Posted: 8:15 a.m.
DANA POINT, Calif. - When the AFC head coaches gather for their annual picture here Tuesday at the NFL spring meeting, the Bengals' Marvin Lewis can look around and see only three men in his first picture from 2003.
And just two of them, Tennessee's Jeff Fisher and New England's Bill Belichick, have coached more regular-season games. Jacksonville's Jack Del Rio arrived with his old Ravens defensive coordinator in that '03 class, which also included Bill Parcells of Dallas, Steve Mariucci of Detroit, and Dennis Erickson of the 49ers.
None of them are going to be around for the NFC shot the next day.
Gruden, fired this past year in Tampa Bay after seven seasons that included a Super Bowl title, is just one of the 63 head coaches (not counting interims) that have come, gone and is now here in 66 jobs since Lewis was hired. The count is 30 men for 33 jobs in the AFC since the '03 picture and Lewis has no plans to give out free advice as they sit for the picture.
"No, you learn on your own. I'm competing against those guys. Why should I help them?" asks Lewis and he's kidding.
But not much.
"If they call and ask (yes). If Rex calls, I'll tell him to keep it in the fairway Tuesday."
Rex Ryan, the Jets new head coach who also worked under Lewis in Baltimore, endures his first head coaches' golf tournament this week but he's already had a few swing sessions with Lewis. Ryan indicated last month at the NFL scouting combine that he has reached out to Lewis occasionally for some advice.
Lewis has always been one to work the phones seeking counsel, but now there is a pretty good line on his call waiting. Not only have Del Rio and Ryan worked on a Lewis defensive staff, but so has second-year Falcons head coach Mike Smith and Lions rookie Jim Schwartz.
At the combine Ryan, Smith and Schwartz called Lewis a mentor and said they've gone to him at times in their short tenures to bounce off ideas. All three felt one of Lewis' strengths is dealing with coaching staff issues.
"I'm flattered they spoke of me that way," Lewis says. "They're great friends of mine who were great coaches with me and they've been a big part of what I've been able to do. Their work ethic, their knowledge, and their ability to coach have been recognized. I'm going to enjoy spending time with them and their families."
LONGEST TENURED AFC COACHES (Record since 2003 and playoff appearances)
- Jeff Fisher, Titans, 1994 (53-47, 3)
- Bill Belichick, Patriots, 2000 (88-22, 5)
- Marvin Lewis, Bengals 2003 (46-50-1, 1)
- Jack Del Rio, Jaguars 2003 (51-48, 2)
Other AFC Head Coaches since 2003 (Combined records and playoff appearances)
- Baltimore: Brian Billick, John Harbaugh (56-45, 3)
- Buffalo: Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron (41-55, 0)
- Cleveland: Butch Davis, Terry Robiske (interim), Romeo Crennel (33-63, 0)
- Denver: Mike Shanahan (58-42, 3)
- Houston: Dom Capers, Gary Kubiak (36-60, 0)
- Indianapolis: Tony Dungy (82-27, 6)
- Kansas City: Dick Vermeil, Herman Edwards (45-53, 2)
- Miami: Dave Wannstedt, Jim Bates (interim), Nick Saban, Cam Cameron, Tony Sparano (41-56, 1)
- New York: Herman Edwards, Eric Mangini (45-55, 2)
- Oakland: Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable (interim) (24-72, 0)
- Pittsburgh: Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin (70-36, 4)
- San Diego: Marty Schottenheimer, Norv Turner (61-42, 4)
NEW AFC HEAD COACHES
- Cleveland: Eric Mangini
- Denver: Josh McDaniels
- Indianapolis: Jim Caldwell
- Kansas City: Todd Haley
- New York: Rex Ryan
- Oakland: Tom Cable
But how long will Ryan, Smith and Schwartz stay on this field of high casualties, where economics and sport collide in a high stakes game of chance?
Lewis knows his long tenure gives him no spring break. It only sizzles the frying pan.
Segments of Bengaldom have branded his administration stale after back-to-back losing seasons, three straight years of missing the postseason after winning the 2005 AFC North championship, and no changes on a coaching staff following a year the Bengals finished last in offense for the first time in franchise history.
Lewis's supporters, particularly his boss, point to a devastating spate of injuries in the past two seasons, ranging from Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer's elbow last season to the career-ending injuries of high draft picks David Pollack and Kenny Irons.
"The goals never change," Lewis says. "You want to make the playoffs and win the world championship."
The debate rages: Continuity or what-have you-done-for-me-lately in what has turned into a high-wire technocracy?
