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If I throw a spiral, I pledge to use one challenge in the first quarter

If I throw a spiral, I pledge to use one challenge in the first quarter.

Marvin Lewis has coached the Bengals for ten seasons. To his credit, Lewis has helped resurrect the worst franchise of the 1990s; on the other hand, Lewis has not won a playoff game in ten years with the Bengals. That’s unheard of in this era where coaches are expected to win and win big right away. No other active coach has gone even five straight seasons with his current franchise without a playoff victory. At the end of the 2012 year, four coaches — Andy Reid in Philadelphia, Jim Schwartz in Detroit, and Norv Turner in San Diego — had gone four straight years, and Reid and Turner were both fired after the season. Schwartz was given a longer leash after he inherited an 0-16 team, but he is now on the hot seat. Only three others coaching at the end of 2012 had gone even three straight years for the same team without a playoff win — Buffalo’s Chan Gailey, Mike Shanahan in Washington, and Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona. Shanahan made the playoffs last year but lost, while Gailey and Whisenhunt were both replaced.1

Prior to the Super Bowl era, there was only one playoff game a year (other than playoff games to break ties). Since 1966, Lewis is one of just two coaches to coach one team for a decade and fail to win a playoff game.2 The 11th, the elder Jim Mora, was fired by the New Orleans Saints in his 11th year after a 2-6 start. The table below shows each coach since 1966 who was the head coach for the same team for five straight years and failed to win a playoff game during that stretch. The “First Yr” and “Last Yr” columns show the first and last years of the streaks, not of the coach’s tenure. Coaches who were fired in the middle of their last season are marked by an asterisk, while coaches whose reign started in mid-season (but who are treated as if they coached the entire season) are marked with a “+” sign.

CoachTmFirst YrLast Yr# Sea
Jim Mora*nor1986199611
Marvin Lewiscin2003201210
Don Shulamia197419818
Paul Browncin196819758
Jeff Fisheroti200420107
Chuck Knoxsea198519917
Sam Rutigliano*cle197819847
Monte Clarkdet197819847
Jack Patera*sea197619827
Bart Starrgnb197519817
Norm Van Brocklin*+atl196819747
Jon Grudentam200320086
Brian Billickrav200220076
Mike Holmgrensea199920046
Mike Shanahanden199920046
Ron Meyer*+clt198619916
Tom Landrydal198319886
Jim Hanifancrd198019856
Chuck Fairbanksnwe197319786
Joe Schmidtdet196719726
John Foxcar200620105
Gary Kubiakhtx200620105
Marty Schottenheimersdg200220065
Jim Haslettnor200120055
Dick Vermeilkan200120055
Dick Jauronchi199920035
Bruce Coslet*+cin199620005
Jeff Fisher+oti199419985
Marty Schottenheimerkan199419985
Norv Turnerwas199419985
David Shula*cin199219965
Wayne Fontesdet199219965
Dennis Greenmin199219965
Buddy Ryanphi198619905
Bum Phillips*nor198119855
Dan Reevesden198119855
John McKaytam198019845
Marv Levykan197819825
Walt Michaelsnyj197719815
Ted Marchibrodaclt197519795
Tommy Prothro*sdg197419785
George Allenwas197319775
Don Coryellcrd197319775
Lou Saban*buf197219765
John Ralstonden197219765
Hank Stramkan197019745
Weeb Ewbanknyj196919735
Alex Websternyg196919735
Lou Saban*den196719715
George Allenram196619705
Wally Lemmoti196619705
Charley Winnercrd196619705

Obviously Shula and Brown had extenuating circumstances. For Shula, he took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in ’71, ’72, and ’73, winning the championship in the last two of those years. No one would have predicted that he would then experience an eight-year drought in the playoffs, but he had built up more than enough equity to keep his job. In the case of Brown, not only was he an NFL legend, but he brought the Bengals into existence and was the team’s very first coach. He was also the owner, and retired after 1975.

Mora’s tenure with the Saints serves as a solid comparison. Like Lewis, he had built a reputation as a talented defensive coach, and Mora took his team to the USFL Championship Game in all three years of the league’s existence. Mora’s team won the USFL title in ’84 and ’85, and then — like Lewis — was asked to turn around one of the league’s perpetual doormats, the Saints. He took the Saints to the playoffs four times and revived the franchise, but was fired in his eleventh season at the age of 61. At 55, Lewis is a bit younger, but this appears to be a make-or-break season for him with the Bengals. Since 1991, every team in the NFL has won a playoff game except for the Bengals. Cincinnati had one of the youngest teams in the league last year, added weapons Tyler Eifert and Gio Bernard in the NFL Draft, and are perhaps the third-best team in a watered down AFC. The Bengals have made the playoffs the last two years, but will 2013 be the year the streak ends?

  1. Jason Garrett and Leslie Frazier technically meet the requirement, too, but they only coached for the second half of the season in 2010. []
  2. If you want to look before the Super Bowl era, there were two longer streaks. Steve Owen was the Giants head coach from 1931 to 1953. He compiled a 151-100-17 record and won two championships with New York, but those were the only two seasons he won a playoff game. The last fifteen years of his coaching career he did not win a playoff game. Bears owner/coach George Halas did not win a playoff game from 1947 to 1962. That was a stretch of fourteen seasons (he did not coach in ’56 or ’57), and it only included one playoff loss. []
  • Shattenjager

    You didn’t count Garrett as having three years because he only coached the second half of 2010, but Leslie Frazier only coached the last six games of 2010 as well. Is that a mistake or am I missing something?

    • Chase Stuart

      Good catch. I’ve updated the post, which now makes Lewis look even worse.

  • Richie

    This is a fun list. Unless I missed somebody, I count 4 coaches on this list who eventually made it to a Super Bowl (all lost). Shula, Holmgren, Fisher and Levy.

    Do coaches generally get fired for not winning playoff games, or not making the playoffs, or not winning enough regular season games?

    I’m sure part of it is expectations. The Bengals were so bad for a decade, that having them be a fairly competitive team for most of Lewis’ tenure seems like an improvement.

    But I wonder if this list is a little more about the randomness of playoffs. In order for a coach to last 5+ years without winning a playoff games means he’s doing something right, to get him the opportunities. Most coaches who coach well enough during the regular season to last 10 years, will probably end up winning a playoff game because they probably made 3 or 4 playoffs at least.

  • Do coaches generally get fired for not winning playoff games, or not making the playoffs, or not winning enough regular season games?

  • “Since 1966, Lewis is one of just two coaches to coach one team for a decade and fail to take them to the playoffs.” You must mean without winning a playoff game. Both Lewis and Mora took their teams to the playoffs multiple times.