CINCINNATI — After 15 years without a playoff appearance, the Cincinnati Bengals were satisfied just getting to the postseason under Marvin Lewis, but now the team is closing the books on a third straight losing season and fans are ready to move on with someone new.
Lewis deserves credit for turning around a franchise in need of a savior. He took Cincinnati to the postseason seven times in 16 years. But, perhaps he’s maxed out what he is capable of doing with this team as the Bengals never advanced beyond the wild card round during Lewis’ tenure.
Here is a look at the highs and lows of the Lewis era in Cincinnati.
Quick turnaround: In Lewis’ first season in 2003, the Bengals actually played for a postseason berth on the final weekend of the regular season, and although they lost 22-14 to Cleveland at home, it was a positive sign for a team that had been stuck in a ditch since the early 90s. Cincinnati finished 8-8 after a franchise worst 2-14 finish in Dick LeBeau’s final season.
First division title: A four-game winning streak in the second half of the 2005 season, including wins over Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, helped the Bengals finish 11-5 and win the AFC North. Of course, they lost in the first round of the playoffs, but the regular-season performance gave Cincinnati its first division title since 1990.
AFC North sweep: Cincinnati improved from a 4-11-1 record in 2008 to a 10-6 finish in 2009, including wins in all six of their AFC North games, which marked a franchise first. They Bengals earned their second trip to the playoffs in 19 years, and Lewis was named the Associated Press 2009 NFL Coach of the Year.
Five straight playoff appearances: After what could have been a job-costing 2010 campaign, Lewis convinced Brown to give him another shot and upgrade everything from the practice facilities to training rooms to personnel departments, and the Bengals completely transformed. They made five straight playoff appearances from 2011 to 2015, including four 10-win seasons and two division titles in 2013 and 2015. Cincinnati got off to an 8-0 start in 2015 before fading down the stretch with Andy Dalton breaking his thumb in a Week 14 loss to the Steelers.
Coaching tree: Lewis has been lauded for hiring excellent assistants and building an extensive coaching tree, and he is well-respected among the league. Five of his assistants have gone on to become NFL head coaches, including Jay Gruden (Washington Redskins, 2014-present), Mike Zimmer (Minnesota Vikings, 2014-present), Vance Joseph (Denver Broncos, 2017-present), Hue Jackson (Cleveland Browns, 2016-2018) and Leslie Frazier (Minnesota Vikings, 2010-2013).
Community involvement: Lewis’ surly demeanor in press conferences doesn’t carry into his relationship with players (he’s loyal almost to a fault to his guys) or the local community. His Marvin Lewis Fund has become a high-profile charity during his time here, stressing youth education and involvement with camps and clinics. The fund's website says it has raised more than $11.6 million since 2003, and his commitment to the local community is something often overlooked.
Goose egg in the playoffs: The biggest blemish on Lewis’ legacy with the Bengals will be his inability to win a single playoff game. Cincinnati was 0-7 in the postseason during his 16 years, and many of those losses will forever stick with fans, beginning with Carson Palmer blowing out his knee in a loss to the Steelers in 2005.
First big playoff choke: After finishing as the AFC North champions for the second time under Lewis in 2009, the Bengals looked poised to earn their first playoff win in 19 years as they went up against the 9-7 Jets, who reached the playoffs via tiebreaker. Cincinnati had Carson Palmer in the prime of his career, and New York was quarterbacked by journeyman Mark Sanchez, who had 20 interceptions and just 12 touchdowns that season, but the Jets won 24-14 and it wasn’t even that close. The Bengals finished with 110 net passing yards and kicker Shayne Graham missed field goals of 28 and 35 yards.
Penalty meltdown: No playoff game will be remembered more than the meltdown at the end of the 2015 Wild Card game the Bengals had seemingly won against Pittsburgh when A. J. Green’s 25-yard touchdown catch gave them the lead with 1:50 left and Vontaze Burfict intercepted a pass the next play from scrimmage. But, Jeremy Hill fumbled, and then back-to-back personal foul penalties by Adam Jones and Burfict moved the Steelers into position for the game-winning field goal, stealing away an 18-16 victory.
The T.O. experiment: The Bengals brought in 37-year-old Terrell Owens on a one-year deal in 2010, and although he finished with 72 catches for 963 yards and proved to be an entertaining complement to Chad Johnson, the team wasn’t any better for it. Owens publicly criticized the coaching staff for the Bengals’ disappointing performance, which ultimately accounted for Lewis’ worst season. Lewis had a history of sticking with characters who weren’t necessarily good fits for the team’s image, such as Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones.
Palmer’s nasty exit: Palmer, who was Lewis’ first draft pick with the Bengals in 2003, was so adamant about leaving Cincinnati after the 2010 season, he threatened retirement to get traded. He ended up going to the Raiders for a couple draft picks that gave the Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and running back Giovani Bernard. Palmer wasn’t happy with the direction of the team under Lewis and Brown’s reluctance to change.
Primetime losses: Lewis’ teams were generally bad in primetime. He was 9-32 in primetime games during his 16 seasons, including playoff games. The Bengals won a Thursday night game against the Ravens in their home opener this season but played one of their worst games on Sunday Night Football at Kansas City.
Owned by the Steelers: The team’s bitter rival had their way with Lewis’ teams over the years, as the Steelers held a 25-8 record against him going into the season finale. That included knocking Cincinnati out of the playoffs twice.
The end of the road: ESPN reported last December that Lewis was going to walk away and pursue other opportunities, but instead he signed a new contract and overhauled his staff. After a 4-1 start to this season, the changes seemed to be paying off, but then the Bengals went on a five-game losing streak and finished last in the AFC North. They gradually improved when Teryl Austin was fired and Lewis took over the defense, but still finished among the bottom two in the league on that side of the ball.