As the coach of the defending champion of what may be football's toughest division, Marvin Lewis has plenty on his mind before the 2-2 Cincinnati Bengals enjoy their bye week. Heading into their home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Lewis is trying to figure out a way to keep pace with the Baltimore Ravens (3-1) and Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1).
One potential distraction, however, is Lewis' unsettled contract situation: Twelve weeks from now (or longer, if the Bengals return to the playoffs), the eighth-year head coach might be saying goodbye.
Now in the final year of the five-year extension he and Bengals owner Mike Brown negotiated after the 2005 season, Lewis is a potential lame duck as a possible work-stoppage looms. The timing is especially curious given that Lewis is the reigning NFL coach of the year, having guided Cincinnati to a surprising AFC North title last season, his second division crown in five seasons for a franchise that, before his arrival, hadn't made the playoffs since 1990.
"He's done so much to change the atmosphere around here, and we really value him as a coach," Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer(notes) says of Lewis. "I'm not really thinking about Marvin's contract situation – I'm pretty much just focused on football – but it would be great if they got something done."
Both Lewis and Brown declined to comment, but two sources familiar with the situation indicated that there have been no serious negotiations on a new deal. Late this summer, Brown approached Lewis with an informal offer to extend his deal at what is essentially his current salary, a pay level characterized by a source familiar with NFL coaching salaries as ranking somewhere in the middle of the league and substantially less than the average of head coaches on their second contracts with their respective teams.
Though Lewis is represented by Octagon, and the respected agency's president of athletes and personalities, Phil de Picciotto, is personally handling negotiations, Brown has thus far been unwilling to engage in formal discussions. (De Picciotto also declined to comment.)
Like Carolina Panthers coach John Fox, who is also in the final year of his contract, Lewis would likely attract interest from other NFL teams were he to hit the open market. But whereas Fox is reportedly earning more than $6 million in 2010, Lewis is far lower on the food chain, commanding an annual salary somewhere in the $3.5-$4.5 million range.
To put it in a perspective, one of the aforementioned sources said Lewis makes significantly less per season than two other peers who have not yet taken their teams to Super Bowls, the Jaguars' Jack del Rio and the Packers' Mike McCarthy. Lewis has a 58-57-1 regular season record and is 0-2 in the postseason, with only two losing seasons in his tenure.
After Lewis, a highly successful defensive coordinator for the Ravens and Redskins, signed his original four-year contract in January of 2003, Brown made a habit of adding additional years to the pact. He and Lewis negotiated one-year extensions following the '03 and '04 seasons and, after the Bengals won the division title in '05, the deal was extended through 2010. The two sides restructured the contract following the '07 season, but no additional years were added and the total dollar value remained essentially unchanged.
Though the Browns have a reputation for frugality, Lewis enjoys coaching in Cincinnati and appreciates benefits such as a fully funded pension plan, no-cost health coverage and an unlimited budget to hire assistant coaches. However, people close to Lewis say he believes the Bengals' lack of an indoor practice facility causes a competitive disadvantage late in the season, and he will likely push for the construction of a practice bubble should negotiations intensify.
"I don't know the specifics of Marvin's situation, and I'm sure he's looking for a great deal, but I think most of all he's about winning," Palmer says. "He wants us to win, and he wants to give us any edge he can.
"It would be nice to have a bubble, especially when it gets late in the season, or when we get to the playoffs, and we have to play in a warm place like San Diego or in [an indoor stadium] like Indy. Especially if we go to an 18-game season and we play later into the year – it would be really great to have the option to have practices indoors. When the weather's lousy outside, it's tough for us to get quality practices in."
In the past the Bengals have traveled 20 minutes each way via bus to an indoor training complex in Mason, Ohio, sometimes in rush-hour traffic, but this is not considered a logistically preferable option. Most NFL teams in cold-weather cities have on-site indoor facilities, with the Redskins – Lewis' prior coaching stop – joining the Bengals as notable exceptions.
"I'm not exactly sure why we don't have one," Palmer says. "You hear various rumors about why we don't – there's something about who owns the land around our facility. But that's the way it is. We just have to make the best of it."
In the meantime, Lewis is trying to make the best of what may be his final season in Cincinnati. The next move, by all indications, is up to Brown.