CINCINNATI — Marvin Lewis was composed and smiling when he sat at his usual spot at the podium in Paul Brown Stadium on Monday morning. He cracked a few jokes and seemed as relaxed as he could be considering the circumstances.
If it weren’t for the tears visible in his eyes at times, it would’ve seemed like any postseason news conference he has given over the past 16 years.
Lewis was officially out as head coach of the Bengals. It was a decision both the Bengals and Lewis said was mutual, although it is unclear who proposed the split.
“Mike [Brown] and I both decided that it’s time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but I think we both realized … ” Lewis said.
Things happened quickly in the hours after the Bengals concluded their season with a loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. While the Bengals have dragged their feet in previous years about Lewis’ future, they already had a clean break by 10 o’clock Monday morning.
As Lewis sat down to talk to the media, players were already packing their things and heading out. Lewis had just addressed the team in what he said was one of the toughest moments of the morning. Players said he stayed composed during the talk and spent most of it telling them that he believed in a bright future for them.
Lewis won’t be around to see that future realized. The Bengals had a young roster this season that became even younger due to injuries. Lewis recalled how he walked off the practice field last weekend and remarked how young everyone seemed.
Throughout the season, Lewis seemed equal parts invigorated and exhausted by the youthfulness of the team.
“Our players got younger this year, as we know, and you enjoy that part of them,” Lewis said. “I told [public relations director Emily Parker] as we were walking off the field Friday or Saturday, ‘It’s the same thing, they’re kids.’ I wish they were more hardened veteran kids, but they’re kids. They ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”
Lewis also addressed many of the players individually that morning.
“He said he was proud of me and I had a good season and take care of myself, my body. And he said I’m a good player. That’s good to hear from him,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “He’s been here for so long. He gave all of us a chance. He’s the one who picked us. He’s the one that wanted us to be here. Bummer deal.”
Said linebacker Preston Brown: “He just told us that they mutually decided that he wasn’t going to be the coach anymore, and that we have a lot of talent in the room, and whoever comes in is going to get us over that hump. … He told us all to just stay safe and continue to get better. He had a good message for us and … whoever comes in is going to get a good team.”
Over the past few weeks, the reactions of players have ranged from defense of Lewis to shrugging and saying it was out of their control. But the overwhelming reaction from the locker room was that the team would be OK no matter who was in charge. Running back Joe Mixon went so far as to confidently proclaim Sunday night the Bengals would be in the playoffs next year.
Marvin Lewis shares a moment with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin after Sunday’s loss in Pittsburgh. Joe Sargent/Getty Images
“This definitely is going to sting for seven or eight months, but I know one thing,” Mixon said. “Next year, our team is definitely going to the playoffs, and you can put whatever you want on that. I know that.”
Lewis also sent an email to the Bengals’ staff telling them to keep chasing the Super Bowl dream he couldn’t achieve in Cincinnati.
“They have to keep chasing that, you want to chase that. The gleam in their eye for everybody that does all the hard work in this building, to have that opportunity,” Lewis said.
And in an unusual move, Lewis chose to address the media one last time even though he was no longer obligated to, declining to wax nostalgic or talk about his hopes for the future. He conceded that he never delivered on his goal to win the Super Bowl, and that was bittersweet.
The Bengals certainly stuck by Lewis through the difficult years, long past the point that most front offices would have given up. And on the other side, there were times Lewis stuck by the Bengals as well, even when it seemed he might want out.
A mutual parting of ways seemed entirely possible after the 2010 season, but instead Lewis signed a new contract, drafted A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and took the team to five straight playoff appearances. It almost seemed as if he would coach in Cincinnati for the rest of his career.
So why did it end now?
“’It’s been a lot — this season has been a lot,” Lewis said. “From Indianapolis [in Week 1] and the ride home on the bus, all the way through. It’s been a lot.”
The season had to take its toll on the 60-year-old Lewis, who saw a promising 4-1 start slip through his fingers. The Bengals looked like they had the makings of a promising team in September, with a defense that could force turnovers and an offense that seemed poised behind Dalton, who flourished under new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
The Bengals forced last-minute turnovers to seal wins against the Colts and Ravens. They defeated the Falcons on the road with a game-winning drive after Tyler Eifert, John Ross and Giovani Bernard all went down. They scored 17 straight points to upend the Dolphins. It seemed they were on their way to being something special.
“Even in camp we thought this year would be different,” Bernard said. “I’m sure every team says the same thing, but we really believed that at the beginning of the season. Guys go down. Next man has to step and we just couldn’t keep up with that. But we definitely felt in the beginning of the season we had a roster full of playmakers.”
But if the Bengals were being honest, they probably would have admitted it all went south on Oct. 14 when they failed to hold off the Steelers in the final 1:18. The Steelers have always been Lewis’ albatross, and his failure to beat them will define his legacy as much as his 0-7 playoff record.
“We started out at 4-1 and then we could’ve won that Pittsburgh game and been 5-1 but after that it was just downhill from there,” Preston Brown said. “I think once we get over that Pittsburgh hump, we can beat anybody. So we’ve got to find a way to win those type of games.”
When the Bengals gave up another heartbreaking loss to Pittsburgh, it was not only the beginning of the end for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who was fired less than a month later, but it embodied the lack of change that had come to define the Lewis era.
It got worse quickly. The Bengals had no answer for the Chiefs or the Saints, who blew them off the field. They struggled against rookie quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson. Their inspired performance against the Chargers was stymied by coaching decisions that seemed desperate at the time.
Although Lewis had always erred on the conservative side of two-point conversions and fourth-down tries, he flipped the script against the Chargers and failed in what ended up as a four-point loss. The Bengals didn’t seem to be able to do anything right.
Vontaze Burfict, who was once considered their best linebacker, was kept off the field due to suspensions and injuries and played poorly when he was on the field. Eighteen players ended up on injured reserve, and the Bengals lost their quarterback, two best receivers, two starting linebackers and their best tight end.
There was also Austin’s departure and a scramble to try to correct a defense that was on the path to being one of the worst in NFL history. Lewis took up the coordinator position with almost childlike enthusiasm and optimism. Lewis, who once coordinated one of the best defenses in NFL history in Baltimore, seemed positive he could turn things around.
Slowly the defense appeared to right itself toward the end of the season, but too much time had been wasted. Paul Brown Stadium was half filled to see the Bengals’ final win of the season on Dec. 16, the same day the team was eliminated from playoff contention.
And even though it was clear the remaining players were still giving it their best, the weight of the failures from the previous years and the frustration of the fan base were the final nails in the coffin. At the end of the day, the best the Bengals had to give simply wasn’t enough anymore.
“I worked my tail off. Everybody has,” Lewis said simply when asked if he was given every chance to succeed.
In his final comments on Monday morning, Lewis said he was proud of his work with the Marvin Lewis Community Fund. He thanked reporters for the coverage over the years. He told everyone he still hoped to coach but didn’t know what the future would bring.
Lewis shook hands, gave out a few hugs, then walked through the locker room in the direction of his office, perhaps to pack up his things. For the first time in 16 years, the Bengals and Lewis were looking toward a future that didn’t include each other.
“I wish I had all of you working [here] for another month [in the playoffs], as I know you want to work, and I certainly do too,” Lewis said. “That’s what I told the rookies today — imagine this is what you want. You want today to be an off day because you’re maybe playing a Saturday night home playoff game. That is what you’re training for moving forward. They’ll get there. Thank you.”