Is time running out on Marvin Lewis?

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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

On Mondays during the NFL offseason, FOXSports.com senior NFL writer Alex Marvez will address the big moves of the preceding week, the big storylines of the upcoming week and the draft, and free agency implications for both.

Storyline of the Week

The Cincinnati Bengals begin their offseason workout program. Bengals owner Mike Brown can be called a lot of things. Impetuous isn't one of them. If he were, Marvin Lewis would have been fired long, long ago. Only two head coaches in the free-agency era — and few in NFL history — have kept the same job for so long without winning a playoff game. Mike Holmgren needed seven years for his first postseason victory in Seattle. Jim Mora lasted 10½ seasons in New Orleans before resigning without a playoff win.
But both coaches had led their teams to multiple postseason berths. That's far more than what Lewis has accomplished. Cincinnati has reached the playoffs just once since Lewis became head coach in 2003. Since that first-round loss to Pittsburgh in 2005, the Bengals have gotten progressively worse. A 4-11-1 finish in 2008 dropped Lewis' overall record to 46-50-1. Twenty-six teams have switched head coaches since Lewis was hired, 12 of them on multiple occasions. If so many Bengals games weren't already airing on CBS, the network should try casting Lewis in the next season of Survivor. Credit (or blame) for Lewis' longevity belongs directly to Brown. The public perception is that Lewis remains largely because the tight-fisted Brown doesn't want to pay off a contract that runs through the 2010 season. While there may be validity to such sentiment, Brown has other reasons to keep Lewis. Start with the family tree. Brown is the son of NFL icon Paul Brown. The spot Mike Brown has in his heart for head coaches became even softer when his late father was fired by then-Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell after the 1962 season. Brown has given such previous Bengals failures as David Shula (19-52 record) and Bruce Coslet (21-39) ample time to resurrect his franchise. In fact, Paul Brown Stadium — the place where Lewis works every day — is named after someone who didn't win a playoff game during his seven seasons as Bengals coach. Mike Brown has faith in Lewis just like Dallas did in Tom Landry, who didn't notch a playoff victory until his ninth season. As team owner and general manager, Brown also is insistent upon having final say on all major football decisions despite almost two decades of on-field futility. Brown, who turns 72 this year, doesn't seem particularly interested in trying to bond with a new coach who would have to adapt to his hands-on management style. Asked about his Bengals tenure last week at the NFL owners meeting in Dana Point, Calif., Lewis said he has "gratitude" for Brown's unwavering support. "When I signed the last contract extension after the '05 season, the thing Mike said was, 'I have more patience than you do. There's going to be some tough times ahead that people don't realize,' " Lewis said. "Unfortunately, he's been right. I think his thing for me was to be patient and know there may be some pitfalls along the way that I didn't foresee coming." The road was especially rocky in 2008. Wide receiver Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson set the stage early in the offseason, embarrassing himself and the franchise with his shameless lobbying to get traded. Johnson was then hurt during the preseason and enjoyed his least productive campaign since 2002.
Marvin Lewis has done better than most Bengals' coaches since being hired in 2003. Sadly, that's not saying much for the franchise.
AFC North Finish
Totals: 46-49-1 (.484), zero playoff wins
"He was a guy who worked very hard at his craft," Lewis said of Johnson. "If you don't do that, it falls away very quickly and people forget about you." The season-ending elbow injury suffered by quarterback Carson Palmer was an even bigger blow. Already 0-5 when he was permanently sidelined, Cincinnati lost six of its next eight games en route to the worst Bengals record under Lewis' watch. But there is reason for optimism in Cincinnati — and not just because Arizona showed that a perennial loser can change its fortunes. The Bengals made significant defensive strides under first-year coordinator Mike Zimmer. Running back Cedric Benson, who averaged 103 rushing yards in the final four games, was re-signed. Lewis described a now-healthy Palmer as being "like a caged bull. He wants to put his stamp not only on this team but this season." As for the Johnson front, no news is good news even if Lewis was unsure whether the wideout would report for offseason workouts. Johnson has remained conspicuously low-key this offseason, which should help Lewis rebuild the team chemistry he says Cincinnati has lacked since the 2005 season. "I think we're a little better team because we don't have the kind of fly-by-night attitude that existed then," Lewis said. "You had a bunch of guys who all thought they were responsible for why the team had won. Now they realize they really weren't, that it takes a whole team to do that and they were just one cog in that wheel. "Unfortunately, when a team has some success that hasn't had (any), everybody wants to beat their chest. You can't have the team that has the highest-paid player at every spot." If Cincinnati shows improvement, Lewis should be back for the final year of his contract in 2010. Heck, Brown could even extend Lewis' deal like he did three times earlier this decade. But Brown's patience does have its limits. Lewis may learn what they are the hard way if these Bengals don't change their stripes.

