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Bengals' irrational patience with Marvin Lewis rewarded

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Marvin Lewis should've been fired years ago, per popular NFL rationale, but the Bengals' patience has earned impressive returns in recent seasons.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Lewis shouldn't be here.

The Cincinnati Bengals head coach is sitting atop of the AFC North with a 2-0 record and convincing wins on the road against the Baltimore Ravens and the Atlanta Falcons. Those wins are also rewards for a franchise owner, Mike Brown, who has remained more patient than most.

It might sound odd to question Lewis' leadership presence for the Bengals, but it wasn't so long ago that the team struggled with him at the helm. Cincinnati has been to the playoffs in four of the last five seasons, and the young talent is in place for assumed continued success. Young impact playmakers can be found on both sides of the ball, and the front office has done a nice job locking up core players, especially on the defensive side where Carlos Dunlap, Geno Atkins, and Vontaze Burfict will all play in Paul Brown Stadium until at least 2018.

Ever since Lewis won the Coach of the Year Award in 2009 from the Associated Press, he's been on a roll. But it's even a miracle, by NFL standards, that he made it long enough to earn back any trust from Brown in the first place. In short, he went through some lean years. In NFL circles, it was more than enough reason to fire Lewis.

The short fuse

Longevity isn't a common topic for NFL writers. Coaching "hot seat" columns are written before the regular season even starts. Listen closely and you'll already hear calls for any number of current head coaches to get the axe and salvage the season early. Think fans wouldn't be pleased to see Jerry Jones fire Jason Garrett? Did Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin stave off the pitchforks with surprising wins in Week 1? What about the Oakland Raiders vs. New York Jets game that featured Dennis Allen and Rex Ryan, two head coaches potentially gone after season's end? And it's only early September.

The reality facing NFL head coaches is a "win or else" proposition from the outset. Just look to the Bengals' in-state rivals, the Cleveland Browns, for one of the saddest carousels of leadership. In the time the Bengals have employed Lewis as head coach, the Browns have said hello and/or goodbye to Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine. And, since we're talking about it, how long do you think Pettine really has?

That's seven head coaches for the Browns since Lewis became head coach, and it's not some NFL anomaly. The Raiders have had the same amount of head coaches as the Browns since 2003. So have the Miami Dolphins. The Buffalo Bills have had six, and numerous franchises have had five.

Turnover, in other words, is the norm.

If you can't win early (and by the nature of wins and losses, half of the league won't), then you're out in the NFL. That brings us back around to where we started: Marvin Lewis doesn't belong here.

Patience or stubbornness?

Mike Brown is a patient man. He even told Lewis as much nearly a decade ago.

Early in the 2009 season, the season in which Lewis won the AP Coach of the Year, the Bengals coach relayed an important anecdote from previous years that best explains Cincinnati's leadership culture.

"When I signed the last contract extension after the '05 season, the thing Mike said was: 'I have more patience than you do. There's going to be some tough times ahead that people don't realize,' '' Lewis said. "Unfortunately, he's been right. I think his thing for me was to be patient and know there may be some pitfalls along the way that I didn't foresee.''

Brown, indeed, had to be patient with Lewis. Even thought he righted the ship in his first few seasons, Lewis' team has looked mediocre for several years of his tenure, not including the horrific 4-11-1 season in 2008. One look at the career record, and it's easy to see why fans were calling for Lewis to be fired at multiple points over the years.

Year Wins Losses Ties Win Pct. Playoffs?
2003 8 8 0 .500 No
2004 8 8 0 .500 No
2005 11 5 0 .688 Yes
2006 8 8 0 .500 No
2007 7 9 0 .438 No
2008 4 11 1 .267 No
2009 10 6 0 .625 Yes
2010 4 12 0 .250 No
2011 9 7 0 .563 Yes
2012 10 6 0 .625 Yes
2013 11 5 0 .688 Yes
2014 2 0 0 1.000 ?
TOTAL 92 85 1 .520 5 app.

By the time Lewis had six years under his belt -- nearly two life cycles for other NFL teams -- he had a 46-48-1 record as head coach. Yet even then, Brown didn't pull the trigger. Fast forward one year, and the Bengals were enjoying the first year of their current run of success.

Is Brown a genius? Did he see something in Lewis that just needed more time? Maybe it's a bit of each, but the most likely explanation comes from the fact that he knows a bit about what Lewis is going through as a head coach. As the son of legendary head coach Paul Brown, Mike has seen firsthand the pressure of the position, the dark side of the business and the realities that such decisions really create.

Brown did not fire Lewis at some point because Brown has a good clue on two fronts: how it feels to be fired and how much it really matters.

Bill Belichick was fired before he became a demigod. Same with Pete Carroll. John Fox fizzled out in Carolina before enjoying the Mile High. Tom Coughlin has had his own lean years between Super Bowl wins. Even for the best, there are dark days and, sometimes, dark years.

Marvin Lewis has experienced this. So has Mike Brown.

Playoffs? Don't talk about playoffs

Despite the recent success, it's possible to still find folks who believe Lewis should be fired. The reason is clear: zero. As in zero playoff wins since 2003. Despite the fact the Bengals didn't have a single winning season since 1990 before Lewis showed up, success breeds hunger for more success. That means Lewis' 0-5 career playoff record is a significant blemish.

For now, the majority of the shame spotlight remains on quarterback Andy Dalton. Recent extension notwithstanding, Dalton takes his licks as a solid regular-season quarterback who melts under postseason pressure, but Lewis rightfully shares that burden with him. Until the Bengals can earn that elusive playoff win, or at this point make a considerable postseason run, Lewis' detractors will have substantive talking points in their arsenal.

However, given the team's dynamic, young core and the run of recent success, it's a good bet that Lewis will be standing on the sidelines of Paul Brown Stadium for the next few years. And as this group matures even more, Lewis will be more and more likely to eventually erase what doubts are left.

When (and if) that day comes, Brown will have the league buzzing about a brand new precedent, and in a copycat league, patience will become the trend.