CINCINNATI -- Welcome to the city with an identity crisis.
The teams consistently win but have no postseason success to show for it in the last two decades. Call it consistent mediocrity. This is a town where its professional baseball and football teams have both made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons. But after awhile, fans realize you don't count playoff appearances. You count playoff success. Sure, it's great to have winning teams. But it's another to expect your teams to win championships.
Do you think Patriots fans would be jumping for joy if Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft were celebrating making the playoffs but losing each time?
Which brings us to Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. Coming into Sunday's game with the Patriots at Paul Brown Stadium, he is 81-82-1 in 11 seasons. He took a franchise that was in a 15-year playoff drought to the playoffs four times in the last eight years.
That's all well and good but Lewis has not won a playoff game in his 10 previous seasons in Cincinnati. As a matter of fact, he is the longest tenured coach in NFL history (164 games, and counting) without a single playoff win.
But ask Belichick about Lewis and he'll tell you that his longevity speaks for itself.
"Marvin is a good coach. He's done a good job," Belichick said. "He's been very consistent. The last couple years, taking a young team into the playoffs back-to-back years with a rookie quarterback, second-year quarterback last year. He transformed that team over the past few years, won with different guys, won with Carson Palmer, won with... winning now.
"So they've had different ways of doing it, but the common thread is that he's been there. Mike Brown-Marvin Lewis has been a good owner-coach combination. They've done a good job of acquiring personnel and coaching them and winning games. The consistency says something. We've seen that at other organization like Pittsburgh for example: a lot of success through the years with not a lot of changes."
With all due respect to Belichick, it's one thing to be consistent, it's another to be successful. The Steelers Belichick speaks of have won six Super Bowls and two in the Lewis era, while going to another. Lewis took over the Bengals after a 2-14 season under current Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau in 2002. He immediately brought respect back to the franchise with back-to-back 8-8 seasons. Then Carson Palmer led them to the AFC North title under Carson Palmer and success turned into expectations. That is a slippery slope that the Bengals and Lewis have yet to climb.
In so-called "measuring stick" games against Belichick's Patriots, the Bengals are 0-4, including butt-whoopings in 2006 and 2007 at Paul Brown Stadium. The 38-13 destruction in '06 came on Monday night when the Bengals were talking all sorts of trash about how they were going to show the Patriots how they protect the Jungle. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel came off the field with the last laugh, pointing to Bengals fans, telling them all to look at the scoreboard.
Lewis tried to give his players freedom and they proved time after time that they couldn't handle it, starting with star receiver Chad Johnson and the late Chris Henry. The off-the-field distractions, police blotter daily reports and lack of on-field discipline led to an unraveling of the team between 2006-08. The Bengals bounced back in 2009 with another division title but they lost to the Jets in the first round and fell off a cliff in 2010 that led to the acrimonious divorce between Palmer and owner Mike Brown.
The Bengals have been a wild-card the last two seasons under quarterback Andy Dalton. And through it all, Lewis has been on the sideline.
When the Patriots take the field against the Bengals Sunday, two rarest of breeds in the NFL will square when Belichick and his 14 years of excellence match up against Lewis and his 11 years of, well, consistency. They are the two longest tenured coaches - by far - in the league.
"Yeah, it's kind of surprising, really," Belichick admitted Friday. "It is and it isn't. When I came into the league, that's the way it was: coaches coached for a long time with the same team. They had a consistent program. There was always turnover, but not like there is now where guys coach for a year, year and half and the team makes a change and brings in somebody else. Wheels spin pretty fast in that and along with it goes all the changes. Head coaches then therefore coordinators, position coaches. I mean, you go to the Combine and it seems like every year a third of the coaches are wearing a different jacket than they wore the year before when you saw them.
"From that standpoint, it's a big change from what I was used to, the way I was brought up on the league, brought up in football. We all know it's a production business; we all know that you're not guaranteed anything for very long. But the way things turnover in this league and in pro sports in general. It turns over pretty fast. It's pretty amazing, really. On the one hand, it seems like a long time given the quick turnover that we have now. On the other hand, given the way I was used to it, it doesn't seem like it should be that way. But it is what it is."
The expectations were again there this summer, through another season of "Hard Knocks." The Bengals were ready to make that jump many experts said. The Bengals have as much talent as anyone in the AFC, critics raved. Then the regular season hit in Chicago and the Bengals managed to blow a 21-10 fourth quarter lead to Jay Cutler in Chicago and lost to the Bears, 24-21. They barely beat a brutal Pittsburgh team on Monday night in their home opener and trailed Green Bay 30-14 late in the third quarter before the Pack gave it back and the Bengals pulled out a miraculous 34-30 win. Last week, the Bengals traveled up I-71 to Cleveland and Andy Dalton played small in a 17-6 loss to the Browns.
"I think they're pretty good," Belichick insisted. "They lost a very close game to Chicago in the opener and they certainly could have won last week against Cleveland. It wouldn't have taken too much. I think this is a team that's a couple plays away from being 4-0. I think they're going to win their share of games this year; we just hope it's not this week. I think they're a good team and I think they've played well. They could easily be 4-0. Take two or three plays a little bit different than what they were and you'd be looking at a 4-0 team, which is the way we look at it."
Of course Belichick looks at it that way. But Cincinnati fans who have watched this team closely over the years know differently. They know Lewis is the longest tenured coach in NFL history without a playoff win. They know Lewis has been blessed with a great defensive coordinator in Mike Zimmer and a terrific offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden. They see a team with a good coaching staff under Lewis and Pro Bowl caliber players on both sides of the ball and know this team is a lot closer to 0-4 than 4-0.
This is a city with a huge identity crisis right now. They just watched their baseball team completely mail it in with a star-studded lineup and stellar pitching staff when the season was theirs for the taking. They watched Dusty Baker get fired by Reds owner Bob Castellini and GM Walt Jocketty for failing to reach the next level. Bengals fans wonder aloud why Mike Brown hasn't come to the same conclusion about Lewis.
"You don't want to see it happen. He's worked his butt off," Lewis said of Baker Friday. "They're still trying to get over the hump and get into the championship series. No one is going to take a loss harder than the manager or a coach. He's put in the blood, sweat and tears to get them to that point. No one is going to feel it like he feels it.
"Prior to him being here you look at him as a manager who has been so successful with his style and having the opportunity to meet with him once he's been there. His style is very similar to a football coach's style. Very fundamental, that's what's important to him and guys doing it the right way and that's the way he sees things. It's not far off what we're trying to achieve here."
The difference is Mike Brown, whatever his reasons, has been much more patient than Castellini, or Robert Kraft for that matter.
Remember the Pete Carroll era? The first two seasons were hardly a disaster. He took over for Bill Parcells and led the Patriots to the playoffs in 1997 and '98. Then came 1999. There was a perception that Carroll lost the locker room during an 8-8 season. Those perceptions and the lack of results earned him the pink slip and led to the Belichick era. Think about that for a moment. Carroll had two playoff appearances in his first two seasons and a .500 season in his third and was shown the door.
Why? Because Kraft's expectations were - and still are - a lot higher than those of Mike Brown. Belichick was hired, allowed a 5-11 start in 2000 and was in trouble at 0-2 in 2001. But Tom Brady came in and changed the course of the franchise. Belichick had a young quarterback and surrounded him with a defense that matured into one of the best in the game.
Belichick shaped the Patriots into a model franchise and a perennial championship contender. Bengals fans are still waiting for Lewis to do the same.