Sunday's Bengals game in Baltimore will likely mark the end of the Marvin Lewis era in Cincinnati, a 15-year odyssey marked with both successes and failures, hope and disappointment. Marvin's legacy as the head coach here is complicated. He arrived here as a heralded symbol of hope, yet he coaches out the string with a name that's become synonymous with futility.
Any tenure as long as Marvin's is filled significant moments, of both triumph and defeat, of milestones and important events that, if they'd transpired differently, could've changed the course of history.
During the Marvin Lewis run in Cincinnati, there were a few developments worth looking back on that you can't help but wonder what would've happened had they not happened the way they did? What if certain decisions weren't made? What if Marvin and the Bengals enjoyed better luck? What if certain things that went wrong went right? How would we view Marvin differently? How would the course of Bengals history have been changed? How much better or worse would our relationship with the franchise be?
Here, before we get to this week's guesses, are the biggest "what-ifs" of the Marvin Lewis era....
What if Carson Palmer doesn't sit on the bench for his entire rookie season in '03?
The Bengals took the 2002 Heisman Trophy winner with the first overall pick in the 2002 draft, a quarterback from USC who was the Pac-10's Offensive Player Of The Year, turning around his college career during his senior season with one of the most hellacious six-game stretches any college quarterback has ever played, playing for a program that was about to take off.
Carson Palmer wasn't exactly labeled can't-miss coming of college, but he was deemed the safest bet of any quarterback in the draft, even if scouts felt like he'd need some time before he'd show the NFL how good he could be.
Which the Bengals gave him in 2003.
Palmer didn't play a snap his rookie season, instead holding a clipboard while watching Jon Kitna help steer Marvin's first Bengals team to within a game of the playoffs while keeping the seat warm for the franchise.
Carson took over the team in 2004, and the results were predictably uneven. There were small glimpses of greatness offset by maddening moments of youthful ineptitude. But there was steady progress throughout his first season as starter, with Palmer's final three starts in '04 (before succumbing to an injury that ended his season) yielding a 77.3% completion percentage, nine touchdowns, nearly 900 yards, and a cumulative passer rating of 116.1. His final effort that year was against the defending and eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots, and before he left that game with a knee injury, he did things that tied New England's defense in knots, revealing himself to be a bona fide potential member of the upper tier of NFL quarterbacks.
The following year, of course, Carson and the Bengals exploded. Palmer led the league in touchdowns and completion percentage, piloting the Bengals to their first playoff appearance since 1990, and finishing fifth in the MVP voting. Marvin and his coaches were lauded, meanwhile, for their cultivation of Palmer, with their refusal to throw him to the wolves as a rookie often credited for being key to his development.
But what if he would've played just a little in 2003?
Does he put some of the growing pains he'd experience in 2004 behind him a year earlier, enabling the team to hit the ground running in Marvin's second season? Does a team that had to struggle to get to 8-8 in '04 make the playoffs, giving the franchise an earlier chance at an elusive playoff victory?
What about 2003? As capably - and sometimes, superbly - as Jon Kitna played that year, we all knew he was merely holding his more talented teammate's place. Kitna crapped himself in the final two games of the season that year, throwing four picks in losses that kept the Bengals from making the playoffs. If Carson gets in those games, do the Bengals win them? Had Carson gotten some snaps earlier in the season, would Marvin have been more comfortable yanking Kitna in those final two games?
Or would Carson have done enough in his first few rookie appearances to warrant getting the job on a weekly basis? If so, are the 8-8 2003 Bengals instead the 10-6 2003 Bengals?
And would more success in 2003 and/or 2004 helped that 2005 team handle both success and adversity a little differently than it did? Does Carson getting his feet week during his rookie season put him and the team in a better, more ready-to-win place in his third, fourth and fifth seasons?
Maybe Marvin doing something differently with Carson doesn't change what happened in 2005 or in any year subsequent to his breakout third-but-really-second season. But I felt at the time that Carson was a rookie that he should've played, at least a little. I couldn't help but wonder what his first season as a starter would've been like had it not been his first season of actually playing. And as Marvin's time peters out, I'll always wonder how the first half of his tenure would've been at least a little different had Carson Palmer played during his rookie season.
