After sixteen years and zero playoff wins, the Cincinnati Bengals have finally moved on from head coach Marvin Lewis. What can fans in the Queen City expect from the new regime?
The Cincinnati Bengals are a storied franchise. They were originally founded in 1966 by Paul Brown as an American Football League franchise and joined the NFL in 1970 when the AFL and NFL merged. The Bengals hit their stride as a franchise in the 1980s with AFC championships and trips to the Super Bowl in 1981 and 1988 (both losses). Cincinnati’s winning ways continued in 1990 with an AFC Central championship and a wildcard playoff victory. They eventually lost to the Los Angeles Raiders in the divisional playoff game. Then, Paul Brown died, and everything changed.
How we got here
Today, Cincinnati Bengals fans refer to the 1990s as “the lost decade” or simply, “the 90’s,” and they do so for good reason. Paul’s son Mike Brown inherited the team in 1991. A lawyer by trade, Brown put an emphasis on finances rather than football in running the team. He never adapted to the free agency model when it was adopted in 1993. Instead, he ran the franchise like it was the 1970s. There are horror stories of the team handing out used jock straps and failing to provide Gatorade in the locker room. From 1991 to 1999, the Bengals had 43 wins and 101 losses, including four three-win seasons and two four-win seasons.
Storytime with T.J. Houshmandzadeh about the early years with the Bengals: No bottled water or Gatorade, jockstrap issues and showing up to home games straight from the club pic.twitter.com/nvSX7STorM
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) July 9, 2018
As “the lost decade” came to a close, there were glimmers of hope. Quarterback Jeff Blake came out of nowhere in 1994 to energize the fan base. The renewed sense of hope quite possibly led to Hamilton County voting “yes” on a tax referendum in 1996 that funded Paul Brown Stadium, keeping the Bengals in Cincinnati.
In a rare primetime game in 1997, rookie running back Corey Dillon broke Jim Brown’s single-game rushing yards by a rookie with 246 yards and 4 TD’s on 39 carries. The Bengals finished with seven wins that season largely in part to Dillon and the return of QB Boomer Esiason.
Rather than pay his QB a decent wage the following year, Brown actually pushed Esiason to take a lucrative deal offered by ABC to join the Monday Night Football broadcast booth. The following season, the Bengals won three games.
The stories of Mike Brown’s ineptitude go on…and on…and on. Like the time he turned down a trade for all of the New Orleans Saints 1999 draft picks, first round picks in 2000 & 2001 and a second round pick in 2002 to stay put at the third spot so he could draft Oregon QB Akili Smith. This, despite pleas from head coach Bruce Coslet that the team could win with Jeff Blake.
Where Marvin Lewis comes in
It looked as if the new millennium would continue just as the old one ended, with the Bengals winning just 12 games in three seasons. And then, mercifully, Marvin Lewis was hired as the 9th head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The returns were immediate. Lewis coached the Bengals to eight wins in 2003, his first season. It matched the most wins in a season under Mike Brown’s ownership (just once, in 1996). Two years later, the Bengals won the AFC North championship behind the leadership of QB Carson Palmer, Lewis’ first draft pick.
But as the Bengals luck goes, on the team’s second offensive play from scrimmage of the 2005 wildcard playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, defensive tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen (a former Bengal, of course) fell into Carson Palmer’s left leg, shredding Palmer’s ACL. Cincinnati went on to lose the game 31-17.
The Bengals would win the AFC North again in 2009, but the Palmer-led Bengals of the 2000s were never the same and by 2011, Palmer vowed to retire rather than play another down for Cincinnati. The following season he was traded to the Oakland Raiders. A new band of players featuring QB Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green would enjoy success with five straight playoff appearances, from 2011 to 2015. All five were losses, ending in a heartbreaking home loss to the Steelers where the team self-destructed in the final moments of the game, leading to a game-winning field goal by Pittsburgh.
Lewis limped along for three more losing seasons until the team announced last December that they had mutually agreed with Lewis to part ways.
Long overdue change
New Bengals head coach Zac Taylor is a bit of an unknown. He’s got the shine of Rams head coach and current NFL hot commodity Sean McVay. Taylor parlayed that connection into a head coaching job despite only holding assistant and positional coaching positions prior to now. Because of this, it’s hard to predict what Cincinnati will look like under his leadership. We can begin by examining some tenets of Marvin Lewis teams that are bound to change.
