Lewis' extension about loyalty ... and wins
March, 14, 2014
By Coley Harvey | ESPN.com
CINCINNATI -- It was the timing of the announcement that made Marvin Lewis' contract extension with the Bengals a little odd.
It came four days into a free-agency period that the Bengals have mostly watched from the sidelines.
That's it. Nothing else made it seem strange or out of the ordinary.
After all, Lewis did candidly tell reporters at the NFL combine three weeks ago that he and Bengals president and owner Mike Brown were working on a deal that might prevent him from being a lame-duck coach in 2014. Back then, an extension was far from complete, but both sides were at least talking about it, and they seemed encouraged about it getting done.
So we knew a deal was coming. Now that it has, was it smart for the Bengals to renew their playoff win-deficient coach for another year?
Why? Because as much as Lewis' contract extension was about Brown's loyalty to a coach he has increasingly put more trust in, it also was about wins -- postseason wins. Not a single victory of that kind has come in the five postseason trips Lewis' Bengals have made during his 11-year tenure. Each time they have been to the postseason, they have been one-and-done.
As a franchise, Cincinnati hasn't won a playoff game since the 1990 season.
That might help explain why it's hard right now for many to see that there really is an urgency to signing Lewis in the first place. The one-year component of the signing enhances that urgency, providing Lewis a short-window-to-win ultimatum. By not giving him a longer deal of two or three years, the Bengals have sent a message: We want to win with you, but we want to win now.
"This is what we felt good about and it's just the way it's worked out," Lewis said on a conference call Friday when asked about signing an extension for one year.
In order for the Bengals to win, and to do so soon in the playoffs, Brown and the rest of his front office believes it is best their team stick with as familiar a formula as possible.
Since the infamous Bengals reboot of January 2011, something obviously has gone right. Within months of fielding a 4-12 team, the Bengals started changing their locker-room culture. They've seen that translate to success. Lewis was a big reason why.
As Brown started relinquishing more control to Lewis following the disastrous 2010 season, the old guard that included the likes of Carson Palmer, Chad Johnson and Terrell Owens began getting phased out. Less flashy and less ego-driven high draft picks were being brought into the fold. Discounted blue-collar workhorses like Vontaze Burfict and Marvin Jones started showing up, too, and were given opportunities to become stars.
With the culture change came wins. The Bengals went from having four wins in 2010 to nine with a rookie quarterback in 2011. In 2012, they won 10, and finished with 11 last season. In January, they reached the playoffs for a third straight season, a franchise first.
"We have a group of players -- players and coaches, and front office people -- that aren't satisfied with where we've been," Lewis said, "but sometimes when you talk to others, you can't lose sight of where you have been."
That's his way of saying the Bengals haven't been as good as they want to be, but they haven't been their old terrible selves, either.
Beyond the strong regular seasons, Lewis has started watching his coaching tree grow. His two coordinators from last season accepted their own head-coaching jobs this offseason. When they left, he already had two replacements ready to be promoted. Even with the changes, the Bengals still figure to have an offense and defense that will challenge for top-10 rankings again.
Continuity is important to Brown. So, too, apparently is winning.
"There's nobody that wants to win in this building more than he does," Lewis said. "We've been able to dispel that myth that was around here that Mike Brown didn't care about winning, because really that's all he cares about."
Despite what the Bengals have lost since January -- two coordinators, a starting center, a starting linebacker, a starting defensive end and a backup offensive tackle, among others -- they have gained something important. With Lewis' extension, they regained a measure of stability that wouldn't have existed if Lewis was forced to coach for his job in 2014.
That's a good thing.
But winning playoff games is, too.