Hell Is Marvin Lewis: An Open Letter To Zac Taylor
1:00 PM EST on December 29, 2022
Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jamboroo runs every Thursday at Defector during the NFL season. Got something you wanna contribute? Email the Roo. And buy Drew’s book, The Night The Lights Went Out, through here.
Drew is out this week, so filling in for him is Will Sennett, who you may know as the creator of the legendary TikTok about striking out Timothee Chalamet on three pitches. He is also a podcast host and a diehard Bengals fan.
It is Dec. 24, 2022. We almost just blew a 22-point lead against the Patriots. Which is fine, because I actually wanted to spend Christmas Eve pacing around my living room with my hands on my head saying stuff like “Jesus Christ,” and “Of course. Oh yeah. Of course,” over and over. But we won. That’s seven in a row. We are grooving. We are hot at the right time. We look like legit contenders. And for most of this season, I wanted you fired.
I know. I know. You took my team to the Super Bowl last year for the first time in over 30 years, and I want you gone? That’s insane. I agree. I am insane. I am insane because as a Bengals fan, I have not been afforded the luxury of sanity. I don’t have an argument for this. I have emotional appeals based on experiences that I am going to try to walk you through. This is not a defense of my opinion, it is simply an attempt to explain where it comes from. This is the story of a life spent in the middle. My testimony as witness to a dynasty of mediocrity.
It is Sept. 11, 2022, NFL Week 1 in Cincinnati. I am tailgating outside the stadium with my dad, my brother Luke, and my best friend Corey. It's 11 a.m. I’ve had five Miller Lites. I am dialed in. In four hours, I get to see the Bengals play the Steelers. Everybody in this parking lot is fired up. That's because the Cincinnati football Bengals are good. Actually good. We went to the Super Bowl last year, and this year we’re going to be even better. In exactly 120 seconds, I am going to go pee for the seventh time in 90 minutes and vape so my dad won't see. I am in heaven.
Four hours later, I am in hell. We just lost to Mitch Trubisky. Joe Burrow threw four interceptions. Evan McPherson missed two game-winning field goals. The expensive offensive line we spent a billion dollars on in the offseason just let Burrow get sacked seven times. I send my ninth "I’m going to kill myself" text of the day and then I turn to Luke and tell him I want you gone.
Zac, to understand me you must first understand that my experience as a fan of professional football has mostly been really bad. I have lived a very long 27 years in which I have become deeply intimate with the cruelty of false hope and the agony of having real hope torn away from me suddenly and violently. I am like Sisyphus, but instead of rolling a rock up a hill I'm forced to eat the biggest poop of all time every single day. All this is happening to me because I was dumb enough to be born in southern Ohio.
It's Feb. 22, 2022. Matthew Stafford is kneeling the ball. The Rams are about to win the Super Bowl. But it’s OK. We’re young. We are way ahead of schedule. And we almost won! There was more than one reason why we lost (There were five reasons! Hello offensive line from last year! This is a direct threat on your lives! Joking!), but we can fix all of those with a good offseason. When the final whistle blows I stand up in my parents’ living room and try to say, "Hey, this sucks but we’ll be back." But no words come out. My throat is closing up, and my stomach is starting to hurt. I realize I am afraid. Then I remember why.
It's Jan. 1, 2006. I'm 10 years old, sitting at a booth in a sports bar called Willie's. If you grew up in a small town, you know this bar. It’s in a strip mall next to a Kroger. The food absolutely sucks. People are smoking outside, but an inch from the door so 90 percent of the smoke is getting inside. There are multiple kids with nosebleeds running around. It’s the best place in the world. On this day, the Bengals are playing a Wild Card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s my first Bengals playoff experience, and we are good. Former No. 1 overall pick Carson Palmer has ascended, throwing for 32 touchdowns and nearly 4,000 yards (which today would be like throwing for nearly 100 million yards). Most of those yards went to our dynamic trio of receivers: soccer fan Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, and the late Chris Henry. Rudi Johnson rumbled for nearly 1,500 rushing yards. It sounds like there are a thousand people in this bar. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Here we go.
Pretty crazy, right, Zac? The parallels between you guys and this team? Heisman-winning first overall pick coming into his own, three-headed monster receiving corps, bruiser in the backfield, etc. Not to get ahead of myself, but we might have a bit of sustained success on our hands.
