I’ve never been a big critic of Marvin Lewis, but the events of Saturday night’s playoff loss make it clear, at least to me, that he needs to go. And the best candidate to replace him is Stanford head coach David Shaw.
Let’s review the case for Lewis’ dismissal by the Cincinnati Bengals. He’s been the coach there for twelve years and has yet to win a playoff game. His teams have also never earned a first-round bye, so Cincinnati has not been playing on Divisional Round Weekend—when the postseason really gets serious—at all in the Lewis era.
It’s not that Marvin Lewis’ teams choke in the playoffs. In these last five years, which have seen first-round exits each time, the Bengals have been underdogs on four of those occasions. That includes Saturday’s home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Cincinnati was a (+3) underdog and covered the spread in an 18-16 loss. At least some Bengal backers are happy.
So it’s that Cincinnati underperforms in the postseason. But in a way that further indicts Lewis—it clearly conveys that his teams have never been seen as good enough to make the Divisional Round—which is still a long way from the Super Bowl—in any event. After twelve years in charge.
Even having said all that, I still had sympathy for Marvin’s case, even coming into the game on Saturday. Most of us remember a time when Cincinnati had a lot bigger problems than not advancing past the first round of the playoffs. There was a time when the Bengals were an abject joke, while the Browns across the state where the franchise that got to the playoffs and came up short. I doubt too many Cincinnati fans would trade places again. Marvin Lewis stabilized the franchise.
But the events of Saturday night make it clear that Lewis does not have appropriate control of his team. Vontaze Burfict was clearly out of control from the outset, even as he appeared to win the game with an interception inside the two-minute warning. Burfict’s helmet-to-helmet penalty on Antonio Brown—on a ball clearly thrown well over Brown’s head and just as clearly down intentionally—was appalling on every level.
It was appalling from the spirit of basic sportsmanship and it was appalling for what it did to his team. The fact Adam Jones doubled down by getting another unsportsmanlike penalty only made it worse.
Lewis’ failure to control his team was so egregious that even postgame analysis from CBS’ Boomer Esiason and Bill Cowher, normally reserved in getting too opinionated on a topic like job security, completely threw Lewis under the bus. In fairness, the head coach tried to control Burfict, repeatedly talking to him on the sideline. Just as clearly he failed.
And yet even after all that, you could have talked me into the notion that he deserved to stay, although I was fading fast as a supporter. But when Lewis’ postgame response was simply to say that some helmet-to-helmet plays get called and others don’t—which can be taken as an implication that it was the officials, rather than his own players, who cost him the game—I felt like Lewis had crossed the final line. He needs to be fired today.
Then you pick up the phone and call David Shaw. Why him? The Stanford coach has run a steady no-nonsense program built on physical play. He’ll build on what Lewis has put in place—a real toughness in the way the Bengals approach the game, while demanding greater intelligence and discipline in conduct. Shaw is also a former offensive coordinator and Cincinnati may benefit from having an offense-minded head coach after a dozen years of the defense-first Lewis.
I’m a big fan of David Shaw, who has an NFL background as an assistant and I think ideal for most any head-coaching job. But he’s the best fit in Cincinnati.
The early reports in the aftermath of Saturday’s disaster is that the Bengals will stay the course with Lewis, but that’s a mistake. He’s not the head coach that’s most deserving of being fired–Jason Garrett’s retention by Dallas is more egregious and how Jeff Fisher continues to be employed in St. Louis is positively mind-boggling. Lewis is not at the top of the list. But he’s on the list. Saturday night confirmed that.