If there's one truth to hold self-evident this season it's that no team has more at stake, and more possibility for wildly disparate outcomes, than Cincinnati. Everything from ultimate triumph to the end of an era seems in play this year for the talented Bengals, who have come so far in the first 11 seasons of Marvin Lewis' coaching tenure, and yet obviously haven't achieved the success that truly matters in the NFL.
Lewis and his defending AFC North champion Bengals know this better than anyone. That's why he wisely opened the organized team activity portion of their offseason this week by acknowledging and addressing what he called "the elephant in the room,'' specifically the club's dispiriting 27-10 home-field loss to wild card-qualifying San Diego in the first round of last January's playoffs -- Cincinnati's third straight one-and-done showing in the postseason.
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Before you start to re-climb the mountain, you have to come to grips with why reaching the top has proven so elusive. Even if the exercise has become entirely repetitive by now.
"We began today and it was my first time talking to the entire football team since the Monday after we lost the game against San Diego,'' said Lewis by phone on Tuesday afternoon, the first day of the Bengals' OTA workouts. "So we had to address that game. We lost that game because we got out-played, we got out-coached, we got out-prepared and we got out-executed.
"There's no doubt, we have to swallow our medicine. That's the only way we're going to fix it, by looking at it and trying to move forward from it. Now we've got to go prove it again. We can't just will it to happen. We're going to have to go earn that opportunity to reach the playoffs.''
The specter of being stuck at status quo is one of the NFL's cruelest and most agonizing fates, and Cincinnati is the league's current poster child for a particularly high-rent state of limbo. The irony is you can be a consistent loser in the regular season, or a consistent loser in the postseason, and the forces of frustration that build and build are roughly the same.
If you're in Cleveland's, Buffalo's or Oakland's version of the status quo, it stinks. But how much less painful is the repeated mediocrity Dallas fans have endured? Or the galling seven-win purgatory in which St. Louis resides? That's why even playoff perennial status won't cut it in Cincinnati any more. The Bengals have improved their record for three years in a row, from 9-7 in 2011, to 10-6 in '12, to last year's 11-5 and division title, but all that anyone focuses on is that 0-3 mark in the playoffs, which erases all sense of progress and upward mobility.
That's why Lewis -- and his fourth-year quarterback, Andy Dalton, who shares that 0-3 playoff run -- are under no illusions this year in Cincinnati. They fully understand that they will work with as much heat on them this season as any coaching/quarterback tandem in the NFL. Dalton enters the final year of his rookie contract playing for his future, but right there beside him is Lewis, signed through 2015. There couldn't be a lot more clarity in Cincinnati.
"He and I both, we know what we're up against,'' Lewis said, again showing a grasp of reality. "We've set a high standard and now the expectations are to win everything. That's the good thing. Winning is just not good enough any longer. Winning the division is no longer good enough. The opportunity to win enough to get to the playoffs and become world champions is the goal. Otherwise people will feel this has been a failure.''
We used to know what failure in Cincinnati meant. This was a "Bungles'' franchise that went 14 tortuous seasons without a winning record or a playoff berth, from 1991 to 2004. But here's the most interesting part of Lewis' track record, a part that I think has largely been overlooked: His Bengals missed the playoffs in five of his first six seasons on the job, and Cincinnati owner Mike Brown opted to remain patient and stay the course, a decision for which he has largely been rewarded.
Now that Lewis has made the postseason in four of the past five years, winning the division twice, he's understandably coaching from the hot seat? How much convoluted sense does that make? Would the Bengals' real mistake be retaining him post-2008 -- perhaps missing the success of 2009-13 -- or letting him go when Cincinnati is fresh off the franchise's first-ever run of four playoff trips in a five-year span?
See earlier references to the damaging effects of the status quo perception. The reality is Lewis, remarkably enough, is the NFL's second-longest tenured head coach as he starts his 12th season in Cincinnati -- trailing only New England's Bill Belichick's 15 years -- and his 181 career games without a playoff victory (0-5) are the most in NFL history for any head coach serving with one team.
I well understand how the what-have-you-done-for-me lately NFL works, but I do have an appreciation for the job Lewis has done in Cincinnati, which was no ordinary turnaround project in anyone's opinion when he arrived in early 2003. I'm not ignoring his glaring 0-5 playoff record, and if it reaches 0-6 he's probably out of a job. But I'm also not inclined to overlook his five postseason trips and three division titles in 11 years, with him posting just three losing records and becoming the franchise's winningest coach (90-85-1) during his tenure.
The Bengals are one of only five teams to make the playoffs the past three years (Patriots and Packers five trips in a row, 49ers and Broncos three consecutive berths), and Cincinnati's 30-18 regular-season record in 2011-13 represents the franchise's most victories in any three-year span. The Bengals went 19-61 in the five seasons before Lewis was hired, never finishing better than 6-10 from 1998 to 2002, so the short-memory crowd should at least try to recall the franchise's long and arduous lost-in-the-desert phase before it brands the Lewis era with the label of failure.
As Lewis himself points out, he doesn't have the track record to match the likes of Belichick (three Super Bowl rings in a four-year span in New England) or fellow current coaching veteran Tom Coughlin of the Giants (two Super Bowl rings in 10 years in New York), only the relative longevity. When Lewis was hired in Cincinnati, the league's coaching ranks still included proven names like Dan Reeves, Marty Schottenheimer, Bill Parcells, Bill Cowher, Mike Holmgren, Mike Shanahan, Dick Vermeil, Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden. Now he's one of the long-time survivors in a profession that turns over more rapidly than ever.
"It is amazing how quickly 12 years can go, that's the first thing I realize,'' Lewis said. "Because the changes occur season after season. Guys like Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher are still young enough to still be coaching, obviously, but there's a sense of accomplishment when you win a Super Bowl, and there comes some life after football. When you're still in the quest for it, like I am, it keeps driving you. Obviously, what a Bill Belichick or a Tom Coughlin has done year after year, that's what you aspire to be like as a coach.''
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Upon taking the Bengals job, Lewis said he never dreamed of staying on the job for a decade-plus, but he took a 2-14 club and went 8-8 in his first two seasons in 2003-04, won the AFC North at 11-5 in 2005, and didn't record his first losing record until 2007. Lewis recalls during that first season just hoping to make it to Year 2 in Cincinnati.
"They had [a festival] they called 'Tall Stacks' here in Cincinnati at the time, where the riverboats in October would come to town and dock,'' Lewis said. "They're beautiful and I remember driving downtown to drop some family members off, and seeing those boats on the river and thinking to myself, Boy, it'll be nice when I see the Tall Stacks come back again, because that means I'm still here and might get to experience them some day. But at that point in your career, that first year, you can't see the forest for the trees. You have no idea about longevity. You're just going day to day, week to week.''
Like Dungy before him, Lewis was once the face of the league's minority head coaching candidate issue, a coach whose wait in line to be hired took longer than expected after his successful turn as Baltimore's defensive coordinator, highlighted by the Ravens' surprise Super Bowl title of 2000. When the Bengals named him coach in January 2003, he was one of three minority coaches, joining Dungy in Indianapolis and Herm Edwards with the Jets. This year, by comparison, there are five minority head coaches: himself, Pittsburgh's Mike Tomlin, Tampa Bay's Lovie Smith, Detroit's Jim Caldwell and Carolina's Ron Rivera, who is of Latino descent.
"Even though maybe at this point this year the number of minority coaches is still a smaller percentage than it has been at different times, I still feel like we made progress as a league on that front once the Rooney Rule was implemented in 2003,'' Lewis said. "It's just not looked at as a big deal any more. The coach is hired for his abilities, and he's getting opportunities based on those abilities. To me, a guy like Mike Tomlin has really set the bar high for young minority coaches with what he's done and how he's gone about it. Because he was young in the league, but he's brought a great degree of expertise, a great degree of energy, and he's got a plan. He was very successful early on, as both a coordinator and a head coach.''
