CINCINNATI -- The surprise isn't that Marvin Lewis is gone, but that it took so long for the Bengals to make the change.
Lewis arrived in 2003 and elevated one of the NFL's most forlorn franchises to respectability, but couldn't take it to the next level. He was fired Monday after his 16th season of failing to win a playoff game.
Now, owner Mike Brown will decide whether to bring in an outsider who will shake things up, or stay the course with someone who is familiar.
"I didn't deliver what the No. 1 goal is, and that's to be world champions, and we did not get that done," Lewis said at a news conference. "A lot of positives, but that's the one goal as a coach you look forward to doing. Mike and I both decided it's time. I think it's a tough moment for both of us, but we both realized."
Lewis' departure ends the second-longest active coaching tenure in the NFL . New England's Bill Belichick is wrapping up his 19th season with another postseason berth. He's won five Super Bowls and made eight appearances in the title game, both NFL records.
By contrast, Lewis leaves Cincinnati with a postseason record of 0-7, the worst in NFL history. The Bengals haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, tied with Washington for the fifth-longest futility in league history.
A third straight losing season punctuated by plummeting attendance prompted the change-resistant owner to cut ties with Lewis.
The Bengals (6-10) lost in Pittsburgh 16-13 on Sunday — their eighth straight defeat against their AFC North rival — and finished last in the division for only the second time under Lewis. Attendance at Paul Brown Stadium has fallen to second-lowest in the league, ahead of only the Los Angeles Chargers, who are playing in a small, temporary stadium.
The empty seats were undoubtedly one of the factors. Cincinnati averaged 50,753 fans, the third straight year with a notable decline. Brown said before the start of training camp that he was keenly aware of fans' growing animosity and indifference.
Brown didn't appear with Lewis on Monday. He said in a statement that he's "very fond of Marvin."
"But it is time to turn the page and look toward the next chapter for our organization, and we are excited about what the future holds for the team and our fans," Brown said.
Lewis lobbied Monday for Hue Jackson to get an interview for the job. Lewis hired Jackson, a close friend, as a special assistant after he was fired by the Browns in October.
"I think he's more than qualified," Lewis said. "I think he's been in a couple of difficult situations (in Oakland and Cleveland) and that's tough, and it hasn't broke his way. But I think he's an excellent football coach, he's a great motivator, he's detailed. So I think he deserves an opportunity, if not here somewhere else."
Jackson walked through the locker room on Monday on his way to the dining room and declined interviews.
"I'm going to lunch," he said.
As Jackson ate with other staff members, a big-screen television on the wall was tuned to a station recapping the firings around the league. It was odd for players to think of someone else as the head coach.
"Me growing up here, that's all I knew since I was 10 years old," said 26-year-old linebacker Preston Brown, a Cincinnati native. "It's kind of a surreal moment to see right now that he's not here anymore. I mean, he's part of Cincinnati. To have him gone is a big shock to me."
Lewis has readily acknowledged he wouldn't have lasted so long anywhere else. The owner's well-known loyalty provided second, third, and ultimately a 16th chance in a what-have-you-done-this-year league. He leaves as the franchise's leader in coaching tenure, wins and losses with a record of 131-129-3.
Lewis was a rare hire from outside the organization when Brown brought him aboard in 2003, three years after he helped Baltimore win a Super Bowl. He made a glittery arrival, flashing his diamond-encrusted Ravens Super Bowl ring at his introductory news conference.
He quickly turned the downtrodden Bengals into a competitive team, and then a playoff team. Lewis couldn't win a playoff game, though.
The Bengals made a club-record five straight playoff appearances from 2011-15, but lost in the first round every time, setting an NFL record for ineffectiveness. His best chance was frittered away by two players who were brought to Cincinnati in spite of their history of outbursts.
Leading the Steelers in the closing minutes during the playoffs after the 2015 season, Lewis' team had one of the worst meltdowns in NFL history. Jeremy Hill's fumble gave the Steelers one last chance, and Vontaze Burfict and Adam "Pacman" Jones got 15-yard penalties that set up the Steelers' field goal with 14 seconds left for an 18-16 win.
The Bengals sparked hope of a turnaround this season with a 4-1 start, but a historically bad defense undercut it. Lewis fired coordinator Teryl Austin at midseason, and Cincinnati finished the season by dropping nine of its last 11 games in what amounted to Lewis' final chance.
"It's been a lot," Lewis said. "This season's been a lot."
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