What if Carson Palmer doesn't get injured in the '05 playoff game against the Steelers?
What if Paul Brown hires Bill Walsh instead of Tiger Johnson to coach the Bengals in 1976? What if Greg Cook never gets hurt? What if Lewis Billups catches a sure interception from Joe Montana in Super Bowl 23? What if Ki-Jana Carter doesn't eat the turf in his NFL preseason debut? What if the Bengals made about 9,000 different draft decisions?
And what if Kimo Von Oelhoffen doesn't end Carson Palmer's first playoff game after just one pass?
Some will assert that if Palmer had not gotten injured that day at Paul Brown Stadium that they would've went on to win the Super Bowl. Others will guarantee that the Bengals would've beaten the Steelers for the franchise's first postseason win in 15 years. I'm not as adamant about either. The Bengals were home underdogs in the franchise's first playoff game in 15 years, and their lack of experience and turnover-reliant defense didn't make them great bets to get to Detroit.
But...the Bengals had just beaten the Steelers in Pittsburgh a month prior (easily one of Marvin's five best victories), and the fact that Pittsburgh went on to win the Super Bowl as the six seed in the AFC illustrates how wide open the conference title race was.
Even with Palmer out, the Bengals did build leads of 10-0 and 17-7 in the second quarter that was cut down to 17-14 before halftime. And on their first drive of the second half, they moved the ball into the red zone before a botched field goal attempt quickly turned the game in Pittsburgh's favor. Kitna turned into a pumpkin as the second half wore on, throwing two picks, and my favorite Bengals season of all-timed ended in heartbreak with the aftermath quickly devolving into a he-said/he-said about a supposed locker room fight that remains talked about until this day.
So what if Carson doesn't get injured?
If the Carson Palmer who torched the Steelers for three touchdowns in December plays the whole game, the Bengals probably win. If the Carson that played unevenly in his first three performances against Pittsburgh shows up, probably not. That's an easy way of looking at it.
Let's go deeper into the what-if game, though. Palmer was injured while completing a 66-yard pass to Chris Henry that flipped the field from the Cincinnati 12 to the Pittsburgh 22. The drive would continue with Kitna coming in for Palmer, and it would end with a Shayne Graham field goal. Let's say with Palmer, the Bengals get seven to start the game, sending an already raucous crowd (the moments right before kickoff are the loudest I've ever heard PBS) in to a frenzy. Let's say they still take a lead into the locker room, but instead of chaos breaking out at the half, the team merely prepares for the final 30 minutes.
Maybe they still lose. But maybe the two picks that Kitna threw aren't thrown by Palmer and perhaps one of the NFL's best offenses dents the scoreboard enough to keep the pressure on Pittsburgh. And maybe the Bengals win.
If they do, Marvin has a playoff win in his third season, establishing tons of coaching capital and preventing the team from being dogged by both their and his playoff futility for the rest of his tenure.
At the very worst, Marvin's time in Cincinnati comes to and end with a definitive, signature high point to look back on.
And maybe, this year-long celebration of the Bengals first 50 seasons is punctuated by a reunion of a championship team.
What if the 2005 draft class works out?
Among the many fun things about the 2005 Bengals was how much they seemed set up for a bright future. Carson Palmer would turn 26 that season, and was edging himself into at least being a part of the Brady/Manning conversation that dominated for more than a decade. The team had a solid core of in-their-prime offensive players that the front office was investing in. And the most recent draft class seemed exceptionally promising.
David Pollack was drafted out of Georgia with the team's first round pick, and even though the coaches really didn't seem to know where to play him early in his rookie season (a recurring theme of the Marvin Lewis era), by the end of '05, he'd overcome being behind after a training camp holdout and an early-season injury to start producing. He had the making of both the charismatic leader the Cincinnati defense had lacked for years and the pass rusher they'd been seeking since drafting Justin Smith and he a presence capable of giving the D an identity it'd lacked going back to the 80s. One of the few positive memories of the playoff game against Pittsburgh was how productive Pollack was, posting eight tackles and a sack.
The budding star, however, was Odell Thurman.
Polllack's teammate at Georgia who was taken in the second round, the linebacker was eliciting comparisons to Ray Lewis by his head coach after just one training camp practice. His rookie season challenges for one of the best in franchise history, and was a Rookie of the Year finalist. He had the best pure gifts of any Bengals linebacker I've seen (yes, this includes Burfict) and after a five-interception first season, he looked like the ideal player to build a defense around.
