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2018 NFL Preview: Amazingly enough, Marvin Lewis is back for the Bengals

Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

On the morning of last Dec. 17, ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke some big news: Marvin Lewis and the Cincinnati Bengals were going to part ways.

It surprised exactly nobody. Lewis wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did in most NFL cities, with his 0-7 playoff record. And 2017 was his second straight losing season. His contract was expiring. It was a good 15-year run, but time for some new blood.

Then the funniest thing happened. Lewis didn’t go anywhere.

In one of the stranger NFL coaching carousel stories (but not even the strangest this offseason; thanks, Josh McDaniels), the Bengals and Lewis decided to run it back. He got a two-year deal. Lewis has basically turned into that famous Undertaker gif. When you thought he was done, he rose from the ashes.

I’ve defended Lewis and said before that the Bengals’ next coach probably won’t be as good as Lewis, whose run in Cincinnati has been great by the franchise’s historical standards. But now the whole thing is awkward.

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What’s strange is it sounds like the final two games, after that Schefter report, swayed team owner Mike Brown’s decision. Cincinnati beat the Lions at home and finished the season with a miraculous win at Baltimore.

“I would say that while we had serious reverses and they were unsettling, to put it mildly, we bounced back at the end of the year,” Brown told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We beat two teams that were in playoff runs. We beat them in games that were important for them where they gave their best shot and I was impressed how we rebounded. That played into what was in my mind when I had to make a final call.”

Had Tyler Boyd not caught that memorable touchdown on fourth-and-12 to beat the Ravens, would Lewis have returned? Maybe not, if you believe Brown. Incredible.

Lewis is back, though it’s unfair to look at the Bengals as being the same old team just because the head coach is back. Some major changes to the staff were made.

Lewis said after the season the key to an improvement on defense is pressuring the quarterback. New coordinator Teryl Austin, formerly of the Lions, will be in charge of that. It sounds like he’ll play more man coverage, and the Bengals have the cornerbacks for it. That could lead to more aggressive calls up front.

Offensively, Bill Lazor isn’t technically new. He took over coordinator duties after Ken Zampese was fired following a terrible 0-2 start. Given a full offseason, Lazor overhauled the Bengals offense.

“Everything’s different,” quarterback Andy Dalton said early this offseason, according to the Dayton Daily News. “Nothing’s really similar to what we were doing.”

Lewis said he wants the Bengals to get back to being a vertical-threat offense, and that sounds like part of Lazor’s vision. There were reports that the Bengals will play with a faster tempo (Lazor was on Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles staff), and use more of an Air Coryell attack to stretch the field while moving away from the West Coast offense that Dalton has mostly played in. But it sounds like Lazor’s offense will incorporate a bit of everything.

The Bengals needed a shakeup. The failure to win a playoff game with Lewis has been a theme of the franchise for many years. Then came a step back the past two seasons, which produced a 13-18-1 record.

The Bengals didn’t make the ultimate shakeup and fire Lewis — while holding the status quo at head coach in the strangest way possible — but the Bengals will look different this season. Even if the guy running the show is the same, yet again.

Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is back after some uncertain times late last season. (AP)

Marvin Lewis has had mostly successful teams even though the Bengals rarely do much in free agency, and some of the biggest free agents to switch teams the past few years have been ones leaving Cincinnati. At least the Bengals didn’t let an Andrew Whitworth, Kevin Zeitler or Marvin Jones go this offseason, though they didn’t add much as usual. Linebacker Preston Brown (one year, $4 million) was the big signing. Cincinnati brought in left tackle Cordy Glenn in a trade with the Buffalo Bills, and an improvement to the line was much needed. The draft was solid and unspectacular: Center Billy Price, the first-round pick, will play right away if he’s healthy from a torn pec suffered at the scouting combine. All indications are he’ll be fine. There were some good mid-round additions in the draft. Still, nothing spectacular, which is the Bengals’ style.

GRADE: C

The Bengals had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines last season. While it’s not great this season, it should be much better. New left tackle Cordy Glenn has always been solid, and he’s just 28 years old. Billy Price should be a massive upgrade at center. There are health questions with each of them, but offseason reports are good. Guard Clint Boling was the Bengals’ best lineman last year and he’s back. With better line play, Andy Dalton should be more efficient, the Bengals can take more deep shots and Joe Mixon’s talent should shine a little brighter.

Let’s assume A.J. Green will be fine, because he’s A.J. Green. He had a career-low 67.4 yards per game last season, but that wasn’t all his fault. There are major questions around him. John Ross, the ninth pick of the 2017 draft, had one touch last season and it was a fumble. Try finding a receiver who was that bad as a rookie and ended up being a star. Tyler Boyd’s play-of-the-year highlight touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens obscured that he had just 225 yards in his second season. Tyler Eifert was re-signed but has played just 10 games the past two seasons due to injury. Joe Mixon has a load of talent but averaged just 3.5 yards per carry as a rookie. An improved offensive line and new scheme could help, but some playmakers need to emerge around Green.

