It was time for the Bengals and Marvin Lewis to part ways.
Sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter that Lewis plans to leave the Bengals at the conclusion of his contract after this season to seek other opportunities, whether that ends up being in coaching or in a potential front-office position. It will mark the end of a 15-season run for Lewis and the Bengals, the second-longest active head-coaching tenure behind Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
Lewis turned around a franchise that hadn’t had a winning record for 13 seasons before his arrival, guiding the team to five straight playoff berths between 2011 and '15. But it was clear things had grown stale, and the team had regressed since its peak in 2015. The Bengals will finish with their second straight non-winning season this year.
It’s been downhill for the Bengals since their 2015 wild-card loss to the Steelers. The narrative had shifted sharply in recent years from Lewis’ successes to his weaknesses: The lack of discipline that had dogged the team in recent years (and partially led to that playoff loss), his 0-7 record in the postseason and his inability to beat Pittsburgh.
The situation shares similarities to Andy Reid’s exit from Philadelphia in 2012. Reid turned around the Eagles and took them to the playoffs nine times, even getting to the Super Bowl. But he was fired after two lackluster seasons with the idea that the message had grown stale. Reid accepted the head-coaching position with the Chiefs and hasn’t had a losing season in his five years there.
That decision ultimately looked like the best decision for both the Chiefs and Reid, and this could end up being the best decision for both Lewis and the Bengals.
There needed to be a change. That became clear when the Bengals blew another lead to the Steelers on Monday Night Football and followed that with a listless performance in a 33-7 loss to the lowly Bears in front of a half-filled Paul Brown Stadium. The energy had gone out of the franchise.
Lewis knew it, and perhaps so did Bengals owner Mike Brown. There’s a reason Brown and Lewis didn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension before the season, giving Lewis the rare “lame duck” status as a head coach.
“It adds a little bit of pressure,” Brown admitted to reporters over the summer.
It seemed Lewis felt the same way.
"Sometimes you don’t want to start that over again, but sometimes you need to,” Lewis told ESPN before the season. "And I’m prepared to do that. It doesn’t affect me one way or another."
Lewis' decision to walk away could rejuvenate him. While he hasn’t said how long he wants to keep coaching, he has connections around the league and is well-respected. If he can’t find a head-coaching job this year, he could easily land a front-office job or a spend a season as a senior defensive assistant for some coach.
He maintains regular contract with Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and speaks to members of his own coaching tree on a regular basis, including Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and Browns coach Hue Jackson. There’s no question he would not be out of a job for long.
As for the Bengals, it's clear they need a breath of fresh air. While the franchise reached one of its lowest points in years last week in the loss to the Bears, the roster has a number of talented players such as A.J. Green, Joe Mixon and Carl Lawson who a new coach could build around.
If the franchise makes the right decision on its next coach, the Bengals could quickly be contenders again.
Former Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason told the media two weeks ago that quarterback Andy Dalton, who has been inconsistent at best this season, could get back on track with the guidance of a coach similar to Rams coach Sean McVay.
“Only Marvin knows if it should be it for him, right? He’s a lame-duck coach right now. I’ve never really seen anything like this,” Esiason said. “Most coaches don’t go into their final year without a contract. But you know this has always been a unique place, to say the least, and I think only Marvin knows what he wants to do in his heart. If he decides to retire, then he’s had a great run here -- maybe one of the best runs ever. And certainly has been a really solid face of this franchise for many years and has never done anything to embarrass this franchise, that’s for sure.”