The depressing circumstances surrounding the Bengals were in Cincinnati long before Marvin Lewis arrived in town. Their record is 114-194 since 1989 entering Sunday's game at Dallas. They've made a grand total of two playoff appearances in the past two decades. Their present coach is responsible for one of them, and -- this is important, folks! -- his 42-42 record makes him one of three coaches in the franchise's 41-year history to sniff at having a winning record.
For the moment.
That last part is very interesting because the Bengals (0-4 this season) should have been better in his five-plus years as their coach. That they have not been painfully illuminates the likelihood of Lewis' imminent departure, no matter what he says.
"I'm comfortable with my situation here, the people here," Lewis said before the Bengals lost to the Cleveland Browns this past weekend. "We've had a lot of injuries before the season. A lot of things happen to this franchise. Nobody hates losing more than me, but the folks here know the situation. I'm comfortable saying that."
He has a point. Lewis isn't the one making the executive decisions. Electing to bring back troubled wide receiver Chris Henry (that was owner Mike Brown's call) or adding temperamental running back Cedric Benson to an already-volatile roster is not something he should worry about having his name attached to. But there's still a debacle in Cincinnati, and for all intents and purposes, he's the ringleader.
What else is one to think when a litany of arrests involving Bengals players (10 in a 14-month span that began in April 2006) occur? Or when Chad Johnson catches a grand total of one touchdown pass one-quarter through the 2008 season after changing his last name and swearing that Cincinnati needed to change its ways?
After Sunday's loss to Cleveland, the Bengals ranked 30th in the NFL in points per game (13.0) and 31st in yards accumulated (231.8). Only the Browns are worse in the latter department. And although Cincinnati ranks 19th in the NFL in total defense, the team is 28th against the run, yielding 164.3 yards per game.
Lewis should know a thing or two about defenses because that's how he ended up becoming only the eighth black head coach in NFL history in 2003. His offense should be potent because he has one of the best trios in the NFL.
But nothing seems to work right now. Doesn't seem as if it's about to, either. So what purpose does Lewis serve, really?
"It's always about winning, but things get in the way sometimes," Lewis said, certainly sounding calmer than most Bengals fans. "Injuries. The lack of chemistry it causes. The list goes on and on. But all you can do is keep your head up, keep working and know that you have the pieces in place to be better than what we are. I believe this team can win."
One can assume that those are the kinds of speeches Lewis gives to his team. It's also safe to assume that's what Johnson was alluding to months ago when he said, "They don't work. I'm tired of hearing the same speech every year."
Understand that Lewis' situation isn't just about football anymore, nor is it about the one season in which he was better than 8-8. It's about what his presence in Cincinnati represents now.
Back in 2003, Lewis was the resident Golden Boy. The Rooney Rule (put in place to ensure that blacks would at least be interviewed for jobs) was en vogue. Lewis was a stalwart defensive coordinator, and players and contemporaries alike sung his praises and lauded his ability to lead men.
But five years later, Lewis is clinging to his job, with Henry destined to cement his demise.
Let's count the ways:
• Since the Bengals drafted Henry, he has been arrested five times for violations such as possession of marijuana, possession of a concealed firearm, improper exhibition of a firearm, aggravated assault with a firearm and assault.
• The NFL has suspended Henry three times -- for four games in 2006, eight games in 2007 and four games this season -- for violating the league's personal-conduct and substance-abuse policies.
And he's only one player. Yet he's a player whom Lewis reportedly did not want back. A player whom one local judge reportedly labeled a "one-man crime wave."
We haven't even mentioned the other nine players arrested. Why? "It doesn't matter now," Lewis deadpanned. "You move forward. You have to."
Lewis is the coach who has been associated with undisciplined, lawless behavior. The coach who seemed devoid of the control needed to steer this franchise in the right direction at a pivotal juncture. Although it might be totally unfair, it isn't far-fetched to believe that Lewis' lack of control could dissuade owners from hiring black coaches, simply because the very presence of the Rooney Rule highlights their apprehension for doing so.
Browns coach Romeo Crennel, on a hot seat of his own after his team's 1-3 start, said he hopes there won't be an impact on other black coaches. "Certainly, you're human. So thoughts cross your mind as to what can or will happen," he said. "But we all work hard. We all try our best, especially Marvin Lewis, I can tell you that. And no matter what happens to one individual, I'd like to think it's not a reflection on everyone."
But the Rooney Rule exists for a reason. At the time Lewis got the job, Tony Dungy (Colts) and Herm Edwards (Jets) were the only black coaches in the NFL. Blacks were begging for fair treatment. They lamented the fact that since Fritz Pollard's hiring in 1921, only four others (Art Shell, Denny Green, Ray Rhodes and Dungy) had been in power before the turn of the century.
The belief was that a greater expectation was placed on black coaches. It was assumed that their cachet revolved around being father figures, not just football coaches, to a generation of younger black minds starving for guidance. The standard, while deemed unfair, was real, discussed and, ultimately, embraced.
So as Lewis' star descends before our very eyes -- in the unflattering scenery of police blotters, court appearances and escalating gridiron ineptitude -- what now?
There are six black coaches in the NFL this season. Judging by the Bengals' 0-4 start, it'll be five by the end of the season barring a turnaround.
And when -- more than "if" right now -- that happens, instead of mumblings about losses and the need for a new coach, perhaps a bevy of owners will say, "These are not the kinds of results we expected. Maybe we should go back to the good ol' days."
The response won't be, "Why are they doing this?" Instead it will be, "What took them so long?"
And what could anyone say, really? Especially in Cincinnati right now.
Stephen A. Smith is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.