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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Lewis Couldn't Afford to Wait for Perfect Job

January 19, 2003|Michael Wilbon | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — It's naive, this talk that Marvin Lewis shouldn't have taken the Cincinnati Bengals' job.

Yes, it's risky to sign on to captain the sports equivalent of the Titanic.

The Bengals went 2-14. The club has had 12 consecutive non-winning seasons and hasn't reached the playoffs since 1990. It's so inadequately run that the assistant coaches double as scouts -- during the season. The best chance for the Bengals to turn it around could be for the NFL to take over and operate the team.

And despite all that, Lewis had to accept the Bengals' offer. Had to. No choice. He had to leave the Redskins, had to stop being an assistant coach.

Why? Why does Lewis, a coach who has put together a top-five defense each and every season he has been a defensive coordinator (No. 2 in 1999, No. 2 in 2000, No. 2 in '01 and No. 5 in '02) have to take such a dreck job?

Because of Sherm Lewis, Art Shell, Emmitt Thomas, Jimmy Raye and Terry Robiskie, among others. They waited by their phones for years and years without it ringing.

Well, it rang for Shell once and all he did was make the playoffs just about every year and take the Raiders to an AFC championship game one year. But it didn't ring for Shell again.

It never rang for the other guys; they still wait. Marvin Lewis knows each of them; it's possible one or more could wind up on his staff in Cincinnati.

Lewis also knows those men were possibly better coaches than he is. But black coaches don't get to pick head coaching jobs in the NFL or in the college ranks. There's no menu; they eat what's on their plates, if anything.

Lewis wasn't offered the Dallas Cowboys' job, wasn't interviewed for it. He wasn't offered a head coaching job the year before that, even though he had the No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL. He wasn't offered a job the year before that, even though his Baltimore Raven defense, the one that led the franchise to its only Super Bowl, set a record for fewest points allowed.

You go back in recent history, you'll find that Buddy Ryan became a head coach immediately after the Bears won a Super Bowl. Dave Wannstedt and Norv Turner became head coaches immediately after the Cowboys won Super Bowls. Gregg Williams and John Fox became head coaches a year after their teams went to the Super Bowl.

Perhaps you've noticed that Lewis didn't get a job after the Ravens won, didn't get a job the next season, either. He got another job as an assistant, with the Redskins, before he got this call. So, of course, Lewis had to say yes to the Bengals. His only option was to coach in the college ranks. Talk about a dilemma.

Now, if he really wants to play what-if, Lewis can wonder what might have happened if the 49ers had fired Steve Mariucci two days earlier. A very smart man who knows Lewis wanted him to wait and see if the 49ers were going to fire Mariucci this week, which some folks knew was coming. The spin you'll hear out of San Francisco is that in a meeting with owner John York, Mariucci said he wanted more say over personnel. The story goes that York, who likes the duties of president, general manager and coach clearly defined, said no way and fired Mariucci.

You can believe that if you want. Truth is Mariucci was fired when the 49ers fell behind the Giants, 38-14, early in the fourth quarter of that playoff game in San Francisco 11 days ago.

Terry Donahue, the general manager and tag-team partner of 49er legendary ex-coach Bill Walsh, walked off the field when the 49ers trailed by 24 points. Maybe nobody told Donahue that Mariucci's team pulled off the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

Minutes afterward, in the 49ers' locker room, Walsh said, "Our coach needed a big-time victory over a really good team."

That's what we call the handwriting on the wall. A blowout loss at Tampa sealed it. Mariucci, a man who won 59.4% of his games and whose teams won 12 games three times in his first five years as coach, got fired because he didn't win the Super Bowl. That's it.

Everybody associated with the 49ers is spoiled rotten.

I'm not sure that's the gig Marvin Lewis would have wanted, either, not that he'd have gotten it, and he wouldn't have.

But it's done now. Lewis simply has to make the best of this situation, though we all wonder how much that can amount to when the Bengals pay their assistants less than other clubs but ask them to work more, when the Bengals reportedly have the smallest posse of scouts in the NFL.

How do you pull a team out of a hole when the owner has his family members and in-laws making major decisions? How can a mom-and-pop operation do battle with corporate giants?

Lewis, besides his ability and savvy, has one important thing going for him: players. The Bengals have Corey Dillon, one of the league's best running backs, and a Pro Bowl fullback in Lorenzo Neal. They have a free-agent linebacker, 26-year-old Takeo Spikes, to whom Lewis has to say: "If you stay here, I'll help you become Ray Lewis."

Marvin Lewis will also have to say to his new owner, Mike Brown: "You've drafted David Klingler (sixth overall in 1992) and Akili Smith (third overall in 1999) and look where it got you. We don't need to draft a quarterback. Jon Kitna can be our Trent Dilfer."

The Bengals' new coach is going to have to be bold and have some luck.

Another thing going for him? Dick LeBeau was 12-33, Bruce Coslet was 21-39 and David Shula was 19-52. The bar isn't very high in Cincinnati.

Maybe a man who coaches defense like Marvin Lewis can win seven or eight games next season or the season after, restore some respectability and hope an owner in a more hopeful situation will ask for his phone number.

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