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NFL Wildcard Weekend: A Qualified Defense of Marvin Lewis

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Coaching reputation can be a funny thing. Consider, first, the Legendary Dick LeBeau, a case I’ve discussed before. As with Rex Ryan, my point here is not that LeBeau was a fraud or that his reputation was unearned. He was an influential and extremely successful defensive coordinator who presided over many outstanding defenses. But I still find it odd how unwilling football writers were to point out that he had obviously lost quite a bit of his fastball as he started pushing 80. He didn’t get nearly the criticism he deserved for his disastrous game plan in 2011 AFC Wild Card game (to make a point I’ve made before with a different stat, Tim Tebow’s QBR in his last six games as an NFL starter: 22.5, 47.7, 20.1, 3.6, 96.6, 11.6.) And as the Steelers defense sunk to the bottom of the league, he somehow managed to escape virtually any criticism. Yes, it’s true that Pittsburgh’s defensive personnel got worse, but deploying and developing talent is part of a powerful coordinator’s job. When LeBeau was at his best, the Steelers routinely turned non-premium draft picks into quality players, something LeBeau received (and deserved!) credit for. It’s not as if pointing out that he had lost effectiveness at age 75 was unusual or any particular indictment of LeBeau. I think everybody understands that just because Joe Gibbs was a great head coach in 1985 it doesn’t mean he was a great head coach in 2005. Hell, even when coaches are in their prime all but the immortals lose effectiveness over time. Andy Reid did, on balance, a very good job in Philadelphia and is doing a very good job in Kansas City, but that doesn’t mean that the Eagles were wrong to fire him. But LeBeau’s defenses continued to deteriorate, and most people looked the other way. And, certainly, whenever I brought it up here multiple people were always ready with any number of feeble excuses. And I note that having let LeBeau go, the Steeler defense improved considerably (even if you think that the jump from 30th to 11th in defensive DVOA overstates it a little.)

On the other hand, consider the distinctly non-legendary Marvin Lewis. Lewis’s rep as a DC should be at least the equal of LeBeau’s. As we discussed earlier this year, exactly one team since 1975 has one a Super Bowl with a below-average QB. Lewis was the DC for that team, and was obviously the most important coach on that championship team. Brian Billick, the alleged offensive guru who never built a particularly good offense, was never hired again although all three of his DCs got head coaching jobs, and two still have them. The last time I brought this up, a commenter repeated what Billick has repeatedly said about this — the right job never came along, he didn’t get the money he was looking for, etc. But of course this is all just another way of saying that there wasn’t much demand for his services. If, say, Pete Carroll were to resign, I’m pretty confident someone would meet his price. If Belichick hit the open market he could secure enough money to buy every middle-aged single woman in the United States a condo. Hell, Bruce Arians is 63-year-old with zero playoff wins as an NFL head coach, and he could pretty much write his own ticket if he left Arizona. (While we’re here, I can’t resist noting that while the Steelers kept LeBeau several years past his sell-by date, they did fire Arians for not being GROUND AND POUND enough. Supergenius!)

And as a head coach, Lewis has done a very solid job. 112-92 is a good record, and he’s just been to the playoffs for the 5th consecutive year with Andy Dalton as his QB. And I think he’s been better than his record. It’s easy to forget just how dysfunctional the Bengals were when Lewis took over. Just ask Lewis’s predecessor…the Legendary Dick LeBeau (TM), who went 12-33 and survived with his reputation almost entirely intact. Lewis is a good coach. Not a great coach — he does need to get some playoff wins under his belt — but a good one.

All of this makes tonight’s game interesting. Lewis deserves criticism for his playoff goose egg, but he’s also been snakebit, from Carson Palmer’s first play career-derailing injury to the ridiculously decimated lineup he had last year. And his bad luck continues — Dalton takes a big leap forward and then gets hurt. And he didn’t catch any breaks with his matchup either, getting Pittsburgh’s potentially terrifying passing offense. But to be consistent with my Lewis apologism, I’m going to say that the market is overreacting slightly. The #7 DVOA team should probably be favored over the #2 DVOA team without its QB on a neutral field. But 3 on the road seems like a lot, especially since I’m not sure how healthy Roethlisberger (who was unimpressive in two must-win games against bad teams to close the season) is. Plus, while I do think Pittsburgh’s defense is improved you probably think that #11 DVOA doesn’t really pass the smell test and I’m inclined to agree. (I mean, Ryan Mallet throwing to a bunch of taxi squadders moved the ball all day on them.) I don’t know if the Bengals can win with A.J. but I’ll be rooting for ’em. And if I were betting I’d take the points. BENGALS +3

KANSAS CITY (-3 1/2) OVER HOUSTON: Whaddya know, it’s a rare success for the Belichick coaching tree. (At the NFL level, I mean — the situation in minor league peonage football is obviously better.) O’Brien makes the playoffs (albeit in a hideous division) without a QB to speak of, and after a rough start Crenell has really whipped the defense into shape. But Brian Hoyer is still Brian Hoyer, and the Chiefs might be the best team in the conference going into the playoffs. And while (as with Lewis) you do worry about Andy’s in game management, he’s won ten playoff games in 20 tries, and I think he goes back over .500 with relative ease here.

SEATTLE (-3 1/2) OVER MINNESOTA Congratulations to Seattle, DVOA champion for the 4th year in a row! In all seriousness, I don’t think their narrow edge over Arizona proves they were a better team than the team that finished 3 games ahead of them playing a similar schedule, and the ratings are definitely reading too much into Week 17. I am pretty confident, however, that the Seahawks are a substantially better team than the improving Vikings and match up well against them, even if the game earlier this year overstates it. Oh, and damn right Russell Wilson should be getting a lot more MVP buzz than he’s getting.

WASHINGTON (-1) OVER GREEN BAY I’m of two minds here. My brusque dismissal of Kirk Cousins has…not aged well, and while I don’t really believe it his numbers are pretty much unassailable this year. Maybe he’s shed his pickitis for good. On the other hand, but maybe it will reassert itself at the worst possible time (ask a Jets fan.) And it will take more than a 16 game sample to show me that Cousins is anywhere near as good as Aaron Rodgers. On the first hand, we’re not evaluating QBs in a vaccum — give Rodgers Reed and Jackson and Garcon and he’d look a lot better. (Speaking of things I was wrong about: being dismissive about the impact of the Nelson injury.) And while Jay Gruden is unproven as a postseason game manager, Mike McCarthy is proven. Advantage: Racial Slurs. I don’t want to see Dan Snyder in the second round, either, but I will reluctantly choose them here.

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