The NFL this weekend in Philadelphia will conduct its annual Career Development Symposium for aspiring head coaching and general manager candidates at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Open to all league coaching and GM candidates, not just minorities, the seminar last year featured a speech from Lewis, who ironically lost both of his coordinators -- Jay Gruden (Washington) and Mike Zimmer (Minnesota) -- to head coaching hires this offseason. Both Zimmer and Gruden attended last year's symposium and were helped by their association with the successful program Lewis has led in Cincinnati.
But their departures have inevitably led to chatter about whether Lewis can win without them, and with newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson (the former Raiders head coach, and 2012-13 Bengals running backs coach) and defensive coordinator Paul Guenther (formerly linebackers coach). That's another part of the Bengals' challenge this season, winning enough to survive beyond the first round of the playoffs despite significant changes to the coaching staff, as well as the loss of key free agents like defensive end Michael Johnson, offensive tackle Anthony Collins and valuable slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
"I haven't heard that [chatter], but believe me, that's the exciting part of it, and after one day of practice, I feel good about where things are, and with our two new coordinators,'' Lewis said. "Hue has been with me off and on for a long time, and Paul came here in 2005. Mike did a great job and the fit of him and I was good because we saw defense with the same eyes and had been friends for a long time. It was an easy marriage. But it's the same thing now with Paul.''
The Bengals, said Lewis, all have "something to prove.'' Be it the veteran head coach, the new coordinators, the players expected to step up and fill the holes left by Johnson, Collins and Hawkins, or Dalton in his pivotal fourth season, there's arguably more pressure in Cincinnati this season than in any other NFL locale.
And the spotlight will fall first and longest on Dalton, whose winning regular-season play has largely been obscured by his one-touchdown, six-interception showing in three career playoff starts. Lewis has stood staunchly behind Dalton as the team's quarterback of the present and future, and Cincinnati waiting until the fifth round to select a quarterback in this year's draft -- Alabama's Dalton-like AJ McCarron -- sent the clear message the Bengals remain Dalton's team.
"From the time he's stepped back into Cincinnati this offseason, he's had these guys rally back around him,'' Lewis said. "All he did this offseason was go and spend time with [noted passing mechanics coach] Tom House, the guy Drew Brees and other quarterbacks have spent time with. Andy's wife is pregnant and about to have their first child, but he's still really driven by football and that's a great thing to see.
"Everybody wants to blame our quarterback for everything, but in that game against San Diego it was both offense and defense. We didn't stop them on third down and get off the field, our great little running back [Giovani Bernard] fumbled the football [at the 5-yard line], and we didn't make any plays on special teams or turn the ball over on defense. It's easy to point at one guy, but baloney, the football team didn't play as well as we needed to win.''
Is Dalton's long-awaited contract extension going to get done? Lewis remains optimistic.
"I'm hopeful, you know?'' he said. "I know he would like to get it done and I know we'd like to get it done, and just hopefully we can get by that deal with my man, [Jay] Cutler in Chicago [seven years $54 million guaranteed] and we can all get something everybody likes.''
Contract extension for Dalton or not, the only thing that everybody's going to like in Cincinnati this season is a playoff win or two. The reality is the Bengals aren't where they used to be for so long, near the bottom of the barrel in the league. But they certainly aren't where they need to be, either. And that has to change, or changes of a different sort are likely inevitable.
"I know we're not satisfied,'' Lewis said. "I think we've really come light years as a team, but we can't stay the same and think we're going to stay status quo. We've tried doing that and failed at it. You've got to work hard every year and you've got to climb the mountain every year. We've learned that over time.''
But only this year's results will prove whether the lesson has finally resonated with Lewis' Bengals. In Cincinnati this season, it's time to take the next step. Or else.