CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis has deflected the questions about his future, and Bengals owner Mike Brown hasn’t said anything. Bengals players have shrugged and said they don’t know anything more than anyone else. Bengals assistants feel they’re in limbo.
For a few more days, at least, Lewis’ future won’t be announced to the public, and if anyone on the team knows what’s going to happen, they’ve done a good job of keeping it to themselves.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported Dec. 17 that Lewis and the Bengals plan to part ways after the season, but the closest Lewis has come to acknowledging his possible departure was when he said earlier in the season that every coaching tenure ends eventually.
"We all realize that when you sign up for these jobs, the thing is it's not forever," he said. "I think we all accept that."
It looks certain Lewis and the Bengals (6-9) are destined to part ways in just a matter of days, as the contracts of Lewis and his staff expire after this season. They close out the season on Sunday at the Baltimore Ravens.
“I'd love to have Marvin back, but it's out of my control,” said Bengals offensive lineman Clint Boling.
A departure would end a 15-season tenure for Lewis, who brought the team to heights it hadn’t seen in decades. But the veteran coach could never quite exorcise his playoff demons, going 0-7 in the postseason.
Although both sides might not see it now, it’s likely they’ll look back fondly on Lewis' time in Cincinnati. Even after the past two disappointing seasons, the Bengals are no longer seen as the laughingstock of the league, like they were in the 1990s.
Lewis turned the team into a winner again. More importantly, he built a solid foundation for the future. Whoever coaches the Bengals next won’t face a huge rebuilding project, but rather a roster with core pieces already in place.
“If he doesn't re-sign or come back, he left this place better than how he found it,” Bengals safety George Iloka said.
What Lewis found following his hiring on Jan. 14, 2003, was a mess.
He was used to that after a stint with the Ravens, who had a chaotic first season in the NFL after relocating from Cleveland in 1996. Lewis, then a defensive coordinator, helped turn the Baltimore team into a Super Bowl winner in 2000 while overseeing a defensive unit often considered the best of all time.
Lewis was passed over for several head-coaching positions, including with the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His hiring in Cincinnati was considered the first success of the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head-coaching jobs. The rule had been established a few weeks prior to Lewis’ announcement as the eighth African-American coach in NFL history.
Lewis came into the franchise at a difficult time. The Bengals had not had a winning season since 1990 and had gone through three head coaches during that span. Lewis was the Bengals' first head coach hired without ties to the organization since Sam Wyche in 1984.
Cincinnati was coming off a 2-14 season and was about to part ways with quarterback Akili Smith, considered by some the biggest draft bust of all time.
“Y’all can’t Forget What Marvin has fought to turn around that program from a laughing stock to a contender for about 8 or 9 of the 15 years he’s been there,” former Bengals offensive lineman Willie Anderson said via Twitter this year. “Just crazy luck has prevented playoff wins.”
In a longer post, Anderson, who played for the Bengals from 1996-2007, called those "the lost years," and said that Dave Shula, who was the coach at the beginning of Anderson's rookie season but was fired after a 1-6 start, didn't even wear a headset.
"This is what Marvin Lewis had to fight! This history! Marvin cleaned this up!" Anderson wrote.
Lewis also had to work in a unique environment. Brown did not have a general manager, a large scouting staff or an indoor practice facility. Lewis did not have full control over the coaching staff and inherited offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski from the previous regime. Some of those things made Lewis reluctant to agree to the new deal he eventually signed in 2011.
That was the start of changes in the organization, including replacing Bratkowski with Jay Gruden, trading Carson Palmer to the Oakland Raiders after he demanded out of Cincinnati and drafting A.J. Green and Andy Dalton with the Bengals' top two 2011 picks.
Lewis was able to wrest more control away from the front office over the years, but those issues will remain a challenge for the next head coach.
Ups and downs
Lewis turned the Bengals into winners. That's reflected in winning seasons (seven), postseason berths (seven) and AFC North titles (four).
But his tenure has had its undeniable flaws. He is the only coach in NFL history to have an 0-7 record in the playoffs (Jim Mora Sr. was 0-6), and that will at least partially define his tenure. Lewis might be the winningest coach in franchise history, but he also finished with the same number of playoff wins as the three coaches who came before him.
For all of the good Lewis accomplished in Cincinnati on and off the gridiron, including establishing the Marvin Lewis Community Fund aimed at youth education, it will be hard to forget a defining moment of his career. Fair or not, the Bengals' 2015 AFC wild-card loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers -- featuring Jeremy Hill's fumble, followed by penalties on Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones -- will long be remembered as the meltdown that snatched away that elusive playoff victory.
The team never was able to get back to where it was before that postseason contest, and although there was likely blame to go around, ultimately, it fell on Lewis' shoulders. Lewis said his goal has always been to win a Super Bowl, which still eludes the organization.
"The goal is to be world champions. That's why you coach," Lewis said. "The other things along the way, I've been a part of a lot of teams that won a lot of playoff games. We don't go into the playoffs saying, 'We're going to win one playoff game.' You go into the season saying you're going to be world champions."
A front-office position doesn’t seem out of the question for Lewis, 59, but it doesn’t seem likely to be in Cincinnati. Lewis has waved off that possibility all year because the Bengals already have player-personnel director Duke Tobin, who is essentially their general manager.
Lewis said several weeks ago he would like to stay in coaching, but if a head-coaching job isn’t immediately available, Lewis would likely have no problem getting a job as a consultant or an assistant. Browns coach Hue Jackson, who remains close to Lewis, already has said he would love to have Lewis on the staff, and Lewis has strong ties to many others around the league, including Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.
Where Lewis ends up at this point is a mystery, but it’s likely he wouldn’t be out of a job for very long.
When the Bengals and Lewis part ways, it will be the end of an era for many, including the players who know him best.
“With everything going on, all the pub going on, yeah. We'll see,” Cincinnati defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “Come the new year, it could be a new year."
When asked Friday morning if he had anything to say regarding his future, Lewis just smiled and walked away as he deflected the question, perhaps for the final time.
"No," he said, smiling. "That would be out of the ordinary."