Chris Henry was taken in the third round, bringing with him a ridiculous set of skills that helped him became the ideal complementary target to the team's established receivers. Including Chad Johnson and AJ Green, Henry might be the best deep-ball threat of the Lewis era, and he punctuated producitve offenses in 2005 and 2006 with 15 TD receptions in his first two seasons.
Eric Ghiaciuc was a center who projected to be Rich Braham's replacement on the O-line. Tab Perry was a wide receiver who showed promise as a kick returner his rookie year, especially when he carried something like seven Steelers on his back during a 94-yard return at Heinz Field. Jonathan Fanene was a defensive lineman taken in the seventh round whose rookie season was highlighted by a few key plays in the same game in Pittsburgh.
The class never panned out.
Pollack suffered a career-ending neck injury in the 2006 home opener. Thurman's inability to stay clean and out of trouble kept him from playing even one NFL snap after his rookie season. Henry battled his own ability to stay out of trouble before a tragic accident in 2009 ended his life. Injuries prevent Perry from playing in more than just four games after his first year. Ghiaciuc's last regular season snap came in 2008. Only Fanene, who contributed as a rotational player on some good Bengals defenses late in his career, did anything of note in the NFL.
But the first three picks represent one of the franchise's biggest what-if. For different reasons, none were able to live up to their promise, and neither were able to fill voids left by departing players in what should have been their primes. Other mid-aught draft classes yielded disappointment - Chris Perry gave the Bengals just one productive season after being taken in the first round in '04, which is one more than Kenny Irons gave them after being taken in the second round in '07 - but no class of Marvin-era Bengals draft picks carried with it as much promise before yielding such disappointment as the '05 crew.
Pollack's premature retirement sent the Bengals into a scramble for pass rushers that didn't end until years later when the coaches figured out how to use Michael Johnson Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins arrived.
Thurman's failure to help beyond his rookie season reverberated for years. The Bengals spent years trying to find linebackers, whiffing in the draft (Keith Rivers), squeezing as much as they could from retreads (Dhani Jones) or turning over stones to find other guys who could play (nearly every linebacker not named "Rey Maualuga" before Vontaze Burfict arrived), and for as good a job as Mike Zimmer evetually did in helping to build the defense, you can't help but wonder what he could've done with a player like Odell.
Imagine what Henry could've meant for this team in his prime. He could've ultimately helped the team soften the blow of TJ Houshmandzadeh's departure. He could've made an increasingly disruptive Chad Johnson expendable, which is tantalizing when you think about the fact that the Bengals once reportedly turned down two first round picks for him. He could've kept them from gambling on Jerome Simpson or throwing money at Laveranues Coles. He could've potentially bridged the gap from Chad to AJ or even Carson to Andy. He could've been really, really good.
Chris Henry is as much a what-if as anyone the Bengals have had. What becomes of his life if he isn't killed on that late December afternoon in 2009? What if he isn't injured earlier that season? What if he doesn't get into trouble so often during his first seasons as a pro?
During those years, the Bengals became synonymous with player arrests and lack of discipline. They went from one of the more likable, cooler-to-root-for teams in the NFL in 2005 to one that was chided as being the model for what an NFL franchise was supposed to not be. Chris Henry was a part of that. So was Odell Thurman. Both were a part of that 2005 draft class.
That entire draft class is a what-if. If it pans out the way we'd hoped, how different would things have been back then? How different would they be now?
What if Shayne Graham doesn't miss that kick against the Steelers on New Year's Eve 2006?
With apologies to the 2015 playoff meltdown against the Steelers, the biggest gag job of the Marvin era is the three-game fold-job to end 2006.
Through 13 games, the '06 Bengals were 8-5, having survived player arrests, off-field controversies, and a three-game midseason losing streak to put themselves on the precipice of a second straight playoff appearance, in control of their own destiny if they could win just one of their final three.
Then came a Monday night loss at Indianapolis (Remember Andrew Whitworth v. Dwight Freeney?), followed by a Christmas Eve defeat at Denver (The Christmas Brad St. Louis ruined), before a New Year's Eve meeting with the Steelers in what would be Bill Cowher's final game on Pittsburgh's sideline.
