Following the 2006 NFL season, Marty Schottenheimer was fired after going 14-2. Sure, Chargers General Manager AJ Smith hated him and that ended up playing a big reason in the release, but the bottom line is that in a bottom line league, Schottenheimer did the impossible; he won 14 games and got fired.
Marvin Lewis on the other hand has won 19 games, in three seasons that is.
In the last three years, Marvin Lewis has slowly regressed, going 8-8, 7-9 and 4-11-1. Regression is acceptable for a season or two when a new coach is trying to adjust to new players or install a new system.
However, it’s not acceptable for a head coach going into his seventh season with the same team or an offensive coordinator going into his ninth season with the same team.
Five teams in the league last year had a worse winning percentage than the Bengals (Chiefs, Rams, Browns, Seahawks, Lions). Each one of those teams will open up 2009 with a new head coach on their sideline.
Four of the five teams had owners that were so unhappy with their team’s performance that they released their head coach AND both coordinators.
Even more incredibly, six teams with better records then the Bengals had last year will welcome coaches who will be in their first full year with their respective team (Bucs, Broncos, Jets, Raiders, 49ers, Colts).
So that begs the question, why and how do Lewis and Bratkowski still have jobs?
Bratkowski’s inability to adapt or change his game plan over the past four years has meant nothing but nightmares for the Bengals offense.
After the air show that was 2005, Bratkowski became complacent with his success and did little to change the playbook. Although the team's offensive statistics weren’t terrible in ‘06 or ’07, the numbers did go down each season.
The Bengals offense, innovative when Bratkowski introduced a Carson Palmer version of it in 2004, saw defenses catch up to it over the last three seasons. The Steelers for instance, have held the Bengals to 11 ppg over the two team's last four meetings.
After the 2007 season, fans and local media complained about the team’s lack of success; the Bengals had regressed in every facet of the game from offense to defense to special teams. Even then though, only one coach was given a pink slip, defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan.
To an outside observer, the firing of Bresnahan made it seem that the team’s defensive failures were the cause of the Bengals woes. That was a legitimate excuse until 2008 happened.
New defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer took a group with a reputation for disappointment and molded them into a top 15 unit. With such a stout defense, the Bengals must have been successful in 2008, right?
Wrong. Bratkowski defenders love to blame the Bengals lack of offensive success in 2008 on Palmer’s elbow injury. That’s the easy way out though.
Backup quarterbacks aren’t paid seven figures to look pretty. There’s no reason Ryan Fitzpatrick should have been able to run the Bengals offense into the ground, he is a quarterback with NFL talent after all.
The blame for the number 32 offensive ranking has to be set squarely on Bratkowski’s shoulders. Most of the playbook was designed with Palmer’s arm strength in mind; Bratkowski never put together a contingency plan in case of a Palmer injury. A mistake of this proportion should have cost him his job.
You only have to look at the New England Patriots to understand the magnitude of Bratkowski’s blunder. The Patriots found themselves in the same exact situation as the Bengals in 2008, no starting quarterback.
However, Bill Belichick and New England offensive coordinator at the time Josh McDaniels had a backup plan; they designed their playbook so that it could be piloted by anyone who knew the controls, not just Tom Brady.
McDaniels and Belichick held Matt Cassel’s hand until Cassel was comfortable running the offense. By midseason, Cassel was a well-oiled machine on his way to leading the Patriots to an 11-5 finish. By midseason in Cincinnati, Bengal fans had all but given up hope and the team was sputtering to a 4-11-1 finish.
In the NFL, injuries are an unfortunate part of the game. If the Bengals were really a contender last year, one injury shouldn’t have ruined the season. It didn’t for the Patriots.
For whatever reason, the Bengals-Patriots parallel never really made its way into the national consciousness. However, NFL insiders are always privy to this kind of information; that’s why Josh McDaniels is a head coach right now and Bratkowski isn’t.
Speaking of head coaches, ultimately, it’s Marvin Lewis’ job to make sure his house (in this case the Bengals organization) is in order. Lewis rarely admits when there's trouble. He’s evasive with local media and every week last season, he left the fans wondering about the status of their star QB. That’s his prerogative though as long as the team produces a winner.
When the team’s not producing, someone needs to shoulder the blame. But that rarely happens because there is only minimal accountability within the organization.
Team owner Mike Brown rarely grants public interviews, so it’s almost impossible to know his feelings about the direction of the Bengals organization as a whole. Although it’s probably safe to say, he wasn’t happy with four wins last year.
If Brown’s long term goals include Super Bowl wins, then he can’t let coaches who go three straight seasons without a winning record stay on board as he’s done with Lewis, Bruce Coslet and Dave Shula.
It took the worst record in team history to get Dick LeBeau fired after his third season. And the LeBeau firing is actually ironic considering he drafted the offensive nucleus of Lewis’ 2005 playoff team (Chad Ochocinco, Rudi Johnson, TJ Houshmanzadeh, Levi Jones, Matt Schobel).
With the Bengals there are always more questions than answers, the two main ones heading into 2009 have to be: Can Bratkowski’s offense, with the return of Palmer, turn it around? And if they can’t how long will Marvin Lewis last?