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Is Marvin Lewis an Attractive Head Coach or GM Candidate? It’s Complicated

Lewis is well-respected in NFL circles, but hiring him as a head coach will be a tough sell for any fan base, given his track record in the NFL playoffs.

The second-longest tenured head coach in the NFL will be leaving his post at the end of the 2017 season after 15 seasons and seven playoff appearances. The coach, who’s still under the age of 60 and has had a heavy hand in a personnel department that’s churned out a fair number of Pro Bowlers during his tenure, is departing under the intention of coaching or being a general manager somewhere else.

Blindly, this would seem like a resume that would rocket to the top of any pile. That kind of stability and eye for talent is hard to match; only Bill Belichick has survived longer with a similar arrangement. But why does the name on that resume—Marvin Lewis—make it so complicated?

In almost two decades with the Bengals, Lewis has never won a playoff game. But … he also dug the team out of the same organizational boneyard currently occupied by the Cleveland Browns. Before he arrived in Cincinnati back in 2003, the Bengals had not had a winning season since 1990. He finished .500 or better in 10 of 15 years coaching a franchise that traditionally likes to save money. But … the production never seemed to quite match a roster full of electrifying players.

Parsing Lewis’s resume is like stacking different points on either side of a bread scale. Was his postseason win drought in Cincinnati profoundly unlucky, or a window into the best Lewis can do?

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ESPN, which first reported the Lewis news Sunday, seemed to be describing a coach that had the market by its neck. He can coach, but being a general manager is also interesting to him. Here, Lewis comes off like the disgruntled employee storming out of the office intent on tackling bigger and better things, expecting his phone to ring ... just … about … any … minute … now. I think every coach in the NFL would entertain these options. 

No matter how well respected Lewis is inside NFL circles—and he is—hiring him as a coach or general manager would be an extremely difficult sell for a fan base. He’ll be lumped in with other tenured head coaches of a bygone era, similar to Jeff Fisher without a Super Bowl appearance. He’ll also face questions about how much of his roster construction was his doing, and how much was on the back of player personnel director Duke Tobin.

The rise of Sean McVay in Los Angeles has altered the landscape. Offenses are evolving rapidly and teams looking for head coaches are faced with the gargantuan task of finding the next big thing while also ensuring the candidate can handle the massive responsibility of leading 53 players. Lewis provides professional sheen, but doesn’t necessarily offer the promise of something new. Sample size can be damning. 

This offseason could be one of the most significant coaching carousels in this decade. There is one premiere job—the New York Giants—currently evaluating candidates and a handful of other teams with franchise-defining talent that will consider changing coaches in the coming weeks.

Perhaps teams will see Lewis as a strong push over the edge. Consider, as noted Sunday: Lewis was 125-111-3 in Cincinnati (a winning percentage of .525). Every other coach not named Paul Brown in franchise history? 55–149 (a winning percentage of .270). As a 45-year-old first-time head coach, back in 2003, he yanked the team out of quicksand only to see his reputation shift from program builder to big game loser. The league is brutal in this way. Lewis may have done a brilliant job with no resources and will never get enough credit. Or, he may have gotten too much on the back end.