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The Bengals could’ve fired Marvin Lewis a year earlier and changed ... the Browns?

What if Hue Jackson had been Cincinnati’s coach in 2018 instead?

Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

One of the most surprisingly sports moments in 2018 came on the very last day of the year. On Dec. 31, one day after the 2018 NFL regular season ended, the Cincinnati Bengals really and truly broke up with Marvin Lewis. For the first time in 16 years, they were on the hunt for a new head coach.

It’s not that the move was unexpected. The Bengals had gone 0-7 under Lewis in the playoffs, each loss its own unique brand of heartbreak. And after three straight losing seasons, even making the postseason seemed quaint at that point. There had also been rumblings for weeks that Lewis was on his way out.

It was still a surprise, though, because it was supposed to happen a year earlier — and didn’t.

In December 2017, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Lewis’ time in Cincinnati would be up at the end of the season. A few weeks later, Lewis met with team owner Mike Brown and came to the conclusion that most people in toxic, codependent relationships do: let’s keep this thing going!

How would things gone for the Bengals if they HAD “mutually agreed to part ways with” Lewis (or whatever euphemism they wanted to use for “fired”) in 2017?

Probably not much differently, for the Bengals anyway. The team that would have felt the biggest impact would’ve been the Browns.

First, the Bengals hire Hue Jackson

In early 2018, Hue Jackson was fresh off a 0-16 season as the head coach of the Browns to bring his record to a ghastly 1-31 in Cleveland.

Would the Bengals really risk turning into the league’s new laughing stock by stealing away a coach well on his way to NFL immortality for all the wrong reasons? In a word, yes.

In a few more words:

  1. The Bengals already survived being the butt of everyone’s jokes in the peak era of the Bungles, back in the 1990s before Lewis helped bring them out of the abyss. For that, Brown would remain loyal and hire the guy Lewis has wanted to replace him all along: Jackson.
  2. Jackson’s stint prior to — and after — the Browns came on Lewis’ staff in Cincinnati. In 2016, Lewis revealed that before Jackson left for Cleveland, he had a plan for Jackson to succeed him as Bengals head coach after a few years. When Lewis actually left, he said Jackson still deserved a chance to get another coaching job, either in Cincinnati or elsewhere.
  3. Brown, like most rich old guys, doesn’t like change or spending money. When Lewis signed an extension after the 2017 season, Cincy Jungle referred to the decision as “Predictable. Cowardly. Incompetent.” And just look at the Bengals’ free agent activity in pretty much any offseason. Big, outside names? Pass. Familiar faces who perhaps lack talent but, y’know, maybe this is the year? Sign ‘em up. Taking the easy, more comfortable approach of hiring someone he knows fits Brown’s half-assery M.O.
  4. In 2019, the Bengals hired Zac Taylor, a young, first-time head coach and Sean McVay disciple. Just like dumping Lewis, this was like an out-of-character move for the franchise. A year earlier, before he led the Rams to a Super Bowl, there was still some wariness about how legit this McVay guy really was. The Bengals making a risky hire before McVaymania had reached fever pitch seems unlikely.

In this universe, where Jackson heads down I-71 S and takes over the Bengals for the 2018 season, what changes for the team on the field?

In reality, the Bengals finished 6-10, and it’s hard to see them getting better or much worse in this other timeline. As historically awful as the Jackson era was in Cleveland, his one-season gig with the Raiders in 2011 was fine, and he was never better than when he served as the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati. He knew this team, he knew the players, and he knew what made the offense work.

Heck, maybe even he could even have rallied the troops to not collapse, FOR ONCE, against the Steelers. After all, he did have one whole tie against them in the real 2018 with the Browns.

Or maybe the Bengals can’t close out a tight game against the Colts, or Ravens, or Falcons early in the season if they have Jackson running the show. They weren’t tragic enough, or inexperienced enough, to go 1-15 or 0-16.

They also wouldn’t make the playoffs. It wouldn’t have mattered who was in charge. There’s only so much coaching can do with both a shaky, relatively young defense that finished at the bottom of the league in almost every category, and an offense ravaged by injuries, from quarterback Andy Dalton to No. 1 receiver A.J. Green to tight ends Tyler Eifert and Tyler Kroft.

That rookie center Billy Price *only* missed six games is practically lucky:

So the Bengals would head into 2019 with Jackson on board for another year. Like how things are now, they’d probably be picked to finish at the bottom of the AFC North — though whether the Browns would be the favorite could depend on who they chose to succeed Jackson.

Then, the Browns suddenly have to hire a new head coach

In December 2017, John Dorsey was hired as the new general manager in Cleveland. Weeks later, he would have had a huge decision to make, a year before he faced it in real life: picking his new head coach.

Freddie Kitchens made a name for himself when he took over the Browns’ playcalling midway through the 2018 season. Quarterback Baker Mayfield went from rookie-level growing pains to Pro Bowl play, and Kitchens was rewarded with another promotion, this time his first head coaching job. But there’s a big ol’ zero chance of that happening had there been an opening a year earlier. Dorsey would not have looked at hiring the guy who, at that point, had last coached the Cardinals’ running backs.