Andy Dalton isn’t the Bengals’ problem, but many argue he’s not the team’s solution either. He didn’t have a great 2017. His 207.5 yards per game were a career low, and his 12 interceptions were his most since 2014. To be fair, he was playing behind a terrible line and the offense he practiced with all offseason was scrapped after two awful games when the team fired coordinator Ken Zampese. We all know who Dalton is by now: He can keep the Bengals in games, and even win some, but he’s not a transcendent talent that can lift everyone around him.

Defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still one of the NFL’s best. His career had a bit of a dip after a torn ACL in 2013, but the past three seasons have produced 29 sacks, a heck of a number from an interior lineman. The blocking attention he draws helps everyone else around him. A.J. Green is great, young defenders like cornerback William Jackson III and pass rusher Carl Lawson are intriguing, but Atkins’ value to the Bengals is off the charts.

From Yahoo’s Brad Evans: “To be fair, Joe Mixon is an excellent talent. He’s patient, explosive and largely reliable as a receiver. However, after last year’s disaster, he deserves to be the subject of a hip hop diss track. According to Sharp Football, he finished No. 36 in run success rate among eligible RBs (75-plus attempts). Additionally, he landed outside the position’s top-30 in yards after contact per attempt (2.3), averaged a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry against light fronts and tallied just five runs of 15 or more yards. Yes, Cincy’s ghost-like offensive line was primarily to blame, but Mixon isn’t absolved from wrongdoing. Just look at what fantasy playoff savior Gio Bernard accomplished in the same situation Weeks 14-17.

“Mixon is skilled, but the perception he’s a top-15 RB is absurd. Comps to Le’Veon Bell’s first two years are even crazier. Jordan Howard, Devonta Freeman and Jerick McKinnon are far more attractive around the same price point.”

[Booms/Busts: Fantasy outlook on the Bengals.]

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Running back Joe Mixon came in with a lot of expectation last season, but wasn’t much of a difference maker: On 178 carries, he had only one run longer than 20 yards. There’s reason to think a breakout could happen. Mixon fell to the second round of the 2017 draft because of an infamous incident in which he punched a female student at Oklahoma. He had first-round talent, and perhaps high first-round talent. One NFL executive told longtime writer Bob McGinn before the draft that he thought Mixon was the best player in the entire class. Those skills were rarely on display last season. Most of Mixon’s advanced numbers at PlayerProfiler.com aren’t good, though he ranked 13th among backs in its “yards created per carry” stat, which measures yardage a runner gets beyond what was blocked for him. That’s a big part of the problem: The line blocking for Mixon wasn’t good, though it was a little better late. Cincinnati took steps to fix that line, and that should benefit Mixon. It’s never a bad idea to bet on talent, but Mixon comes into this season with a lot to prove.

IS VONTAZE BURFICT STILL WORTH THE TROUBLE?

Stop if you’ve heard this before: Burfict is suspended. The NFL’s most habitual line-stepper is facing a four-game suspension for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy. Burfict is a very good player, and surprisingly just 27 years old. We all know why the Bengals put up with his nonsense. But at what point would the Bengals benefit from addition by subtraction? The Bengals have some interesting young linebackers who might not be as talented as Burfict, but are more reliable. But the Bengals have repeatedly said they’ll stand by Burfict, and they probably will for his next suspension, and the suspension after that too.

We’ve seen scheme changes do wonders for a team, and the Bengals were in the playoffs not too long ago. While beating the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens late last season should not determine if a head coach keeps his job, maybe it was a sign of things coming together. If Joe Mixon has a breakout behind a better line, A.J. Green and Andy Dalton bounce back and the defense is disruptive with a more aggressive scheme, the Bengals could be in the wild-card mix.

Apathy isn’t a good thing. The Bengals noticed a dip in fan interest last season. “Clearly, our attendance was off,” team owner Mike Brown told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “The best single thing we can do to re-establish our attendance is to win on the field.” While the Bengals made significant changes, the things most fans identify with are the same: Marvin Lewis is the coach, Andy Dalton is the quarterback, A.J. Green and Geno Atkins are the stars on each side of the ball. Another losing season would not play well with the fan base, especially since Brown seems to fear a true overhaul or a significant free-agent investment.

I’ve supported Marvin Lewis, but it was time for a change in the head coach spot. Instead, the Bengals seem stale despite coordinator changes. You would have liked to see Cincinnati do something big, like find a splashy new head coach or draft quarterback Lamar Jackson in the first round instead of a center. Instead it’s mostly the same old, and while the changes should result in improvements, the Bengals won’t reach .500 this season. That should lead to some earth-shaking changes, but probably not.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals
28. Buffalo Bills

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!