At the end of a long, went, night and at the conclusion of a brutally physical game that seemed to follow a familiar script with a painfully familiar outcome, I trudged out of Paul Brown Stadium drenched from the rain and almost physically ill over the result.
The crowd that poured out of the southeast gate at PBS walked toward their rides home in silence, with only the jubilant howls of a few victorious fans piercing through the quiet. The scene had a agonizingly recognizable feel. Wet, cold weather. Massive disappointment. It could've been January 2014, after the San Diego playoff loss. Or two years later after the postseason meltdown against Pittsburgh. This time was after a regular season loss that effectively ended the Bengals 2017 playoff hopes, and completely eroded any remaining trust in Marvin Lewis.
I don't want Marvin Lewis to be the Bengals head coach anymore.
Let that sentence hang for just a second, while I try to mention all of the crazy shit that happened last night at PBS.
The Bengals took a lead behind some nifty playcalling, some solid quarterback play, a concerted effort to get the ball to AJ Green, and a solid running game.
They gifted the Steelers three points before the half, aiding Pittsburgh's effort with one of their 283 penalties on the night, this one committed by Dre Kirkpatrick, who had himself a bad night.
At the half, the Bengals leading 17-3, after watching two men try to beat each other up in the concourse, I commented that the game had the feel of "23-20 Steelers at the gun."
The Bengals would run five drives in the second half, one of them lasting ten plays and resulting in a field goal, the other totaling a whopping 14 plays. There was a poorly-called and even more poorly-executed screen pass to Giovani Bernard on a third and two. There was a strangely-called pass to Brandon LaFell on a second and six. There was a pass play that started one drive that resulted in a sack, then a pass play that ended another drive that also resulted in a sack.
There was a Le'Veon Bell touchdown on a play the Bengals quit on, then an Antonio Brown touchdown on a drive that ended with a score that made the rest of the game seem like the outcome was inevitable.
There were penalties. Lots and lots of penalites. Some of them were reasonable calls. Others, like the holding call on Gio that negated a touchdown and the pass interference flag on Kirkpatrick that led to Pittsburgh closing the lead to 20-13 that were ticky-tacky at best, and comically bad at worst. The Bengals piled up a staggering 173 penalty yards. Some were deserved. Others weren't.
There were hits. A obscenely and blatantly dirty one from JuJu Smith-Schuster, which was doubled-up on with a taunting penalty, a development that made me wonder where the usual sportsmanship lessons I get from Steelers fans were. A brutal one from George Iloka on Brown as he found the end zone.
There were injuries. And potential concussions.
There was Ben Roethlisberger picking on Kirkpatrick. There were Bengals receivers dropping passes. There were communications issues on defense. There was a Chris Boswell kick that felt as familiar as it was painful.
There was that same, sinking, feeling we have when we walk out of PBS after being punched in the gut again.
And a final, sobering, belief that the Bengals need a new head coach.
The Bengals didn't lose to the Steelers last night because of Marvin Lewis, just as they're not sitting at 5-7 because of Marvin Lewis. Marvin's players came up short on Monday Night Football, just as his team has fallen short all season. It's reasonable to think that with the roster turnover the Bengals have suffered, few coaches would have this team entering the season's final quarter with a markedly better record, and the people who will ultimately decide on what to do with their head coaching position in 2018 have been very complicit in this team's two-year demise.
But it's the trust factor that I keep coming back to, not just that there's no reason to trust Marvin Lewis to win a playoff game, but that in game's like last night's - with the season hanging in the balance against a long-standing rival that - for better or worse - is Cincinnati's measuring stick, the Bengals almost always fall short.
At times in embarrassing, you-can't-make-this-stuff-up fashion.
In a game they had to win, not only to have any chance of actually making the playoffs, but to engender some degree of public confidence about the head coach, his staff, and their ability to steer this team through the final four weeks into (hopefully) a postseason berth, last night the Bengals set a franchise record for penalty yardage in a game.
Seems about right, no?
The Bengals will conclude this season with a pretty nice core of players intact, including a promising 2017 draft class (and that includes John Ross, who's done nothing this year) and an established group of guys that, combined with some of the newbies, will give the Bengals something to build on in the final years of the decade. But having had so many chances to breakthrough, and with the team not even close to starting to rebuild, do you want another proverbial window to open and shut with the same coach who's been unable to guide his team through windows that have already been open and closed? There's great uncertainty in what the Bengals would be like without Marvin Lewis and surely no guarantee that a replacement would far any better. But I'm to the point where the unknown is too intriguing whereas the known is, well, boring.
I don't write this gratuitously. Nor do I take any pleasure in talking about a Bengals future without Marvin Lewis. I respect him immensely and as someone who suffered through the three coaches prior to Marvin, I understand with great depth the work he did to pull the Bengals into the 21st Century and then later to lift them out of the 4-12 abyss that was the 2010 season. His legacy in Cincinnati should be favorable one, and even if he'll leave here having failed to win a playoff game, he'll be best remembered by me as someone as responsible as anyone for making people care about the Bengals, either for the first time in a while or for the first time ever.
Marvin Lewis has coached teams that I've loved and he's won games that I'll always cherish.
But I'm over him.
I'm over the whole Marvin Lewis "thing."
I'm over the way his team plays and I'm over the entire vibe of what a Marvin Lewis-coached team looks, sounds, and feels like. It's not that a win over the Pittsburgh Steelers last night would've made me that enthusiastic about Marvin potentially coming back, but last night's game represented both his final chance to push this team closer to the playoffs and a chance for ol' Marv to maybe make us think that moving forward, he's a coach that - with this team - is worth showing some faith in. I didn't trust them to win going into the game, and even as they held onto a lead, I had no faith that they'd avoid disaster.
I don't trust the Bengals, in large part because I don't trust their coach.
I can't get behind keeping a coach that can't be trusted.