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It’s Now or Never for Marvin Lewis and the Bengals

The Cincinnati head coach cares about his players and he cares about winning, but there’s one thing he cares about most—winning it all. Lewis knows that his time as an NFL head coach is dwindling, so the pressure’s on for these Bengals.

CINCINNATI — Football coaches are creatures of habit, and every Friday Marvin Lewis gets a haircut. He doesn’t have much hair left so people don’t believe him when he says he gets it cut weekly. This week, though, he went nine days between cuts—a product of the start of training camp—and his hair got a little unruly.

When Lewis was hired to be the Bengals’ head coach in 2003, he came to Cincinnati with solid-black hair and a receding but defined hairline. Today there’s more gray than black, and the hairline is a suggestion. Five years ago his hairdresser hooked him up with some shampoo, conditioner and “another product that you can put on after that” that has slowed the hair-loss process down.

“You’re supposed to put it on at night,” Lewis says, “but I don’t remember [to take] the medicines I’m supposed to take or eye drops or any of that stuff.”

Lewis turns 60 in Week 3 of this NFL season, making him the fifth-oldest coach in the NFL. Bill Belichick is the only coach who’s been with his current team longer than Lewis. Lewis signed a two-year extension to keep him with the Bengals through the 2019 season back in January—a move that came on the heels of plenty of rumors over whether he would be relieved of his duties after ’17.

Coaching isn’t something Lewis wants to do forever. Whether he moves on when his contract is up is still to be decided, but it seems clear that it’s now or never for these Bengals. In 15 years under Lewis, Cincinnati has made the playoffs seven times, including five with the nucleus of quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green. But the team met the same fate in all of those games.

With his next regular-season victory, Lewis will become the winningest coach in NFL history without a playoff victory, breaking a tie at 125 wins with Jim Mora. But that’s the common misnomer here. The point for Lewis isn’t to get his most talented team since the 12-4 2015 Bengals to the playoffs just to win a game and rid himself of these distinctions. He wants to win it all.

“The only thing I’m trying to do is win the championship. That’s it. That’s what this is about. I’ve been there twice. I’ve been there on both ends of it. In Pittsburgh [as the linebackers coach for Super Bowl XXX] after the game, we lost, and at our party was Kool and the Gang. O.K.?

“And when we won in Baltimore [as the defensive coordinator for Super Bowl XXXV], [the band at the after-party] didn’t really matter but was Jonathan Jones’s Band of Merry Men from the east side of Baltimore. And they were a lot better because that’s all that matters is winning the game.”

Marvin Lewis has a career record of 125-112 as the Bengals’ head coach.

Marvin Lewis has a career record of 125-112 as the Bengals’ head coach.

Lewis says he doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on outside the building. After the Bengals knocked the Ravens out of the postseason in the final game of the 2017 season, Lewis shook hands with the Baltimore coaches, wishing them luck in the playoffs without realizing the impact his team’s victory had. Two days before we sat down, Urban Meyer had been placed on administrative leave, and Lewis didn’t know what the deal was about the great college football coach 90 minutes up Interstate 71. He probably won’t read this story.

Lewis says he’s only concerned about the guys in his locker room and winning and honestly, at 59 years old, he’s too old to lie about something like that. And the truth is—winning last two games of the season is the reason Lewis is still here.

Heading into Week 14 last season, the Bengals were still mathematically in the playoff hunt before laying a 33-7 egg against the Bears at home, dropping their record to 5-8. Hours before Cincinnati’s meeting with the Vikings the following week, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Lewis would leave the Bengals after the season to “pursue opportunities elsewhere.”

Cincinnati, out of playoff contention, was blown out 34-7 for its third straight loss, mustering just eight first downs on offense, and returned home with what appeared to be a lame duck coach and two more games still to play.

But against expectations, the Bengals pulled out wins in those last two games of the season. There was no “let’s win this for Marvin” groundswell in the locker room—this was a proud team with a talented roster trying to preserve some dignity against Detroit and Baltimore.

“When you get to the end of the year and you know you’re not going to make the playoffs, you still want to be playing good football. You don’t want to just shut it down,” Dalton says. “I think we did that and to knock two teams out of the playoffs was big for us to end on a good note. That helped with Marvin still being here, and the organization saw we were close.”

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A 26-17 win against Detroit and the come-from-behind upset in Baltimore was enough to convince team owner and general manager Mike Brown to stick with Lewis, but it was clear the change would have to come from somewhere.

“I made up my mind I wanted to coach,” Lewis says. “So do I want to go start over somewhere where I don’t know the people or coach these group of guys downstairs that no one else has? That’s an easy decision. You look at what’s open and these are the best players. And that’s what you want.

“I knew we were going to have a lot of change on the coaching staff. I knew I had to make changes and those are the things that Mike and I had to discuss. I had to make changes on people that had been with me for a long time and had been friends, and it’s difficult.”

Lewis had already jettisoned offensive coordinator Ken Zampese two games into the 2017 season when through two games, the Bengals’ offense had only posted nine points with zero touchdowns and six interceptions. Longtime assistant head coach Paul Alexander, who had overseen the offensive line for 23 seasons—including through a very rough 2017—was let go. Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther left to join Jon Gruden’s staff in Oakland, paving the way for Lewis to hire Teryl Austin. Lewis would also get new positions coaches for quarterbacks, receivers and cornerbacks. 