It’s 20 minutes later. Willie's is dead silent. Chris Henry just caught a 50-yard bomb on our second play from scrimmage, but it's like someone hit the mute button on the whole place. Glasses and silverware aren't even clinking. We’re all staring in horror as the slow-motion replay shows Palmer take a five-step drop, hitch once, and throw the ball just in time to go ACL-first into the shoulder pad of a Steelers defender. You can almost hear his tendons disintegrating. I watch him writhe on the ground, then I look over at my dad for some reassurance. Instead, I see him slumped over with his head in his hands. This is the first time in my life that I am able to empathize with my father. Up until this point I have only ever been sad about Beyblades, and as far as I know he has only been sad about stuff that hasn't really been on my radar, like taxes or the Iraq War. But when he looks at me with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, I know exactly what he's trying to tell me. This is it, son. Welcome to the rest of your life.
It’s an unknown date in the year 2003. My mom is yelling at me because I am eating a dead fly. This is notable because it's my earliest memory, but 2003 was also the year that Marvin Lewis was hired as head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals. He would remain there until 2018, the year I graduated college. That means from the moment I gained sentience to the moment I entered the adult world, Marvin Lewis was my head coach. His record during that time was 131-129-3. Hilariously close to being perfectly average. When I saw that number on Wikipedia I laughed for a solid minute, then I stared at the wall silently for the next five. I sat there, remembering what those years were like. Watching a city go from wanting greatness to settling for good enough. Slowly losing a war of attrition where we were shoved, inch by inch, into the middle. Into hell. Real hell. Hell isn't being bad. Hell is 8-8. Hell is drafting 17th. Hell is never being on primetime. Hell is wasting A.J. Green’s career. Hell is apathy. Hell is Marvin Lewis.
From 2011-2015, we made five straight Wild Card games. You might assume that that was fun for us. You would be wrong. Those were not serious teams. Do you think God was actually going to let Andrew Gregory Dalton win a Super Bowl? Last week, I tried to imagine Andy Dalton holding the Lombardi Trophy and I woke up six hours later in the woods. Nobody expected a title. We didn’t even expect a playoff win. We were over it. We were done being fucked with by a cruel, uncaring, perverted higher power. Sure, we’ll let T.J. Yates and Matt Schaub beat us. But not God. That little ember of hope? That song in our hearts? We killed that a long time ago. Nice try, man, but we will not get excited. Not again.
It’s Jan. 9, 2016. We are so excited. We’re going to do it. Jesus Christ, Zac, we are going to do it. It’s our fifth Wild Card game in a row, but this one is different. There’s 1:30 left and we're up by one. Vontaze Burfict just picked off Landry Jones. We have the ball on the Steelers' 25. Holy shit. I am at Brick Street Bar and Grill in Oxford, Ohio. People are hugging, jumping, screaming, full on freaking out. It all makes sense! The last four years are culminating in a wonderful cinematic moment where we finally get over the hump against the team that has been shooting us in the head with a sawed-off shotgun two times a season for the last decade! I personally am not celebrating because when the interception happened my Steelers fan friend Kevin shoved the first Bengals fan he saw as hard as he could, so I am dealing with that. I yank him outside. I grab him by the shoulders and look in his eyes and I say, “Hey man. Come on. You've won your Super Bowls. You've had your fun. Let us have this. I'm not doing great mentally. I keep waking up in the woods. Please, come back inside.” Kevin sighs and says, “Yeah, you’re right. Let's go back to the bar.” I put my arm around him and we walk inside just in time to see the Steelers kick the game-winning field goal as time expires.
It’s 10 minutes later. Kevin is laughing into his beer as my friends try to explain to me what just happened. Only needing one first down to secure the win, the Bengals handed it off to Jeremy Hill, who decided to fumble the football. The Steelers recovered, then an injured Ben Roethlisberger came in and led the offense down the field. Cincinnati allowed them to convert a fourth down near the 50, but on the next play, in a wacky sequence of events, lunatic Vontaze Burfict tried to take Antonio Brown's head off with his shoulder pad. Personal foul, 15 yards. Then first ballot Hall-of-Fame dumbass Adam Jones tried to fight Joey Porter when he came to check on his dead best friend. Personal foul, another 15 yards. So instead of the Bengals in victory formation on the 50, the Steelers kick a 35-yard field goal to win. Oh man, wow. That's crazy. I'm going to go cut my own head off.
