Even with no playoff wins, Marvin Lewis is still the best coach for the Cincinnati Bengals
If he finally wins in the playoffs, his success could help give coaches more time
What happens when a team sticks with a coach year after year? Just pooh-poohs the incessant advice from fans and sports media to fire him and instead remains loyal to a long-serving coach? Might that unpopular decision ultimately pay off? And if it does, should that persuade other teams to revisit the assumption to chase fresh blood in favor of allowing a coach to keep chasing elusive triumphs?
Marvin Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals head coach, will help us answer these questions. The 2018 and 2019 seasons present Lewis an opportunity to extend the leash for other coaches who supposedly lack qualities to push their teams and force us to see the virtue of letting a head coach complete the job he was hired to do.
Lewis getting another chance floored NFL observers. Dan Le Batard told listeners of his ESPN radio show that Lewis would never find another head-coaching gig, and right after that, the Bengals signed him to a two-year extension.
On Sept. 9, when the Bengals suit up against the Indianapolis Colts, Lewis will start his 16th season as the team’s head coach, the second-longest-serving current NFL coach, despite a 0-7 playoff record. Only Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, winner of five Super Bowls, has patrolled the same team’s sidelines for more years, 18. That a black head coach has been given this opportunity shocks the senses, given the league’s troubles in hiring minority coaches and the fact that even winning black head coaches are more likely to be fired than their winning white counterparts.
Brian Burke of ESPN Analytics wrote last year that “since 1978, teams with below .500 records who fire their coaches tend to rebound less compared to teams below .500 that don’t fire their coaches.” He further noted: “When we look at team performance two years following each losing season, again, teams that did not fire their coaches tend to outperform those that did by 6 percent.”
Scott Adler, Michael J. Berry and David Doherty, three political science professors, published a 2012 research paper that compared the performance of college football programs that replaced their head coaches with those that stuck with their man from 1997 to 2010. Their research arrived at illuminating results:
“We find that for particularly poorly performing teams, coach replacements have little effect on team performance as measured against comparable teams that did not replace their coach. However, for teams with middling records — that is, teams where entry conditions for a new coach appear to be more favorable — replacing the head coach appears to result in worse performance over subsequent years than comparable teams who retained their coach.”
John A. Tures, political science professor at LaGrange College in Georgia, explored this issue in 2015 but focused on the higher-echelon college football programs. He penned, “An analysis of previous cases shows that axing your successful coach is about as smart as going for it on fourth-on-long (sic), deep in your territory.” Writing in the wake of various top schools firing successful long-serving coaches, his research found that schools erred in switching coaches. Mack Brown at Texas, for instance, was fired after winning 77 percent of his games, only to be replaced by Charlie Strong, who was fired three years later with a record of 16-21. “If you want to win that National Championship,” Tures observed, “you’re better off sticking with that longtime successful coach, riding out the three-loss seasons.”
Some will push back, contending Lewis has already had a decade and a half to demonstrate his coaching aptitude and hasn’t brought Cincinnati a postseason victory yet. Some will insist Bengals management is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.
But the Bengals aren’t doing the same thing repeatedly. Coaches, like players, have the potential to improve each year. When the Bengals hired Lewis in 2003, popular opinion held that they selected a great head coach prospect, one deserving of an opportunity for having coordinated one of the best defenses in league history, the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.
Well, the Marvin Lewis who will coach the Bengals this season is, in all likelihood, a much better coach. Thus, the Bengals are trying again with a better version of the coach the team had last year. If the goal of any team is to get better coaching for the next season, teams that keep their coach often receive just that. Teams, when they fire a head coach, are generally paying for the coach’s worst years; the better years lie ahead.
Once a coach has already proven adept at his craft, research shows teams should have a really good reason to jettison him. The argument is not that coaches should never be fired, but the scales should be weighted toward continuity. Teams must reckon with an often overlooked reality: Getting worse is a lot easier than getting better.
This argument, that NFL teams should prefer sticking with long-serving coaches, desperately needs a poster child to drive the point home. Who’s a better example than the guy who gets it done in year 16? Lewis has two years, and a vastly underrated roster, to demonstrate the veracity of the point and afford other coaches more time to seize success.
Good luck, coach.