CINCINNATI — Players said their phones were buzzing Monday morning before the last team meeting in which Marvin Lewis informed them he and the Cincinnati Bengals had mutually decided to part ways.
They all knew it was a possibility after a third straight losing season and last-place finish in the AFC North this year, but many didn’t want to believe the news until Lewis said it himself.
Lewis, who became the franchise’s ninth head coach in 2003, finished 131-129-3, including an 0-7 record in the postseason, in 16 seasons with the Bengals. They will now immediately begin the search for his replacement in what the organization said likely will take a few weeks.
“I've got nothing but respect for coach Lewis, and everything he's done for this organization and me personally,” wide receiver Alex Erickson said. “I loved playing for him, and I have nothing but respect for him, but sometimes the way this league works is if we don't produce as players, sometimes you lose your job, and it's the same for everybody. Obviously, Mr. Brown and the Bengals organization felt there needed to be changes, so we need to trust in that and know everything happens for a reason and they will find someone that's going to lead us and get us on track to be a championship caliber football team.”
Erickson said he saw the news on Twitter first, but it didn’t really hit him until Lewis spoke to the team.
Linebacker Preston Brown, a Cincinnati native who was in his first season with the Bengals, said he was “shocked” by the news. He went through many changes in his first four seasons with the Buffalo Bills but has only associated the Bengals with Lewis since he was a kid.
“I have only been here one year, so I don't have much to speak on (if change was needed), but I've loved coach Lewis every day I've been here, so for it to happen was something I didn't want to have happen,” Brown said.
“I was shocked,” he added. “Everybody's phones were going off in the locker room, but you don't believe it until you hear it from coach's mouth, so once we heard it, it was a surreal feeling to hear that the only head coach I've really known in Cincinnati growing up is finally gone, and that's something I didn't want to have happen. To see it happen and hear it out of his mouth was shocking.”
Brown said Lewis was composed while telling his players the news. He spent much of the 20-minute meeting encouraging the players to be better, according to Brown, but did tear up as players hugged him on their way out.
The same was true of Lewis’ final press conference, one he didn’t necessarily have to do – most coaches would have simply walked out the door. He remained poised for most of the 12-minute long question and answer session but couldn’t avoid revealing a bit of raw emotion as his eyes welled up at one point.
“I didn't deliver what the No. 1 goal was, and that was to be world champions and we did not get that done,” Lewis said. “There have been a lot of positives, but that's the one goal as a coach that you look forward to doing. Mike and I just both decided it's time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but we both realized it.”
Lewis said he doesn’t know what’s ahead, but he would still like to coach.
When asked why the decision came now – he signed a new deal last January and the team had an option for 2019 – Lewis appeared worn down but a difficult season that included 18 players going on injured reserve and losses in nine of the last 11 games. He exits as the franchise’s winningest coach but was just 8-26 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and suffered his first sweep by the Cleveland Browns this year.
“It's been a lot,” he said. “This season has been a lot. From Indianapolis, the ride home on the bus all the way through, it's been a lot.”
Running back Giovani Bernard said the entire team was disappointed in the season, and he can’t help but think what he could have done better to change the situation.
Many of the guys in the locker room Monday were young players or newcomers to the team this season but Bernard has been with Lewis since the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft.
“It's a different experience,” Bernard said. “When a lot of the guys were saying, 'Bye,' you could see the tears in his eyes, but it's one of those things where we feel for him, we understand the situation, we understand this is a business, but when you have a guy like Coach Lewis around that long and the type of guy he is to each and every single person in here, he's not only a coach but he is a father mentor for a lot of these players, including myself, so we appreciate all that he's done.”
Lewis said the toughest thing was addressing the players for the last time. He also sent out an email to the entire staff telling them to keep chasing that Super Bowl experience.
Chasing that dream with his players over the years was what kept him motivated throughout.
“That's the thing, I enjoy the players,” he said. “Our players got younger this year, we know, and you enjoy that part of them. ... They are kids. I wish there were more hardened, veteran kids, but they are kids and they ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”
Linebacker Nick Vigil said the defense improved drastically after Lewis took over for fired defensive coordinator Teryl Austin in Week 10, and Lewis deserves credit for his own development as well.
Vigil finished with 17 tackles in Sunday’s loss at Pittsburgh.
“He's been here for so long,” Vigil said. “He gave us all a chance. He's the one that picked us. He's the one that wanted us to be here, so bummer deal.
“He's a teacher of the game. He taught me a lot. He played linebacker, so he knows a lot about my position. He is one of those coaches that always coached the linebackers hard, all through practice, all through meetings. He's the guy that gave me a chance, drafted me, brought me in here and I am forever grateful to him.”
Vigil said a new coach will hopefully bring some fresh energy to help turn things around and he will rally around whomever that is.
Lewis was asked specifically if he thought Hue Jackson should be considered, and he gave a glowing recommendation for his special assistant and former offensive coordinator. Jackson was 3-36-1 as the Cleveland Browns head coach before being fired midseason and joining Lewis’ staff.
Jackson declined an interview Monday with media at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I think Hue should get an opportunity to speak with them,” Lewis said. “I think he's more than qualified. I think he's been in a couple difficult situations, and that's tough and it hasn't broke his way, but I think he would be an excellent football coach. He's a great motivator and he's detailed and so I think he deserves an opportunity, if not here, somewhere else.”
When asked if he himself was given a fair chance to succeed in Cincinnati, Lewis simply said he worked his “tail off – everybody did.” And that’s the only thing he wants people to remember.
“I'm not nostalgic,” Lewis said. “I'm a football coach. We worked hard, and we competed hard. There is no doubt this group of players is better than when we began and that's the way it should be.”