Marvin Lewis, who changed the culture of the franchise while winning four AFC North titles with two different quarterbacks during 16 seasons as Bengals head coach, announced the end of his term in a Monday morning news conference at Paul Brown Stadium.
Hours after finishing the 6-10 season in a 16-13 loss to Pittsburgh just miles from where Lewis grew up in McDonald, Pa., he and the Bengals opted to go their separate ways, according to the team's news release, and that put the club in a coaching search for the first time since Jan. 12, 2003.
The hunt for the Bengals' 10th head coach, which is already underway, is expected to be widespread in both the college and pro ranks.
The Bengals raised eyebrows when they hired Lewis, the hottest assistant in the game, back in 2003. In turning to their first head coach who either didn't play for Bengals founder Paul Brown or wasn't hired by him, Bengals president Mike Brown sent a clear message it was no longer business as usual.
Lewis, a former Pittsburgh and Baltimore assistant from the old AFC Central, was just three seasons removed from coordinating the Ravens' record-setting defense that won the Super Bowl. He immediately brought the Bengals into the 21st century with highly structured strength, conditioning and nutrition programs, as well as an intense practice style in an effort to get back to contending in the notoriously rough-and-tumble AFC North that had morphed from the equally rambunctious AFC Central.
Lewis wasted no time leading the Bengals to the NFL's biggest turnaround with an 8-8 record and was runner-up to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick in 2003 coach of the year voting.
"When he took over we were pretty much the laughingstock of the league," recalled former linebacker Brian Simmons on Monday. "He came in right away and brought a level of competence and confidence. He brought professionalism. That's how he left his mark. He changed the conversation from never winning to making it to five straight playoffs. All things come to an end. Even though it didn't end the way everyone wanted, that doesn't take away all the good that somebody accomplished in a place and he definitely left his mark there."
Lewis finished with a 131-122-3 record for 256 regular-season games, tied with his good friend John Fox for the most games by a head coach that started his career in the 21st century. Although excoriated for his 0-7 post-season record, Lewis led the Bengals to seven playoff berths in his first 13 seasons after the franchise went to a total of seven in the 34 years before he arrived.
During his run that became the longest coaching tenure of any African-American in any pro sport, Lewis' work with youth and education in Greater Cincinnati and reached legendary status with the Marvin Lewis Community Fund that has raised about $15 million for college scholarships, needy school districts and disadvantaged families. His annual celebrity golf classic became a Cincinnati spring staple.
A look back at the coaching career of Marvin Lewis with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Lewis' best season was 2015 when the Bengals became the first AFC North team to start 8-0 on the way to a 12-4 record that matched the marks of the 1981 and 1988 Super Bowl teams.
But quarterback Andy Dalton broke his throwing thumb in a Dec. 13 game against Pittsburgh and when backup AJ McCarron's 16-point fourth quarter in the Wild Card rematch a month later put the Bengals 1:50 away from a play-off win, a fumble and two personal foul calls turned it into a loss.
Lewis certainly didn't have a lot of luck riding with him in those two post-season games against the Steelers. He didn't have Dalton for that one and ten years to the day in his first play-off appearance after winning the 2005 AFC North title, quarterback Carson Palmer tore his ACL on the game's second snap.
It's been tough sledding since that '15 Wild Card loss. They've gone 19-28-1. His best player, A.J. Green, has missed 14 games since that night he caught the go-ahead TD. In the last two seasons, Lewis has fired a coordinator once the season got going twice, Ken Zampese on offense in 2017 and Teryl Austin on defense in 2018.
Despite the 7-9 season of 2017, Mike Brown showed his faith in Lewis last offseason when he extended his deal. They doled a lot of money to veteran coaches in an effort to re-build the offense and replace defensive coordinator Paul Guenther with Austin, fresh from four years as the Lions DC, when Guenther went to Oakland.
But the players' inability to grasp Austin's changes blew up the defense and the offense was torpedoed by a stunning series of injuries to key players as well as mysterious lapses of inconsistency. With the overhaul yielding another losing season, both sides apparently felt it was time to move on.