CINCINNATI (AP) — Marvin Lewis has been with his team longer than any other NFL head coach besides Bill Belichick at New England.
For the first time in years, his tenure is at risk.
Lewis is finishing his contract as he enters his 15th season with the Bengals. Cincinnati has been through two painful seasons, following a home playoff meltdown against Pittsburgh in 2015 and a 6-9-1 finish last season. Lewis failed to get a contract extension in the offseason.
He readily acknowledges he would have been replaced already by any owner other than Mike Brown, who values loyalty. Lewis is 0-7 in the playoffs, an NFL record for futility. His team had five straight first-round playoff losses, another record.
“In coaching, I’ve been fortunate in my 37 years,” said Lewis, who also has been an assistant in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington. “I’ve had very few jobs, where unfortunately a lot of coaches had to move.”
If he wants to stay beyond 2017, Lewis will have to do one of his best coaching jobs. The Bengals got a lot younger in the offseason, and they’re dealing with suspensions for cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones and linebacker Vontaze Burfict at the outset.
After making the playoffs five straight seasons from 2011-15, they fell back last season. Receiver A.J. Green, running back Giovani Bernard and tight end Tyler Eifert missed significant playing time but are fully recovered.
This is a pivotal season in Cincinnati, where the Bengals will find out if last season was an anomaly or the start of a downward trend.
“I wouldn’t say the window has closed,” quarterback Andy Dalton said.
Some things to watch this season:
BURFICT, BURFICT, BURFICT: The Bengals have steadfastly defended their volatile linebacker, whose history of egregious hits — most notably the one on Antonio Brown’s head that led to the playoff meltdown against Pittsburgh — has become a focus for the league. He’s suspended for the first three games after leveling a Chiefs running back during a preseason game.
Burfict is their most irreplaceable defensive player, and also their most mercurial. He’s drawn fewer fines and penalties than earlier in his career, but his unpredictability remains a concern. He set off a scrum during a practice in training camp when he tackled Bernard during a non-contact drill.
ZAMPESE’S SECOND CHANCE: While Lewis gets attention for his contract situation, offensive coordinator Ken Zampese is in the spotlight as well. He was elevated to the position last season when Hue Jackson became the Browns’ head coach, and the offense struggled in its new incarnation.
Jackson was known for his flair and creativity; Zampese took a more straightforward approach. The running game never got into a rhythm, and Zampese wasn’t able to come up with viable options after players got hurt.
“The results didn’t unfold as I anticipated, but the process of how the weeks work and the duties and all those things happened exactly how I thought it would,” Zampese said.
THOSE YOUNG TACKLES: Cedric Obguehi has one career start at left tackle, where he’ll fill in for Andrew Whitworth. Jake Fisher has three career starts at right tackle. Whether they can hold their own is the main question on offense. Ogbuehi got the job at right tackle last season, but played so poorly that he wound up benched and later moved to the left side, his more accustomed spot. Dalton was sacked 41 times last season, twice as often as in either of the two previous seasons.
YOUNG DEFENSIVE LINE, TOO: The Bengals have let go of tackle Domata Peko and ends Wallace Gilberry and Margus Hunt, giving their young linemen openings to move into bigger roles. In the past two years, they’ve drafted tackles Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow and end Jordan Willis.
“There’s going to be a step up and an uptick here on Sunday, but I think they’re ready for it,” Lewis said.
EXTRA MOTIVATION: Many Bengals went through their first losing season in Cincinnati, learning what it’s like to be playing out a season in December. It wasn’t fun.
“The weeks go a lot faster when you’re winning, the city is better when you’re winning, and there’s not a lot of nitpicking,” Jones said.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve had only two losing seasons. I’m not used to that. Every now and then, you’re going to have a year like that.”