And that was it, Zac. Something inside me died that night. Something I didn't know existed. I just could not give a shit about the Bengals anymore. But it's OK, because I was free. I got my Sundays back. I went on walks. I read The Pelican Brief. I called my mom more. I read The Rainmaker. My mind was quiet. I was content.
It’s Jan. 22, 2022. I’m at the stadium with my dad and brother. When my dad invited me to a Bengals game I thought, Sure, why not? We’re playing the Chiefs. It'll be great to see Pat Mahomes in action. Apparently the Bengals are in the playoff hunt, too? Well I'll be. That’s fun, but friendly reminder: I am out. I have a good life. I will not be pulled back in.
It’s 90 minutes later and Let’s Fucking Go I am so back. Ja'Marr Chase just caught his 11th ball of the day on third-and-27 for a first down. He has like 300 receiving yards. That ball from Joe Burrow was perfect. Joe is perfect. He can make any throw in the world and he dresses like a 13-year-old hypebeast that just got hit in the head with a brick. I am in love. I would kill or die for this man. Carson Palmer was a Cali kid who never really embraced us; a second ago I tried to remember what number Andy Dalton wore and couldn't. But Joe is it. He’s our guy. He is manna from heaven. Yes sir, I am so back. And I’ve been all the way back since.
I hope that explains some things, Zac. Yes, I wanted you fired. I'm not entirely sure that I still don't, because I’ve seen how fast it can fall apart. Soon we’ll have to pay Joe Burrow at least $500 million, Tee Higgins is going to get WR1 money somewhere, and someone will pay Tyler Boyd, too. Lou Anarumo is going to start getting head coaching job calls, if he hasn't already. Yes, I’m being catastrophic, but I know that no team, no matter how good they are, is ever that far from 8-8. This will make me sound like an asshole, but when I try to think about all the reasons as to why we won't win a Super Bowl during this window, everything I come up with is completely your fault. Maybe it'll be because of a slow developing sweep on third-and-3, or not challenging a touchdown that was called out of bounds when it was clearly a clean catch, or going for it on fourth-and-2 in the red zone when you should just kick a damn field goal. I saw it on Christmas Eve when the Pats were coming back. I saw you freeze. I saw that moment where great coaches do something, and I saw you not do anything. I don't think we have time for you to figure it out. And if it doesn't happen, if it all blows up, it's not that I won't come back. It’s way sadder than that. I will come back. I will always come back.
All games in the Jamboroo are evaluated for sheer watchability on a scale of 1 to 5 Throwgasms.
Bills at Bengals: Two high-octane offenses. Home-field advantage potentially at stake. Joe vs. Josh. Brains vs. Brawn. This isn't even a homer move. I would give this game five throwgasms if I was anyone. I’d do it if I was a Jets fan. Or an Eagles fan. But not if I was a Broncos fan. If I was a Broncos fan I would be saying, “Hmmm how can I get tickets right behind the Denver sideline this weekend?” Because they might kill Russell Wilson. They might tear that weird, weird man limb from limb like the orcs did in The Lord of the Rings.
Broncos at Chiefs
Steelers at Ravens: Unbelievable levels of intrigue. Baltimore is playing for the potential division win. Pittsburgh can sneak into the playoffs with a win and a lot of help. But I'd like to talk about this Lamar Jackson situation. There's been some talk about him potentially shutting it down this season. And you know what? He absolutely should.*
His ability to make hundreds of millions of dollars is now in jeopardy because the Ravens decided that becoming the MVP and making multiple Pro Bowls in his first five seasons was not deserving of the same amount of money given to a guy who loves Call of Duty more than $200 million. Sorry if this makes me crazy, but if you fuck with my great-grandson’s ability to die of a cocaine overdose on a yacht when he is 23, I don't owe you a damn thing.**
*On the off chance that Lamar comes back, wins this game, then beats the Bengals in the first round of the playoffs: My body can be found at 1131 Mills Road, LaFollette, Tennessee.