Heading into week 17, the Bengals needed a win and help from other teams to qualify for the postseason. They would get the help they needed elsewhere and had Shayne Graham lined up for a 38-yard field goal that would've won the game with 12 seconds left.
The usually reliable Graham, however, shanked the kick, the game went to overtime, Ben Roethlisberger and Santonio Holmes would win it with a 67-yard TD pass on the left sideline on the third play of OT, and the Bengals would miss the playoffs.
What if Graham's kick goes? Maybe the '06 team wasn't as good as their '05 predecessors, but they were dangerous enough on offense that they'd have had a puncher's chance in a wild card rematch against Indy, and even if a postseason appearance would've resulted in another first round loss, maybe the narrative about the team that dominated the entire season would have changed and perhaps Carson Palmer's comeback is viewed differently if the Bengals had overcome themselves and at least made the playoffs.
Maybe instead of 2006 being looked at as one of Marvin's biggest failures, it's celebrated as one of his greatest successes. And maybe, just maybe, he and the team get that elusive playoff win.
What if Marvin doesn't come back after 2010?
This one is interesting. Marvin is often credited for the work he did in re-booting the franchise after the miserable 4-12 2010 season which was played with Marvin coaching with no deal for 2011.
But Marvin did return in 2011, and the personnel and personality of the team both underwent a huge makeover as Carson Palmer refused to keep playing and Chad Johnson was shipped to New England. The Bengals would overachieve in 2011 and 2012, making the playoffs while building toward a three-year window in which the Bengals would win 33 games with one of the best, deepest rosters in football.
But there were no playoff wins. Each postseason defeat made Marvin's postseason record more embarrassing and further raised the volume of the questions about whether he was the guy to get the Bengals over the hump. Maybe the Bengals weren't failing to advance in the playoffs because of Marvin Lewis, but they weren't winning in them thanks to him either.
With each passing year since 2010, Marvin's playoff record has loomed over the team even more than the franchise's own quarter-century-and-growing playoff drought. As Marvin's messages to the players over the last two seasons have gotten increasingly stale, his and the team's playoff failures of 2011 through 2015 continue to reverberate.
But what if Marvin's deal expires in 2010 and he doesn't come back? Does Mike Zimmer get a crack at the gig, and does he achieve more with what Marvin could only do so much with? Does Carson Palmer decide to stay? Do we watch a different coaching staff squeeze more out of Andy Dalton? Do the Bengals sign Vontaze Burfict? Do they keep Adam Jones? Does a different head coach even get to the playoffs in five straight years? Does he get to the playoffs less frequently but find success once he's there?
Does a new staff in 2011 get the concessions from Mike Brown that Marvin got? Do the Bengals attract prime candidates after becoming such a punchline the year before? Are the Bengals from 2011 through 2017 better with Marvin, or with someone else?
What if Carson Palmer doesn't demand a trade in 2011?
Carson's demand of a trade has been credited as being the impetus for organizational change and the re-boot that preceded 2011. It's also the reason why Andy Dalton became a Bengal.
Carson's final four seasons with the Bengals were uneven. He led the league in interceptions in 2007, played just four games because of an injury in 2008, was often just along for the ride during the division-winning season of 2009, and by 2010 there were legit questions about whether we'd see the quarterback so many of us assumed Carson would be when his career first started.
Even as his trade demand pissed fans off (I took Carson's side), there was acknowledgement by many that, you know, Carson Palmer might not be that good.
Palmer would go on to play in Oakland, then in Arizona where he recaptured the magic, playing well enough at age 36 to lead all NFL quarterbacks in six different categories. His time as a Cardinal has been disrupted by injuries, but his team has won 38 of his 60 starts since joining Arizona in 2013.
What if he never went to Arizona, or Oakland? Do the changes that needed to happen between 2010 and 2011 happen? Does Carson find the chemistry he never totally had with Chad Johnson, with AJ Green? What's the plan at QB as Carson nears the end of his contract in 2014, and is he still the team's starting quarterback now? If he isn't, who is?
And where is Andy Dalton playing?
What if Jeremy Hill doesn't fumble against the Steelers in the '15 playoffs?
