With the season well over, it’s easier to assess the Bengals’ coaches performance over it without any late recency bias. I’ll attempt to do that here.
Grading scale is simple – A through F, you know which end is good and which isn’t. There’s no exact science to this, so I’ll invoke what best represents the grade I chose. This will cover the main coaching positions – head coach, offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator. If the Bengals had a clear front office chain of command, their leader in that department would be here as well. That said, they don’t. Simple enough.
So, the four major coaches from the 2017 Bengals: Marvin Lewis, Ken Zampese, Bill Lazor, and Paul Guenther.
Marvin Lewis – Head Coach
Lewis’ is a hard grade to figure. Grades are relative, informed by the grades of other inputs and benchmark values on a scale. That’s why groups of similar things – such as first-year coaches, as far as football – are so often rated together. Sean McVay’s impact in Los Angeles is the golden standard; the others are graded by how they compare to him.
As far as the sheer length of Lewis’ tenure in Cincinnati, the head coach is lacking for peers. Bill Belichick’s tenure is similarly long (since 2000), but saying Lewis doesn’t stack up to Belichick would be insultingly uninformative. Andy Reid, between his tenures in Philadelphia and Kansas City, has been a head coach every year since 1999. The next-longest tenures to Lewis’ belong to Mike McCarthy and Sean Payton, who’ve held their current positions since 2006.
Of those five men, Lewis and McCarthy are the easy ones to peg for the two worst 2017 seasons. Both went 7-9, although McCarthy’s loss of quarterback Aaron Rodgers is more notable than any obstacle Lewis’ Bengals faced. Some would say that absolves McCarthy of wrongdoing. Others (including myself) would say it incriminates him in wrongdoing that Rodgers’ presence covered up. The Packers, despite McCarthy’s twelve years at the helm and extensive quarterback background, looked lost at sea without Rodgers.
With McCarthy in place as the bottom of the group, how does Lewis measure up? Not particularly better. The Bengals coach went 4-4 in one-score games. They went 3-5 in the other eight games, but that would’ve been 1-5 if Cleveland didn’t have a team. The third win, against the Lions, came after the Bengals’ playoff elimination.
The preceding two weeks – in the crucible of the Bengals’ schedule – they lost by a combined 14-67 to the Bears and Vikings. Coming off an emotional but close loss against the Steelers on Monday Night, no team looked more pathetic the following week than the Bengals did against Chicago. In such a stretch, Lewis’ ability as a senior head coach to steady his ship should be apparent. Instead, it appeared he couldn’t.
Ken Zampese – Offensive Coordinator (Weeks 1-2)
It’s hard to find a more concise definition of failing in a season than getting fired two weeks in. That’s where Zampese found himself in 2017. Including him in this exercise might be a gratuity to the other coaches, but he was among them regardless. He’ll get a grade and explanation.
Here’s a fact: the Bengals opened the season with two home games and scored a touchdown in neither. Here’s another fact: the last team to do that was the 1939 Philadelphia Eagles.
The fault with Zampese, as some would tell it, was that he tried to do too much. He didn’t focus the offense around the best available players, or define Andy Dalton’s reads. A.J. Green quipped after the second game that he needed to be involved in the offense more. Tyler Eifert, active for those two games, only received five targets. The group’s expansive scheme on offense came at the cost of their having a clear identity. They weren’t a jack of all trades, master of none – they were just bad at everything.
The results certainly back up that account. Mike Brown never signed off on a mid-season coordinator firing before, yet Week 2 came and Ken Zampese went. Truly, the ‘F’ grade has never had a more worthy recipient.
Bill Lazor – Offensive Coordinator (Weeks 3-17)
The one-week turnaround from Zampese to Lazor felt massive for the Bengals in the moment. Heading into Lambeau Field, an offense that went without a touchdown through two games found one on their opening drive. Joe Mixon, who’d sparsely seen the field behind both Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard, totaled 21 touches. A.J. Green, fresh off commenting that he needed the ball more, caught ten passes for 111 yards and a score. The Bengals ultimately lost that game in overtime, 24-27, but the offense wasn’t held liable.
The reality wasn’t nearly as nice – the Bengals earned one of their touchdowns in that game on a pick-six, and the offense slowed in the second half. That was a problem that came up for them throughout the year, although whether that’s on Lazor or Lewis’ game management is debatable.
For Lazor’s part, the offensive coordinator spent the whole year scheming around a subpar line, without every having access to Tyler Eifert or John Ross. Green, the presumed star of the team, was given every chance to be – and sometimes disappeared. Mixon, the only other truly dynamic talent Lazor had available, sometimes had the kind of game rookies have. In that same Green Bay game, Mixon fumbled a handoff in a critical situation.
As a whole? Lazor didn’t have the kind of season that would invite head coach calls – teams need to be successful for that. But he clearly knew how to do his job. Dalton looks comfortable in the offense, having stretches where he looked like his 2015 incarnation. He took contingency players like Tyler Kroft and made them look sufficient as long-term starters, with some extraordinary weeks.
If the Bengals had to lose one coordinator this offseason, it’s fortunate that Guenther left and not Lazor.
Paul Guenther – Defensive Coordinator
You know why the Bengals lost that game against Green Bay that was mentioned a bit ago?
Some guy named Geronimo Allison was allowed to catch six passes for 122 yards. That looks substantially better when you realize 72 yards of that came on one catch in overtime, but… it doesn’t.
Overtime, and the defense is giving up 72 yards on one play to Geronimo Allison? It’s one thing to let your opponent’s best players beat you. That happens regularly in the NFL, it’s the primary enforcer of parity among teams with at least two special players. The Packers have players like that – and they’re harder to stop when Aaron Rodgers is on the field. Allison isn’t one of those players. Rodgers had too much time to throw, and Allison was streaking down the left sideline with Adam Jones five yards behind him.
Specific calls aside, Guenther didn’t field a unit good at either stopping the run or taking the ball away. The Bengals conceded 2,046 yards on the ground in 2017 – the third-highest mark in the NFL. Their 19 takeaways isn’t terrible in a vacuum, but it’s not great and wasn’t good enough to compensate. It didn’t match the level of talent that the Bengals had on the unit, which was good-to-great on every level except linebacker (especially when Vontaze Burfict left the field).
In fairness, Guenther wasn’t the worst defensive coach in the world. His body of work in Cincinnati got him employed in Oakland. But the Bengals stood to gain a lot by entering the market, and they should improve with Teryl Austin in the fold.