Lewis agreed to a contract extension on Tuesday after two days of negotiating changes in how the front office functions. Owner Mike Brown wanted to keep him, offering an extension last season. Lewis wanted to stay, too, but only if he got more influence over decisions.
The Bengals are coming off a 4-12 season. They’ve had only two winning records during Lewis’ eight seasons, which would get a coach fired in most NFL cities. In Cincinnati, Lewis’ 60-69-1 record wasn’t a deal breaker.
Cincinnati has only two winning records in the last 20 years, both under Lewis. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since 1990.
The club didn’t release details of the extension, which will make Lewis the longest-tenured head coach in franchise history. Franchise founder Paul Brown and Sam Wyche also coached for eight seasons.
Lewis’ 69 losses are the most for any Bengals coach – one more than Wyche, who led the Bengals to a Super Bowl during the 1988 season. Wyche and ownership clashed over control following the 1991 season, leading to a bitter parting. The team claimed he quit; Wyche insisted he was fired.
By contrast, Lewis and Brown have had an amicable relationship over the years despite their disagreements. The question at season’s end was whether Brown would give Lewis more control than any other head coach during his 20 years running the team.
It’s not the first time that Brown has kept a coach coming off a lousy season. He gave Dave Shula a two-year extension in 1993, when the Bengals were completing a 3-13 season that would stand as the measuring stick for franchise futility – until this year.
Like the ’93 team, the 2010 Bengals lost 10 straight games, the franchise record. Unlike the ’93 team, this one had a lot of talent and high expectations.
Cincinnati won the AFC North last season by going 6-0 in the division, only 4-6 against the rest of the league. The Bengals used a run-based offense to grind out close wins, but lost to the Jets in the first round of the playoffs because they couldn’t throw the ball consistently.
Lewis won Coach of the Year honors and was offered an extension, but didn’t accept because he wanted changes in scouting, how assistant coaches are selected and other areas. A covered practice field also has been on his wish list since he arrived. When ownership didn’t seem receptive, Lewis decided to play out the final year on his contract.
The Bengals kept the core of the team intact and added receiver Terrell Owens, hoping to repeat as division champs for the first time in team history. Instead, things quickly imploded. Owens blamed the coaching staff for much of the problem. The Bengals failed to sell out their final four home games, and Lewis finished the season unsure whether he would be back or whether he even wanted to return under the conditions.
If Brown was going to fire him, he would have done it on Monday. Instead, they began a back-and-forth discussion about the changes needed to keep Lewis around. It was another example of ownership’s penchant for waiting until the last minute to make an overriding decision.
The decision to keep Lewis may not help sell tickets. Fans blamed Lewis for the team’s implosion during the 10-game losing streak – the Bengals made the same mistakes in one close loss after another.
There is likely to be at least one significant change in the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski finished his 10th season in Cincinnati and could take the fall for the offense’s struggles.
Bringing Lewis back is the first of many major decisions the Bengals have to make in the offseason. Owens and running back Cedric Benson are free agents. The team also has a one-year, $6-million contract option on Chad Ochocinco, the top receiver in franchise history.