It was over. The game. The streak. The feeling of futility. The sense that the worst thing that could happen, would. It was all over.
Vontaze Burfict had just intercepted Landry Jones, giving the Bengals the ball at the Pittsburgh 26 yard line with just over a minute and a half to go, sending Paul Brown Stadium crowd into delirium, while sending a few of us into the kind of teary-eyed giddiness you feel when years of suffering are about to seem worth it.
Then Jeremy Hill fumbled.
You know the rest.
If Hill keeps possession, the game wouldn't necessarily have been over. The Steelers did have all of their timeouts remaining and the Bengals would've played it safe on offense, likely having Mike Nugent attempt a field goal on a wet field that, if successful, would've given them a four-point lead.
But still...if Hill doesn't fumble, the Bengals probably win.
Which would've exorcised about a billion demons and destroyed nearly every narrative that exists about the franchise. It would've catapulted AJ McCarron into a Cincinnati sports icon (I mean this), given Marvin Lewis the signature victory of his tenure, and even if they would've gotten pummeled the following week in Foxboro, the playoff drought that's come to define the Bengals, their owner, and their coach would be things of the past.
Maybe the Bengals still lose the players and coaches they lost the following offseason, and perhaps the 2016 team isn't nearly as good as the 2015 squad, but maybe whatever postseason hangover lingered is instead a measure of momentum gained from a playoff victory over a hated rival. Maybe Marvin is rewarded with a long-term extension, and even if he isn't, and even if he's still leaving after this season, there's a wet, cold, January night in 2016 to look back on as the night Marvin Lewis found a way to defy the odds beat the Steelers, making everything about his entire tenure worth it.
A tenure, that as it crawls toward its likely end, will always be defined by a series of what-ifs.
BENGALS v. RAVENS
Back in early September, I made a preseason guess that the Bengals would go 8-7-1. You can read my entire rationale here, but my main reasoning was that the Bengals would be better than in 2016 but not that much better, but that most preseason prognostications were cop-outs. To go out on a limb, one had to guess a final record that would be far better than the slew of 8-8 picks that almost everyone else was making.
So I guessed that the Bengals would have a tie in 2017.
That obviously hasn't happened yet, but as we get set for what's likely the final game of the Marvin Lewis era, can you think of any outcome that would be more fitting than a tie?
A tie in football is neither very great nor very awful. When tie games happen, most people shrug their shoulders and lament that while the result could've been better, they also acknowledge that could've been worse. A tie is not that bad, but it's also not exceptionally good either. Ties are memorable yet always leave you wondering what-if.
Didn't I just kinda describe Marvin Lewis?
In what's about to be 15 seasons, Marvin has done some really good things yet he's almost more recognized for what went wrong than what didn't. He gets equal parts credit for bringing the Bengals back from the dead in 2003 and making them relevant and blame for not being able to deliver the kind of large-scale success that's eluded his tenure.
At no point over the last 15 years did it feel like the Bengals were being led by the best, most innovative, cutting edge coach in the NFL, yet any glance around the league would reveal coaches who were either less qualified, less accomplished, or even totally inept.
His best, most accomplished and memorable teams helped to author some of Marvin's most agonizing, painful losses. The credit he gets for making the Bengals relevant is offset by the blame he gets for being complicit for often making them a punchline. And his private, behind-the-scenes affability is obscured by the grumpy sourpuss he wears in many public settings.
He won more games than any coach the Bengals have ever had, yet his time here is defined by the fact that he didn't win enough.
For every good thing I can say about the Marvin Lewis tenure in Cincinnati, I can counter it by offering fair, almost impenetrable criticisms.
Marvin Lewis enters that most believe will be his final game as the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals sharing a record that's neither enviable or worth running from. He's tied with Bart Starr for the record for head coaching ties in the NFL's overtime era. Since 1974, the NFL has had 22 games end in a tie and Marvin has coached in three of them, a unique, um, accomplishment that's not really worth embracing but isn't totally embarrassing either. It's a mark that's due in part to Marvin's longevity and fitting in the fact that like a team that plays to a draw, the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals has done some good things, he just didn't do enough good things.
A record-setting tie in Marvin Lewis' 240th and final regular season game with the Bengals would feel appropriate.
