Marvin Lewis was a black man with staying power in Cincinnati
The longest-tenured African-American head coach in the NFL will leave the Bengals after the season
In NFL history, no African-American head coach has been on the job longer than Marvin Lewis of the Cincinnati Bengals. He outlasted Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. He has spent more days on sidelines than Super Bowl winner Mike Tomlin. For 15 seasons, he set a mark that other black coaches strive to match. And now that Lewis plans to leave the Bengals after the season, it’s time to evaluate their time together.
The ledger will show that Lewis was successful during his long run in the Ohio Valley. When a head coach has better than a .500 career winning percentage, four division titles and seven playoff appearances, there’s no arguing that he put in the work. But with Lewis and the Bengals, there always seemed to be a cap on how far they could go.
In eight seasons under Lewis, Cincinnati either went 8-8 or had a losing record. The Bengals advanced to the playoffs seven times — and suffered seven consecutive losses.
Even when the Bengals impressed from September to December, longtime league observers rarely viewed them as legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The team’s playoff futility proved the doubters correct.
Ultimately, coaches in professional sports are paid to lead teams to the playoffs and position them to win once they’re in. That’s why they get the big bucks. The Bengals’ failure to break through during the most important time of the season — Lewis’ teams were outscored 176-90 in the postseason — directly reflects on the longest-tenured head coach in their history. That’s a lens you could use to view Lewis’ job performance. This is a fairer one: He took charge of a perennial laughingstock and made the team respectable.
Before Lewis joined the franchise, Cincinnati had the worst season in its history, finishing 2-14 and being outscored by 177 points. Before Lewis guided the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005, they had a 14-season playoff drought. In a span of 11 seasons (2005-15), Lewis won the AFC North four times. The Bengals, who have been playing since 1968, have 10 division titles total.
And Lewis, The Associated Press 2009 NFL Coach of the Year, pushed the once lowly Bengals to a higher level while working for team owner Mike Brown. By NFL standards, Brown ran a threadbare operation for decades, which showed on the field. Things improved once Brown finally stepped back from running the football operation around 2012. In terms of building through the draft, the Bengals, in some ways, have become a model franchise.
After going 12-4 and winning the division in 2015, however, the Bengals dropped off the past two seasons. Sunday’s 34-7 loss to the Minnesota Vikings put Cincinnati at 5-9 and in third place. One could argue that Lewis never should have accepted a job from an owner considered as bad as Brown, because under his direction the Bengals will never have a Super Bowl-championship culture.
But it’s not as if NFL teams are lining up to hire qualified black men for top positions. This season, the NFL has eight head coaches of color, matching 2011 as the most it has had in any season, including seven of whom are African-American. There are 32 teams.
The numbers in the front office are even more dismal. After the recent firings of Sashi Brown and Jerry Reese, formerly of the Cleveland Browns and New York Giants, respectfully, the NFL has only four African-American general managers: Rick Smith (Houston Texans), Ozzie Newsome (Baltimore Ravens), Reggie McKenzie (Oakland Raiders) and Chris Grier (Miami Dolphins). If a brother gets a great gig, he had better clutch it with both hands for as long as he can. That’s what Lewis did. And African-American coaches climbing the ladder will be better off for what Lewis accomplished while sticking around for so long, former NFL quarterback Jason Campbell said.
Back in 2014, Campbell played the final season of his career under Lewis. A backup to starter Andy Dalton, Campbell had a front-row seat to watch Lewis direct. He respects how Lewis handles his business.
“He’s been in there a long time, which says a lot about him,” Campbell said by phone Sunday night. “Especially when we’re living in an era where teams feel the pressure from the fans to fire coaches without giving things time to develop. Marvin has been a good coach. When you look at his overall record, he has had a good record. Of course, a lot of people will say, ‘He didn’t get the playoff win.’ Well, yeah, a lot of that is on the coach, but not all of that is on the coach. Players play. Players have responsibilities too.
“And for him to last that long in one organization, when you don’t have that many African-American head coaches, is huge. With him being able to last that long, because he did get his teams prepared the right way and he did win, it may open the door for other black coaches to have long careers. There are a lot of [white] coaches who have never won Super Bowls but got opportunities to run teams for a long time. Not everybody is going to win the Super Bowl. That’s not the way it works. But black coaches who win a lot of games, do it the right way and get to the playoffs should have as much of a chance to stick around too.”
In Cincinnati, Lewis definitely had staying power. And no matter what he does next, he’ll always be a trailblazer for what he achieved there.