Bengals president Mike Brown has always insisted on continuity and is a big believer that change for change sake does more harm than good. He grimaces at the coaching turnover.
No, he doesn't like to pay unemployed coaches. But he's also patient for a reason. He and his father stuck with Sam Wyche after a 4-11 season in 1987 marked Wyche's fourth straight season without a playoff berth and the club was rewarded with two division titles in the next three years.
Wyche, and now Fisher and Belichick, provide evidence for patience.
"I think continuity is a plus," Brown said Saturday as he arrived at the meetings. "You need time for people to develop what they're trying to build. We've had to rebuild. We took a few steps back, but I think we're ready to take a few steps forward."
Fisher's 15-year career has been marked by more peaks than valleys, but the 23-9 run of the last two seasons came after a 9-23 stretch. In his first full five seasons with the Oilers/Titans, he won 44 games. He won an AFC title in those five years, but he also had a losing season and three .500 seasons. In his first five, Lewis won 42 games, a division title, and had three .500 seasons.
"To me the ultimate example is Belichick in Cleveland," Brown says. "I don't think these guys are going to disappear. They go someplace else. They're good coaches. The sad fact is only one team can win every year. It's a tough business, but it doesn't mean they didn't do their job. (Lewis) is the same guy we knew when we had some good years with him and I think we can bounce back. I don't think our lack of success last year and the year before is something solely attributable to him. Nor do I feel if someone else was doing it we would have done any better."
In his first five seasons, Lewis won five more games than Belichick did in his first five seasons as head coach of the Browns, 42-37.
"I've had an owner in Mr. (Bud) Adams that believes continuity and stability gives you a chance to be successful," Fisher said Saturday as he checked into the meetings. "Dealing with change year after year is hard. It makes it very difficult. Mr. Adams understands there is going to be difficult years because of injury or (salary) cap situations we put ourselves in. But he's also trusted us to work ourselves out of it."
Brown is clearly doing that with Lewis and his staff after back-to-back seasons of crushing disappointment at 7-9 and 4-11-1.
"That's been the commitment that's been made here. People always want to question that," Lewis says. "If you look at it over time, if you look at those stats since 2000, you'll find that the team that has less change on their 53-man rosters, about 10, 11 playoff teams will be that way and it is the same thing in coaching.
"Teams that have the less change are going to be the most stable ones. That's why many times in coaching when it gets to be right where everyone says, 'That group should be gone,' and then all of a sudden there's the surge and they move and do what they need to do to move. You're always sifting through people and sifting through players. I think everybody has been in that situation as they go through things."
Fisher has been through it a couple of times with different rosters. Lewis is in his second remake, which began in the wake of the Bengals missing out on the 2006 playoffs by a game during a season they got blown up by injury (Rich Braham, David Pollack, Tab Perry, Chris Perry) and suspension (Chris Henry and Odell Thurman).
Del Rio is working through his second phase with another starting quarterback and, like Lewis, is working on multiple defensive coordinators.
Since 2003, six AFC teams either haven't been to the playoffs or have been only once. All of them but the Bengals and the expansion Texans have had at least three head coaches in that stretch, led by Oakland's five and Miami's four.
Of the top five most successful AFC teams in that run (New England, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver, Tennessee), only the Steelers have had more than one coach.
"They're the example of continuity," Lewis says. "They bring Mike (Tomlin) into a system that's in place. Certainly with the defense and a lot of the offensive staff."
Then, looking at his own offensive staff that ranked in the top 10 from 2005-2007, Lewis observes, "Change is always made internally. You don't necessarily have to change the people out for whatever reason that were at the top of the league for the last three seasons. They were the cat's meow and now that they're not, for whatever reason, be it through us, or injury, or whatever it was. We're trying to get back there and we've got to make up for guys we've lost through attrition."
Brown believes what has hurt the Bengals drastically since '05 are injuries: "Our problem is we haven't had continuity. The continuity of players. It starts with Carson and a lot of high draft picks. I'd like to see us have a run where we don't encounter that. I don't think it's a coaching issue. I think it's a staying healthy issue."
And then there is a guy like the Ravens' John Harbaugh. After he took his first AFC picture last year, he reached the title game. He cleaned out the offensive staff and gave it a rookie quarterback. But the defense stayed intact.
"The more you change, the more you risk," Harbaugh said Saturday. "It's hard to build a team in the NFL. I think it's a statement by Mr. Brown and Mr. Adams."
Asked if he could see himself being in seven head coach pictures, Harbaugh smiled.
"They say three years is a lifetime and 10 years an eternity in the NFL," he said.
One picture is worth, it seems, a thousand jobs.