Next Bengals coach inherits roster ready for big change
By JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer
CINCINNATI (AP) — Bengals owner Mike Brown must decide whether to bring in another newcomer to coach his team, or return to his pattern of trusting someone he already knows well.
Whoever gets the job will inherit a roster on the cusp of significant change.
Brown parted ways with head coach Marvin Lewis on Monday after 16 seasons without a playoff win. Lewis’ stay in Cincinnati — the second-longest active tenure behind New England’s Bill Belichick — demonstrated how much the owner would rather stick with what’s comfortable than leave his comfort zone and try someone new.
“It will be interesting to see,” linebacker Nick Vigil said. “We haven’t had change around here in 16 years.”
The question is how much change Brown will tolerate.
He has a history of accepting as little change and as much continuity as possible. He elevated Dave Shula from the staff to head coach in 1992, Bruce Coslet in 1996, and Dick LeBeau in 2000, all the while failing to get an elusive playoff berth.
He went against his history by hiring Lewis in 2003, and he got a playoff appearance only two years later — a lesson in how major change can work. The two formed a close bond that was integral to Lewis’ 16-year tenure despite an 0-7 mark in the playoffs, the worst in NFL history.
Brown has several options for his next coach that could fit his comfort zone.
For instance, he’s familiar with Hue Jackson, who spent eight years on Lewis’ staff in a variety of roles — receivers coach, defensive backs coach, running backs coach, offensive coordinator and special assistant on defense. The Bengals quickly rehired Jackson when the Browns fired him after he won only three games in two-plus years.
Cleveland had a resurgence when Jackson left, winning five of its last seven games, including both against Cincinnati. Hiring Jackson would send a message to fans that the franchise won’t change all that much.
Brown also is familiar with Vance Joseph, who was fired Monday by the Broncos . Joseph was the defensive backs coach in Cincinnati from 2014-15. Brown also could consider someone off the current staff, although that again would reinforce the message that not much change is in the works.
Perhaps Brown will try to bring in someone from a winning organization, as he did with Lewis, hoping that jump-starts ticket sales. The Bengals’ attendance has fallen each of the past three years and ranks second-to-last in the league.
In any case, change is coming.
“It’s pretty weird to know you have a new (defensive) coordinator, a new head coach, everybody,” linebacker Preston Brown said. “You never know what could happen around here.”
The roster turnover could intensify as well.
Lewis had the youngest team in his 16 seasons. Veterans got hurt early, forcing players into roles before they were ready. Cincinnati was among the hardest-hit teams in the league, with 18 players on injured reserve by season’s end, including quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green.
Dalton and Green are entering their ninth seasons. They led the Bengals to a club-record five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15, but they lost in the first round each time. Their chances for a playoff run are starting to run out.
The defense has been led by linebacker Vontaze Burfict for the past seven years, but he may have reached the end of the line. He opened the season with yet another suspension from the league and played in only seven games because of concussions and a chronic hip problem. Burfict finished with only 33 tackles and no sacks.
Cincinnati fell to the bottom of the AFC North for only the second time under Lewis, and it’ll be a challenge to escape the basement in the near future.
Baltimore won the division with the league’s top defense and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson. Pittsburgh expects to contend for the title next year with one of the NFL’s top offenses built around Ben Roethlisberger. The Browns jumped ahead of the Bengals as Baker Mayfield set a record for touchdown passes by a rookie.
In many ways, it’s like 2003 in Cincinnati again. And the owner is facing the same type of choice in his next head coach: Stay with the familiar, or go with something entirely new?
More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/tag/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL