The dust has just about settled on Marvin Lewis’ two year contract extension with the Bengals but a lot of the Cincinnati media remain hot under the collar about the situation. Lewis, now in his 15th season as head coach, was widely tipped to leave after his contract expired at the end of 2017. After two days of uncertainty, owner Mike Brown confirmed that the long time leader of the Bengals would remain.
Rather than over-analyse and criticise the decision we will take a look at the areas Marvin Lewis must address and improve on if he is to turn Cincy’s fortunes around. We will also look at what Lewis has done to transform a lowly franchise in to a side only two seasons removed from the playoffs.
Inability to trust younger players
Certain critics have cited a lack of production from recent Bengals’ draft hauls but the view that rookies have under performed is too simplistic. Lewis has consistently failed to trust rookies to make an impact.
Joe Mixon didn’t become the starting running back this year until week 8. Carl Lawson was the league’s rookie sack leader but couldn’t become more than a third down specialist. Ninth overall pick John Ross got 17 snaps including a botched WR sweep which he never seemed to recover from.
Second year players haven’t fared much better. Nick Vigil failed to make an impression in 2016 despite the team crying out for an athletic, tackling linebacker. Guard Christian Westerman showed promise but only when given a shot in the last two games and William Jackson was a star at corner once he displaced veteran Adam Jones.
The key to the rookies delayed and stunted production is Marvin Lewis’ stubbornness to move on from veterans. Lewis has been a long-time proponent of veteran leadership in the locker room even to the point where it has become detrimental to the on-field performance. In 2016, Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko looked off the pace leading to the Bengals being unable to stop the run or the intermediate passes across the middle of the field, yet rookies Vigil and Billings were rooted to the bench. This year, young guys like Tyler Boyd (stuck behind Brandon LaFell) and Jordan Willis (behind Michael Johnson) have had limited opportunities even in a season that was going nowhere.
If Lewis is determined to make a change in 2018 his priority must be to give rookies the chance to oust underperforming veterans. The roster is talented but now is the time to trust a new era of playmakers with Jackson, Mixon and Lawson becoming focal points.
In game adjustments
Another aspect Lewis must improve on is second half adjustments. The Bengals were 31st in the league for second half points scored, averaging only seven. In the nine losses they suffered they only scored 23 points combined in the second halves (270 minutes of football), an average of below 3 points per half.
After the scripted plays are through the Bengals offense fails to find new ways to counteract opposition defenses. More often than not Andy Dalton is stymied as defensive coaches find weak spots to apply pressure to an inexperienced offensive line. Despite a solid defense the Bengals simply cannot protect leads when they are only going to add between 3-7 points in the final two quarters.
The Bengals are set to keep Bill Lazor, who stepped in as offensive coordinator in Week 2. He will be under immediate pressure to become more creative with his play-calling when the playbook fully becomes his own. Lewis and his staff must prove they are not one-dimensional and revitalise this team with creative plays last seen when the likes of Hue Jackson and Mike Zimmer were his chief lieutenants.
Lewis’ place in Bengals history and areas to address
Despite the negativity that has surrounded the contract extension it is important to remember that Marvin Lewis re-energized this franchise when he began his tenure in 2003. The Bengals had endured 11 losing seasons out of 12 pre-Lewis. After his hiring the Bengals have had 5 losing seasons out of his 15, 2 of which were 2016 and 2017.
Lewis along with Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin have built a talented roster despite some obvious blind spots. They addressed the need for pass rushers in this year’s draft with Carl Lawson and Jordan Willis. The secondary is loaded with first round picks and if they can find an athletic linebacker to add to enforcer Vontaze Burfict then this solid defense could become special.
On the other side of the ball the Bengals need to admit they whiffed when taking back-to-back tackles early in 2015. Jake Fisher and Cedric Ogbuehi were not at the level to replace all-pro Andrew Whitworth and the search must begin again. Flashes from Christian Westerman and Alex Redmond late in the season suggest all may not be lost along the offensive front.
In the skill positions Joe Mixon gives them a do-it-all back and if Lewis can move past the issues he appears to have had with young receivers Tyler Boyd and John Ross then the future is bright.
The Bengals have now gone into serious PR mode, an offensive staff overhaul and hints that the long time 4-3 defense could give way to a 3-4 or hybrid system are an attempt to prove to fans they recognise all is not well. The relationship between ownership and fanbase is on a knife edge and the pressure will be sky high from the start of next season. Can Marvin Lewis change enough to take the Bengals back to the Playoffs? Only time will tell.
Follow Rory-Joe Daniels on Twitter, @rjdanielsnfl.