**I just remembered that the franchise tag exists. Damn that sucks.
Jets at Seahawks
Dolphins at Patriots
Vikings at Packers
Jaguars at Texans: Right now, I am on a private jet to Dubai that I bought with my Trevor Lawrence stock. He currently is working with the special “thank God'' confidence. This is the most effective form of confidence, because it comes when you’ve been amazing at something for a long time (football, in this case) and then suddenly you're bad and everybody in the world is calling you a piece of shit and you're like, Oh man maybe I do suck at this. But then something clicks and you're like, Oh thank God, I actually rule. It can happen with football, pool, bowling, hand-fishing down at the creek, etc.
Bears at Lions: They said I could talk about my podcast here. It’s a scripted, faux-documentary podcast called A Closer Look where my co-host Nate and I take a look at events we made up, but we act like they actually happened. The first season is about the 1979 World Series between the Nashville Pickers and the Lower Manhattan Gambinos. The Pickers are run by an evil mega-church preacher and the Gambinos are run by the mafia. Each episode follows a game in the series and is about 20 minutes long. The second season, which just ended, is about the most expensive failed movie production of all time. It’s really good. We spent a lot of time writing and making it as funny as possible. We spent a ton of money on audio production, so it sounds really great. Nate is like a Hank Azaria type and does all these amazing voices and I just do mine. It has put me in financial ruin, but I think it was worth it. Give it a listen if you’re not doing anything right now.
Panthers at Buccaneers
Cowboys at Titans
49ers at Raiders
Colts at Giants
Rams at Chargers: I know this is well-trod territory, but it is unbelievable that Los Angeles gets both of these teams. I have lived in Los Angeles for five years and it cannot be overstated how much the city does not give a shit about football. Last year during Super Bowl week, which was played IN Los Angeles, I saw about 10 people wearing Rams jerseys. Each night, I would put on my Bengals hoodie and walk around the streets looking to get in fights like a feral cat. I of course found zero takers and only got my ass kicked for the same reason I usually do (playing The Bill Simmons Podcast out of my Beats pill on the bus at full volume). There is a non-zero chance that Baker Mayfield throws for five touchdowns and they sign him to a two-year deal, which would mean there is also a non-zero chance that we could end up at the same party and bond over knowing all the lyrics to "Headlines."
Saints at Eagles
Browns at Commanders: Imagine being in the Browns’ front office right now. Every single person in the world was mad at them when they gave Deshaun Watson that contract. But you just know they were walking around fist-bumping and touching each other's faces like European soccer players, saying stuff like, “Winning is kryptonite to the haters.” Then Watson shows up looking like he's in a body-swap movie with Matt Cassel. Brutal.
Cardinals at Falcons
Pregame Song That Makes Me Wanna Run Through A Goddamn Brick Wall
I miss you, Tim. Every day.
Gametime Cheap Beer Of The Week
Wild Herd Kölsch by Goose Island, or as it more commonly known, the house beer at Buffalo Wild Wings. Every Sunday for the last 15 weeks, my friends and I have pounded these from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A lot of them weren’t really football fans and had never been to a Buffalo Wild Wings before this season. But now, they would sooner lay down in front of a train than miss a Sunday. A tall one costs $3. They’re amazing. Also, getting hammered on Sundays has really thrown my whole life out of whack. I can’t wait for the season to be over.
Gameday Movie Of The Week For Panthers Fans
Something I have never admitted publicly until now is that I LOVE the Liam Neeson A-Team movie. It's insanely fun. The plot is incoherent. The dialogue is fast and fun, but it's pre-Deadpool so it's not like, “Hey, ummm, are we in a movie or something?” type of stuff. Bradley Cooper is as hot as he's ever been but also kind of loses a Who’s More Charismatic contest to CIA agent bad guy Patrick Wilson. Rampage Jackson plays the Mr. T role and he’s bad, but he's trying really hard, like when your friend you just introduced to golf is like, “I spent three hours at the range last night!” and you’re like, “All right, brother!” and then he drills you in the thigh with a tee shot. Also, it has Jessica Biel in the post-Alba, pre-Chastain period, when she was THE Jessica. It's the perfect movie to watch on a Sunday between the second slot and night game while you scour your banking app and try to figure out how the hell you spent $193 last night.
Gratuitous Simpsons Quote
Never really got into The Simpsons, but here’s my favorite clip from American Dad:
Enjoy the games, everyone.