Cause and effect

Terrell Owens is back in the headlines for not reporting to the start of Buffalo's offseason workout program. The cause: Even though coaches strongly stress the importance of such sessions, Owens wasn't required to attend because the workouts are voluntary. Owens also is a stickler for training on his own, which helps explain why he remains in tremendous physical condition at age 35. The effect: The absence provided more fuel for critics who believe this is just the start of the "me-first" approach that doomed Owens' previous stays in San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas. Owens, though, should be cut some slack. Some of his offseason plans — including charity appearances and the filming of an upcoming reality show — were set before what Owens said was a surprising release by Dallas in early March. Owens' attendance for more football-intensive workouts in May and June to bond with his new teammates — especially quarterback Trent Edwards — is of much greater importance.

Draft watch: Ohio State LB Marcus Freeman

Fellow Buckeyes linebacker James Laurinaitis has received more hype, but Freeman began stepping out of that shadow through strong pre-draft workouts. Projected as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense (St. Louis already has conducted a private workout), Freeman also is drawing interest from teams that play a 3-4 scheme like Miami and Dallas. Following a Cowboys visit this week, Freeman is heading to Houston to attend Wrestlemania 25 with Laurinaitis. A die-hard grappling fan, Freeman said he and Laurinaitis — whose uncle John is a World Wrestling Entertainment executive — already have discussed forming a tag-team tentatively called "Salt and Pepper" after their NFL careers end.

Free-agency watch: Right tackle Mark Tauscher

A Green Bay starter since 2000, Tauscher seemed destined for a nice free-agent payoff until suffering a serious knee injury in the 13th game of last season. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tauscher is rehabilitating in Green Bay but probably won't be recovered for the start of training camp. Expect the Packers to make a strong push to re-sign Tauscher once his medical status becomes clearer. Tony Moll, who replaced Tauscher in late 2008, and second-year player Breno Giacomini will enter minicamp as potential starters.

Week in review

Big winner — Denver QB Chris Simms. With Jay Cutler holding out of voluntary workouts, Simms is the de facto first-string quarterback. That gives Simms more chances to acclimate himself with Denver's receivers and Josh McDaniels' new offense in his first Broncos offseason. Big loser — The Arizona Cardinals. Not even reaching Super Bowl XLIII can get this franchise respect. The Cardinals weren't among the teams selected when the NFL announced its Week 1 prime-time games at the owners meeting. An even bigger slap in the facemask: NBC is featuring two teams that didn't even make the playoffs (Green Bay and Chicago) in its Sunday night opener. Under-the-radar move — Will Witherspoon is shifting from middle to outside linebacker under new St. Louis coach Steve Spagnuolo. While a productive tackler in the middle, it was Witherspoon's weakside play in Carolina that earned him a six-year, $33 million free-agent contract in 2006. Witherspoon can make a bigger impact as an outside pass rusher while capable veteran Chris Draft mans the middle. Spagnuolo still has plenty of rebuilding ahead, but this is a good start.

Highlights from this week's calendar

  • Tuesday (March 31): Tampa Bay holds its first minicamp under new coach Raheem Morris. At 32, Morris is younger than Bucs quarterback Brian Griese and cornerback Ronde Barber.
  • Wednesday (April 1): The "informal deadline" that 49ers coach Mike Singletary has set to learn whether wide receiver Isaac Bruce will retire or continue playing. Bruce, 36, led the 49ers in receiving last season but will likely become the No. 2 wideout with San Francisco signing former Tennessee starter Brandon Jones in free agency.
  • Wednesday (April 1): Southern Cal holds a star-studded Pro Day that includes top draft prospects like QB Mark Sanchez and LBs Rey Maualuga and Clay Matthews.
  • Thursday (April 2): St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger gets his first taste of running a West Coast offense during the Rams' first offseason minicamp. Alex Marvez interviewed Marcus Freeman and Mike McCarthy while hosting on Sirius NFL Radio.
  • Tagged: Bills, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Rams, 49ers, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Chris Draft, Mike Brown, Brian Griese, Isaac Bruce, Marc Bulger, Terrell Owens, Will Witherspoon, Chris Simms, Carson Palmer, Brandon Jones, Cedric Benson, Jay Cutler, Tony Moll, Trent Edwards, Breno Giacomini

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