The NFL is not generally a league that tolerates stasis. This is a sport whose ethos is based on the notion of ruthless advancement: On both a metaphoric and a literal level, the idea is to plunder for more and more territory until there is no more territory left to claim. If you fail to do so, you are probably going to be unemployed.
All of which brings us to the curious case of the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals are 4-0 after yesterday’s win over the Kansas City Chiefs, which may feel familiar because it is familiar. This is what the Bengals do – they look good until they don’t look good anymore, especially around the time the playoffs begin. But a quarter of the way through the season, this iteration of the Bengals once again appears to be a very good team with a quarterback, Andy Dalton, who’s always bounced around in that soft median between “potentially great” and “why is this guy still employed?” Now Dalton, in his fifth professional season, is playing with more confidence than he ever has before: Through his first four games, he has the second-highest quarterback rating in the league, behind Aaron Rodgers, and has thrown nine touchdown passes and only one interception.
This is Marvin Lewis’ 13th season as the head coach of the Bengals; he is the second-longest tenured coach in the NFL behind Bill Belichick. Belichick, of course, has won four Super Bowls; the third-longest tenured coach, Tom Coughlin, has won two and the fourth, fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-longest tenured coaches (Mike McCarthy, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh) have each won one. And yet Lewis has not won a Super Bowl. Far from it: Lewis hasn’t even won a single playoff game.
In six of his seasons, Lewis’s teams have made the playoffs, and in each of those seasons, they’ve lost the AFC Wild Card game. It is a remarkable stretch of symmetry, the kind of repetitive failure that is generally not tolerated in a league that demands immediate results. But somehow, largely due to the overarching largesse of Bengals owner Mike Brown, Lewis has survived. Somehow, he’s kept going in spite of his inability to advance, in spite of the fact that it often feels like the Bengals (who haven’t won a playoff game since 1991) are treading water, as if they’re continually banging their heads against some impenetrable glass ceiling.
How many times have overzealous talk-radio callers actively wondered whether Dalton was good enough to be an “elite” NFL quarterback? How many times has the outside world presumed that Brown would let go of his penchant for loyalty and finally fire Lewis? But then, maybe this is what the Bengals represent: Maybe they are a bottom-line professional sports league’s last bastion of patience.
In a way, I suppose, what’s happening in Cincinnati is a fascinating retrograde experiment. One of the common complaints about the modern NFL – hell, about modern professional sports as whole – is that no one takes the long view, that the argument model inherent to sports media has engendered a demand for immediate results. And yet in the midst of all that, here are the Bengals, who have stuck with Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis despite having every reason to give up on both of them.
Does this mean it’s going to work out for the Bengals this time around? I have no idea. But given the inherent weaknesses of every other team in the AFC North this season, the Bengals finally have a chance to win the division and avoid the Wild Card game that has proven their white whale. So maybe this is Marvin Lewis’ best team yet, but it’s always hard to tell with the Bengals – it’s hard to know whether this is an admirable display of patience or a textbook display of insanity. Next Sunday, the Bengals host the Seahawks, which ought to go a long way toward determining whether these Bengals are finally something different from the team that’s been locked in the same inescapable time loop for more than a decade.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games, now out in paperback. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb