CINCINNATI -- Thanks to Marvin Lewis, a generation has passed since the Cincinnati Bengals were a joke. Kids today have never heard of the "Bungles" or David Klingler or Ki-Jana Carter or Akili Smith. They couldn't fathom an NFL team missing the playoffs in 20 of 22 seasons, as the Bengals did from 1983 through 2004.
These days, the Bengals are, well, a professional football franchise. They draft good players, employ skilled coaches to develop them and are a perennial playoff contender. In January, the league stamped them with an exclusive badge: Both coordinators were hired as head coaches elsewhere. Two other teams wanted some of that Bengals magic.
"The cup now overflows with confidence here," said retired linebacker Takeo Spikes, who fled Cincinnati in 2003 but now marvels at the subsequent transformation.
This is where Marvin Lewis has brought the Bengals, through 11 painstaking years of modernization and gently tugging owner Mike Brown away from football operations. And now, in 2014, the Bengals have reached perhaps the most complex crossroads in franchise history: Just how ambitious are they? Will they reach a point when a first-round playoff loss has consequences for the man who led them into their golden age? Or would they be too scared to risk their successful perch in search of the next level?
These issues coursed through training camp during a visit to Cincinnati this week. Under Lewis, the Bengals have reached the playoffs five times, accounting for nearly half of the franchise's 12 postseason trips. They have lost in the first round on all five occasions, however, giving Lewis the unique distinction of coaching more games (176) without a playoff victory than anyone in NFL history.
So what happens now? By all accounts, the Bengals are a talented group that, despite the coordinator transition, should vie for its fourth consecutive playoff berth. Is this the year Lewis leads them deep into the postseason? And if not, will Brown react any differently than he has in the past? Should he?
Lewis is signed through the 2015 season, courtesy of a one-year extension completed this spring. Speaking to reporters last week, Brown gave no indication of impatience. Instead, he sounded an appreciative tone for Lewis' accomplishments where so many others had failed.
"Marvin's a solid coach and a good guy," Brown said. "I've gotten to know him through thick and thin. He's brought us to a good level. We're a winning team. And when you have that coach that can do that for you, I think you'd be foolish to be unsatisfied with him."
After decades of debacles, I understand why Brown is happy to not be unsatisfied. It beats an alternative he is quite familiar with. But the next step is to raise expectations for what constitutes satisfaction in Cincinnati, and now is as good of a time as any. The only NFL coach in his job longer than Lewis is Bill Belichick, who has taken the New England Patriots to five Super Bowls in 14 years and won three.
Lewis' best work in Cincinnati has taken place on a different plane. During a visit to camp Thursday, Spikes recalled his desperation to escape the Bungles. Lewis had just been hired, but Spikes didn't think he could move Brown away from day-to-day operations.
"I give Marvin a lot of credit for that," Spikes said. "He came in and built that trust factor up with Mike, and ... starting back in [the early years], he gave a little control, more, more, and then more. When I look at the roster, the roster is built not with what Mel Kiper says, not with what Mike Mayock says. It's built with football players that I've seen on tape. That's what I like about this roster. It's a bunch of players [that show up] on the tape."
According to Spikes, Lewis also raised expectations for a coaching staff that wasn't always NFL-grade.
"It used to be that you would have a head coach here or one coach [on the staff] that would have credibility," he said. "Now it's damn near the entire staff that has credibility. Proven winners. Proven teachers. That's what I see."
Lewis has charmed the Brown family, which includes Mike's daughter and heir apparent Katie Blackburn, in a way his predecessors did not.
"They have let him mold his team to his image and his vision of it," said defensive line coach Jay Hayes, who arrived with Lewis in 2003 and is a lifelong friend. "He's worked well with them and they've worked well with him."
Is that enough? Does Marvin Lewis need to start winning playoff games? Eventually, it's fair to expect it. That's how professional teams operate. Lewis has pulled the Bengals to that level. Are they satisfied simply by their transformation? We'll soon find out.