A quick refresher on the coaching candidates from 2018 reveal a few names that could’ve possibly caught Dorsey’s eye — and potentially cost another team its coach in present day. There are a few different paths the Browns could’ve taken, like their very own Choose Your Own Adventure:

Door No. 1: The Browns are a little worse

Steve Wilks — coincidentally, the Browns’ current defensive coordinator after his one-and-done year in Arizona — would have intrigued Dorsey, especially with a defense as young and loaded with potential as the one in Cleveland.

He also had never been a head coach before, and like his actual 2018 season with the Cardinals, Wilks could have made some baffling mistakes in Cleveland regarding scheme, personnel, and situational decisions:

Considering Wilks began last season with Sam Bradford and his decaying knees as the starting quarterback over first-round pick Josh Rosen, it’s a safe bet he would’ve let Mayfield sit behind Tyrod Taylor until forced to play the rookie, just as Jackson did.

He’d also have better players and a general manager who would be an asset instead of a liability. The real 2018 Browns went 7-8-1, and with Wilks, they probably would’ve been slightly worse than that. He’d have been a coach who was learning on the job and Mayfield wouldn’t have gotten the midseason boost of running Kitchens’ creative offense.

Even then, the Browns shouldn’t have lost that many more games under Wilks. The roster had too much talent to fall as far as Wilks’ 3-13 Cardinals.

So the Browns would head into 2019 with some hope — Mayfield would still be their most promising quarterback in decades, and Odell Beckham Jr. would still come to Cleveland in the offseason because no matter which timeline we’re in, Dave Gettleman is a joke. They just might not be flirting with a double-digit win season.

The most interesting fallout from Wilks getting hired by Cleveland would have happened elsewhere in the NFL. Would the Cardinals’ new coach be fired after one year too, or would he be getting ready for his second season in Arizona, leaving Josh Rosen as the incumbent starter, Kyler Murray drafted by a different team (and possibly not No. 1 overall), and Kliff Kingsbury as USC’s offensive coordinator?

Door No. 2: The Browns are about the same

In this scenario, the Browns take a chance on another first-time coach, but this one specializes in quarterbacks. In early 2018, John DeFilippo was the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach and was getting ready to guide Nick Foles to a Super Bowl MVP performance.

It was his work with quarterback Carson Wentz that really put DeFilippo on teams’ coaching radar last year, though. Before his ACL injury in December 2017, Wentz was the leading MVP candidate in just his second year.

Dorsey could’ve seen the magic DeFilippo worked on a young quarterback and wanted to give Mayfield — still Dorsey’s No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft — that same kind of teaching. DeFilippo had also coached in Cleveland before, as the offensive coordinator in 2015, and would’ve been familiar with, uh ... Duke Johnson? (Let’s just say there hasn’t been much continuity on the Browns’ roster in recent years.)

Unlike Jackson, DeFilippo would have started Mayfield right away. Like Wilks, DeFilippo would have also suffered through some ups and downs as a newbie coach. He wouldn’t have crashed and burned like he did as the Vikings’ offensive coordinator in 2018, because DeFilippo would be in complete control instead of butting heads with a head coach whose offensive vision doesn’t match his own.

Under DeFilippo, the Cleveland offense would take chances, and sometimes it’d fail, but we’d also get those flashes of how dynamic it could be. Consistency would be a problem, however, and that’s why a seven-win season — or thereabouts — seems about right in this case.

They’d still have some guarded optimism about 2019 being an even better season.

Door No. 3: The Browns are a little better

Another, and perhaps more likely, possibility is that Dorsey uses the same approach to choosing a head coach as he did with Kitchens and hires a familiar, innovative offensive mind.

Two coaching candidates would’ve fit the bill last year: Frank Reich and Matt Nagy.

In 2017, Reich was the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, working under Doug Pederson. Dorsey thinks highly of Pederson and has a long history with him — Dorsey was a Packers scout when Pederson was their backup quarterback and then was the general manager of the Chiefs when Pederson was their offensive coordinator.

Pederson’s endorsement of Reich would carry a lot of weight with Dorsey. The Browns also could’ve jumped on him early and well before the Colts, who got brutally snubbed by Josh McDaniels and somehow stumbled their way into Reich.

Then there’s Nagy, who spent time as the quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator in Kansas City during Dorsey’s tenure. He’s now the reigning NFL Coach of the Year after his first season with the Bears.

In hindsight, either Reich or Nagy would’ve been a slam-dunk hire for the Browns. They both transformed bottom-dwelling teams into playoff contenders in just one year.

It’s a little ambitious to think they’d do that with the Browns right away, but it’s not outrageous. At the very least, the Browns could’ve put together a winning record under either coach. Maybe with a little better coaching, the tie with the Steelers in Week 1 or the last-minute loss to the Saints in Week 2 turns into a win. Or the same with the overtime losses to the Raiders and the Bucs.

Either way, the Browns are riding high into 2019 — even more than they are in reality, where there are still concerns about the high expectations facing Kitchens. It’d be a more unfortunate situation for the Colts or Bears, who’d have missed out on a coach who has proven to be just what they needed. In that regard, they’re the ones who should be most grateful the Bengals kept Lewis around for a year longer than expected.