your players were hitting the market, they wanted out.”
Lewis is an easy coach for fans and some analysts to dismiss for the simple reason that he coached 16 seasons in Cincinnati and never won a playoff game.
Wait, I phrased that incorrectly.
He never won a playoff game!!!
It is true, and it’s a stain on his resume, but lots of coaches advanced once or twice in the playoffs and later failed miserably. Wilcots contends that if you used a balance scale and placed that hunk of negativity on one plate, it wouldn’t even budge against the plate holding the bulk of positive accomplishments during his time as Bengals head coach.
“When he got here, you couldn’t even have that conversation about going to the playoffs,” Wilcots said. “Marvin was able to leverage some of the success he had at other stops, and some of the relationships. You ask me what do I like about him — outside of the coaching stuff, and that’s part of it, too — building that kind of infrastructure is the process that allows a team to be successful.”
Lewis accomplished something no other coach in the past three decades managed: He made the Bengals a functional football team. If you want to toss around statistics that genuinely — not just handily — capture the Lewis years in Cincinnati, consider these:
In the 12 seasons before Lewis arrived in Cincinnati and the two seasons since, the Bengals managed a winning record precisely never. Sandwiched in between that 0-for-14, which included no playoff appearances, Lewis compiled seven winning seasons and made the playoffs in each of those years.
The Bengals’ composite record in the 14 seasons that surround the Lewis years: 55-137.
The Bengals’ composite record in the 16 seasons Lewis coached: 131-122-3.
He was more than twice as effective as the three coaches who preceded him and the one who followed. Although the NFL is set up for every team to at least have a chance to be successful because of the draft and salary cap, they’re still not all playing the exact same course. Ownership can make an enormous difference.
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Lewis would never acknowledge that the reason he tolerated Chad Johnson’s extravagant selfishness and later Vontaze Burfict’s trampling of the rulebook were because of directives from above, where the checks are signed and the biggest decisions are made. But that is how things were done in Cincy before Lewis arrived and how they’ve continued since his departure.
“For those players he wasn’t able to discipline, they did learn that. And that’s when you tend to have problems,” Wilcots said. “You’ve got to understand, that was the fundamental piece that really did not allow this thing to really flourish the way that it should have when he was here. From my vantage point, I know what that does to a coach. I know what it does to teams. And I know you can’t take that way from a coach.”
A different organization would be unlikely to follow the same philosophy as Mike Brown’s Bengals. With the proper approach from the organization, Lewis could be a terrific success, even more so than when he managed to win four division titles in an AFC North occupied by the Steelers (Super Bowls in 2005 and 2008) and Ravens (Super Bowl in 2012).
“He inherited the worst,” Wilcots said, “and played amongst the best.”
Lewis already has accomplished what the Lions, Jets and several others are seeking to achieve in making coaching changes: to transform from absurdity to ascendancy. In another circumstance, he might take it a step or two further.