Bengals 16 Ravens 16 (Cincinnati +9.5)
THERE ARE OTHER GAMES
You and I both know people who wouldn't own a week like the one I had last week, which included the awful beat in Philly, and a whole bunch of picks that have not only brought my record for the season down to 118-113-9, but made Christmas not quite as merry as it should've been. But since I'm not the kind of guy that wouldn't own a 2-12-2 week, feel free to bookmark last week's guesses when you need something to remind me that I have idea what I'm talking about, or if you just want to read about why the Bengals should call Brian Kelly.
Nothing like week 17 to make sure the regular season ends with us in the black....
Green Bay (+6) over Detroit. I can't imagine what it was like being a Lions fan watching them play last week against the Bengals. Actually, I can. But still...
Miami (+2.5) over Buffalo. God helps those of us who know a bunch of Bills fans if Buffalo gets into the playoffs.
Carolina (+4) over Atlanta. Am I nuts for leaning toward picking the Panthers to make the Super Bowl? Don't answer that.
New Orleans (-6) over Tampa Bay. Season three of "Wasting Jameis" was not fun.
Jacksonville (+3) over Tennessee. What's frustrating about watching the Bengals this season has been watching a wild card race that includes the Ravens, Titans, Bills, and Chargers, which might be the most mediocre quartet of teams one could randomly pick out of a hat. The bottom half of the AFC playoff field is going to be an abomination, and still the Bengals couldn't be in the race. This is what we'll cling to all offseason as we gauge whether the Bengals can be a playoff team in 2018.
New England (-15.5) over the Jets. Carson Wentz is getting my MVP vote that I don't have, because I watched the Eagles' offense against Oakland on Christmas night, and because I don't think it's fair to automatically eliminate a candidate just because he suffered an injury and missed the last three games.
But if the vote comes down to Todd Gurley v. Brady, then the Patriots' QB gets my vote that doesn't exist.
No knock on Gurley, who's been fantastic while putting up ridiculous numbers, but even if the MVP award does skew a little too much toward quarterbacks, Brady had put up excellent numbers while leading his team to a 12-3 record, a division title and likely the top seed in the AFC while continue to shine at the sport's most important position.
Position matters here. Quarterbacks are more valuable the running backs. It takes an Adrian Peterson 2012-type season for me to think that a back should be the most valuable player. Gurley's been great, but he's not AP from five years ago.
Indianapolis (-4.5) over Houston. One day these teams could pit a healthy Andrew Luck vs. DeShaun Watson. I look forward to that day.
Cleveland (+10.5) over Pittsburgh. I'm sorry, I just don't want the coach who's about to go 0-16 and kept insisting on devising pass-happy gameplans for an in-over-his-head rookie quarterback.
Giants (+3) over Washington. Can you come up with a less inspiring Marvin replacement candidate than Jay Gruden?
Minnesota (-11) over Chicago. If I'm a Bears fan, I'm going to be thinking about the moves my GM made to sign Mike Glennon and draft Mitchell Trubisky instead of trading for Jimmy Garoppolo for a very, very long time.
Philadelphia (-3) over Dallas. I had the Eagles minus nine, got the gift touchdown and watch Doug Pederson elect not the try the point after. Philly can't lose embarrassingly enough in the playoffs.
Chargers (-8) over Oakland. It's the battle between the team LA has and the team LA wants!
Seattle (-9) over Arizona. I'm guessing that if the Seahawks don't make the playoffs, they won't go quietly into the offseason.
Kansas City (+3) over Denver. Wait, so you can play the backup quarterback and not worry about the psyche of the starter?
San Francisco (+3) over the Rams. I can't even begin to tell you how giddy I'd be about my team's quarterback if I was Niners fan. Jimmy Garoppolo might already be my favorite NFL player and the dude has made a total of six starts. He's already the second best active, healthy quarterback in the NFC and he might be the most fun QB to watch in the entire league. I'm jealous of a team that has five wins, and nearly every owner in the NFL should be asking their GM why they don't have him.
Georgia (-2.5) over Oklahoma. Kirby Smart!
Alabama (-3) over Clemson. Nick Saban!
Thanks for reading. Happy New Year. Enjoy Marvin's first Bengals team.
(Photos: Getty Images)