Someone has to pay. For two minutes the Cincinnati Bengals and their fans will never forget, someone has to pay. For an epic implosion with a postseason game hanging in the balance, someone needs to take the fall. The Bengals can’t morph back into the “Bungles” on the primetime stage and choke away their first playoff victory in 25 years without swift and decisive fallout. Right?? In the wake of a stunning meltdown by Cincinnati at waterlogged Paul Brown Stadium on Wild Card weekend, the reaction is swift and harsh. It’s impossible to ignore the loud chorus of voices calling for heads to roll.
The Bengals could almost taste it: playoff glory. It was there for the taking, within their clutches. Three straight fourth quarter scoring drives culminated with a 25-yard touchdown strike from AJ McCarron to AJ Green. They rallied from a 15-0 deficit to grab the lead over the hated Steelers and then intercepted backup QB Landry Jones deep inside Pittsburgh territory with 1:43 left on the clock. Not even two minutes away from exorcising their playoff demons. Cincinnati only needed to run time off the clock, keep the ball away from the Steelers, and maybe kick a field goal. In other words, put the final nail in the coffin. Except they didn’t.
Jeremy Hill fumbled the ball seven seconds later. And the Bengals D floundered. A battered Ben Roethlisberger converted a 3rd and 4th down. Even though he couldn’t throw downfield more than 10 yards, he tried to find Antonio Brown across the middle. The pass was incomplete. But with 22 seconds remaining, Vontaze Burfict did what Vontaze Burfict does. He nailed Brown up high around his head and neck with a vicious, scary hit that drew a flag. When tempers flared and anger boiled over, as officials tried to maintain control and trainers checked on Brown, Adam Jones made contact with an official while jawing at a Pittsburgh assistant coach. Thirty penalty yards later, the Steelers kicked a chip shot field goal for the win.
With this latest, jaw-dropping defeat, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is now 0-7 in the postseason since he was hired by the franchise in 2003. In a league where legacies are built and destroyed and jobs are won and lost in the playoffs, Lewis adds another chapter to a painful January resume. He’s reached the playoffs six of the last seven years, and Cincinnati has lost on Wild Card weekend every time.
At what point should owner Mike Brown look elsewhere for a coach to get the team over the hump and close the deal? It may happen eventually, but now is NOT the time to fire Lewis. Yes, he’s ultimately responsible for the club’s overall performance; and this stunning end to the season is a massive disappointment. Yes, he’s accountable for the actions of his players. Both Burfict and Jones are volatile personalities with checkered pasts and questionable character. Their short fuses, lack of poise under pressure, and irrational behavior cost the Bengals dearly. It’s up to Lewis to keep his players in check. He didn’t. To make matters worse, Saturday’s aftermath included reports of anonymous Bengals claiming Lewis has lost control of his locker room, specifically Burfict and Jones.
So why keep him? Firing Lewis requires hiring a replacement that won’t be a major step back. Easier said than done. It’s the devil you know or the devil you don’t know. Lewis already holds the record for most wins in team history. The 2009 Coach of the Year resurrected a struggling franchise that hadn’t logged a winning season or made the playoffs in 13 years before he arrived. In claiming his fourth division title this winter, Lewis led the Bengals to their first 8-0 start and steered them to a 12-4 finish, despite the loss of starting quarterback Andy Dalton. Though it ended in agonizing fashion, five straight trips to the postseason are the most ever for Cincinnati.
In the heat of the moment, it’s popular to point fingers at Lewis. Coaches in the NFL constantly bear the brunt for screw-ups on the field, like Hill’s fumble or Dalton’s eight turnovers in four playoff starts. The knee-jerk reaction tends to discount all the positive in the midst of one epic collapse. But when the dust settles, even with a three-game suspension levied on Burfict, the Bengals are still better off with Lewis as the head coach. He’s built a solid foundation with a team that contends for the AFC North crown every season. He’s engineered the team to 43 wins in four years. Cincinnati earned a total of 47 wins in the decade before Lewis.
In a league where the coaching carousel spins furiously, consistency and continuity are worth their weight in gold. Marvin Lewis will eventually win that first playoff game. It just requires a little more patience.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.