Development of younger players
For whatever reason, Marvin Lewis didn’t like playing rookies. Near the end, it seemed as if he was allergic to them. Lewis had a philosophy that rookies had to prove their worth to the team to see the field, regardless of draft status. This was happening as other teams looked to get contributions from rookies as soon as possible to take advantage of their affordable contracts. As rookie and second-year stars emerged across the league, Bengals youngsters often barely saw the field.
On Chiefs RB Kareem Hunt’s first regular season play in the NFL, he fumbled the ball. Head coach Andy Reid continued to feed him the ball to build up his confidence. He went on to lead the league in rushing yards and win rookie of the year in 2017. Wide receiver John Ross, selected ninth overall by Cincinnati in 2017, fumbled his first regular season carry on a reverse, was removed from the game, and would not log another touch the entire season. The ninth overall pick in the NFL draft logged one touch his entire rookie season.
This is not a comparison of the talents of Kareem Hunt and John Ross but rather an illustration of Lewis’ handling of rookies. Under Taylor, the Bengals trend of favoring aging veterans over rookies should end, or at least fall more in line with the rest of the league.
Wins in prime time (and maybe playoffs)
Marvin Lewis’ record in primetime is 9-32, including the postseason. This stat should have been a huge red flag for the Bengals front office as primetime games are typically against premier teams. The record doesn’t lie – Marvin Lewis teams wilted in big games under the bright lights. This is a trend Taylor and his staff surely hope to remedy immediately. It should be noted that Lewis’ playoff drought is nothing new in Cincinnati. Since Mike Brown took over the team in 1991, the team has not won a playoff game.
Fish or cut bait with Andy Dalton
The Bengals are loyal, to a fault. When a player signs a contract in Cincinnati, there’s a good chance he’ll finish that contract. Mike Brown doesn’t like dead cap space, opting to keep under-performing veterans around long after their skills diminish. Andy Dalton’s current deal pays him around $17 million a year on a team-friendly deal. The Bengals could cut him as early as this season with no cap hit.
While that scenario is unlikely, Taylor may spend one season with Dalton and decide to go another direction. Given Taylor’s pedigree as a QB coach, his plea to Brown to move on from Dalton combined with Dalton’s deal would probably be well-received. Frankly, Dalton may just have too much Marvin Lewis stink on him, with his own primetime struggles (6-20 as a starter).
What we know about Zac Taylor
Taylor’s rise to head coach has been swift and surprising. He began his NFL coaching career in Miami as assistant quarterbacks coach in 2012. In 2015, the Dolphins fired offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and named Taylor interim offensive coordinator for the final five games of the season. He joined the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 as an assistant wide receivers coach and was promoted to quarterbacks coach in 2018. That’s it. Seven years as an assistant or position coach, with a cup of coffee as interim offensive coordinator.
That’s why it is so difficult to figure out just what Taylor brings to the table. We do know there will be passing. Between 2012 and 2015, then-Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill threw for 15,460 yards, all under Taylor’s tutelage. That’s the third-most in history for quarterbacks in their first four seasons.
Cincinnati has the weapons to be a top offense. Dalton is serviceable as a veteran signal caller, crossing the 4,200-yard threshold twice in his career. A.J. Green is still one of the top receivers in the game. Talented running back Joe Mixon blossomed in his second season with 1,464 all-purpose yards and 9 total TD’s. The offense should be fine, which is good because they’re going to need it.
It seemed nobody wanted the Bengals defensive coordinator job. Can you blame them? Last year’s unit was historically bad. Cincinnati ranked 30th in scoring defense and last in yards allowed per game. The defense gave up 500 yards in three straight games last season, the first team to do so in the modern era.
To the surprise of no one, it took weeks for Taylor to finally land a coordinator, working through a litany of candidates (a couple that turned the team down) before finally settling on New York Giants defensive backs coach Lou Anamuro. He becomes the team’s fourth defensive coordinator in three seasons. The tallest task at hand for the offensive-minded Taylor appears to be fixing the defense.
One cannot discount what Marvin Lewis has meant to the city of Cincinnati. He brought the Bengals out of the depths of despair and made them relevant again after a “lost decade” despite a team owner out of touch with the modern game. But Lewis overstayed his welcome by several seasons. The new coaching staff should energize a young roster with new ideas and ideologies, something lacking from a Marvin Lewis program old enough to obtain a driver’s license.
The biggest question surrounding Taylor and the Bengals is one that can’t be answered yet. Can the new head coach overcome being saddled with the albatross of an owner known as Mike Brown? This behind the scenes struggle is likely more of a challenge than any he’ll see on the field.