“We brought in new coordinators and let them have their chance at it,” Brown told reporters in July. “This will make us look different. It will be a challenge to digest for our players. It usually takes a little time. I will be holding my breath some as we start out with it. There will certainly be a few ups and downs with it. It should produce real change with the football team and we are trying to have change.

“We are trying to see if something a little different won’t be better.”

Marvin Lewis (right) brought in Teryl Austin from the Lions to lead the Bengals’ defense in 2018.

Marvin Lewis (right) brought in Teryl Austin from the Lions to lead the Bengals’ defense in 2018.

Earlier this month, one of the cooks in the players’ cafeteria made an astute observation to running back Giovani Bernard. “I never see you guys on ESPN,” the man said.

He’s right. No one seems to care about the Bengals. They held their scrimmage at Paul Brown Stadium on an August Saturday and drew fewer than 10,000 fans (and it’s probably safe to say fewer than 5,000). Cincinnati has the least interesting storylines in its division, going up against Pittsburgh trying to dethrone New England in the AFC, a rookie quarterback creating a QB battle in Baltimore and HBO’s cameras all over Cleveland.

“We don’t care. We’re used to it,” A.J. Green says. “We’re going to go out there and play football and not worry about all that overhyping.”

Though Lewis overhauled the coaching staff, he didn’t want to drastically change the roster. He believes the new coaching blood should change the fortunes of a franchise that for a long time has had a keen eye for talent. Consider this: from 2006-17, the Bengals had 26 first- or second-round draft picks. Twenty-one of those players are on a current NFL roster and 13 remain in Cincinnati.

The biggest personnel changes came along the offensive line with the trade for left tackle Cordy Glenn and spending the first-round pick on center Billy Price. The Bengals added linebacker Preston Brown in free agency, let Former No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell and safety Pacman Jones walk and that’s about it.

“You start changing personnel and unfortunately you’re starting from scratch,” Lewis says. “We have eight guys in this building who have been to the Pro Bowl, and most of them multiple times. And I think that’s the No. 1 thing that we’ve got to rely on, is their ability.”

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Without question, though, the offense must improve. The Bengals offense was in the bottom-fourth of the league in: points scored, total yards, first downs, pass attempts, passing yards, rushing attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Their average drive was a league-worst 5.11 plays and 24.1 yards.

Bill Lazor was elevated to offensive coordinator after Lewis fired Zampese two games into the season. He got the permanent gig at the end of the season and has been installing his own offense ever since. “He had inherited an offense that had evolved through three coordinators,” Dalton says. “When you take over in the middle of the year it’s hard to get it exactly as you want it.”

Among the tweaks Lazor has made is putting Green at different positions outside of his normal X receiver role, a move that Green has welcomed. “I do it sometimes but it’s definitely more this year,” Green says.

John Ross, who’s had an up-and down camp, can only get better after what ultimately was a redshirt season for him. The first-round pick had zero balls thrown his way and fumbled his only touch of the season. He was hampered by shoulder and knee injuries, and now he admits he was in a bad place mentally because he couldn’t get on the field physically.

“I just wish I mentally prepared myself better,” Ross says. “I don’t regret anything because it helped me. It was a learning experience and I learned a lot last year.”

John Ross (left) only played 17 snaps in his rookie season, and he looks to remedy that in 2018.

John Ross (left) only played 17 snaps in his rookie season, and he looks to remedy that in 2018.

In all of Lewis’s seven playoff games with the Bengals, his team has had at least a share of the lead in the second quarter or later. If he can get these Bengals back to postseason ball, he knows what he’ll emphasize.

“As you get into the preparation of that and as the game unfolds, remind each player to play each situation for its fullest,” Lewis says. “Don’t worry about the next one. Just focus on this one. I think that’s important because we’ve been ahead in these games and we’ve lost them.

“Don’t be concerned with what could happen. Just make it happen, right there, in that play, right now.”

Green and Dalton are both 30 years old, but they still feel they have plenty left in the tank. But Green is also aware that his window to win with Lewis is shrinking.

“It just feels like time is ticking,” Green says. “We’ve been here eight years now so it would be good to get something going right now. We’re just trying to work in the now.”

Lewis can see the end of his coaching career nearing. There’s no date he puts on it, but he won’t search for the ring for the rest of his life. He knows his wife, Peggy, is looking forward to no longer being a coach’s wife. For his entire pro football career—and for nearly all his life—Lewis has lived within a four-and-a-half hour radius of Pittsburgh. It’s a blessing, but it also means that extended family and friends are regularly trying to make a weekend out of Bengals home games, sitting with Lewis’s family at the stadium.

These games certainly aren’t a weekend getaway for Peggy or Lewis’s mother, Venetta, especially the past two years. Lewis now urges those friends and extended family to stay home and watch the games on TV. He’s seen the toll the ups and downs of a football season have taken on his loved ones. When he signed his latest extension, he asked Peggy if she was happy. “I’m happy for you,” she said.

“I’ve been blessed but I don’t worry about beyond this year,” Lewis says. “No, no. There will be an end.

“Whether you still get up at 4:30 or 5 a.m., you want to enjoy your life for why you’ve worked the way you’ve worked. You want to take advantage of that.”

But before that, Lewis wants to hear the band play at a postseason party again. And he won’t care who it is.

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