Lewis became the franchise's ninth head coach in 2003 and finished 131-129-3 overall, including an 0-7 record in the postseason. His 131 career victories were the most in team history and ranks tied for 24th in NFL history, but it was a third straight losing season that led to the end.
“I didn’t deliver what the No. 1 goal was, and that was to be world champions and we did not get that done,” Lewis said in a press conference Monday at Paul Brown Stadium. “There have been a lot of positives, but that’s the one goal as a coach that you look forward to doing. (Owner) Mike (Brown) and I just both decided it’s time. It was a tough moment for both of us, but we both realized it.”
Lewis said he doesn’t know what’s ahead for him, but he would still like to coach.
This season clearly took a toll on him, though, which is why he said it was time to go. Lewis hadn’t experienced more than two straight losing seasons before, he finished 8-26 against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers with a pair of losses to them this year and this marked the first time the Cleveland Browns managed to sweep his teams. Cincinnati was 6-10 his final season and set a franchise record for most yards allowed.
"It's been a lot," said Lewis, whose team lost seven of its last eight games this season, including 16-13 to the Steelers on Sunday. "This season has been a lot. From Indianapolis (Week 1), the ride home on the bus all the way through, it's been a lot."
Lewis took over the defense in Week 10 when coordinator Teryl Austin was fired and spent the last seven weeks juggling two jobs, while trying to fill his roster every week as 18 players ended up on injured reserve this season.
At times, it seemed like just a lot of bad luck, Lewis said, but there were no excuses for such shortcomings.
“Guys get injured — go up, go down — you got to keep grinding,” he said. “You have to make sure the depth is (such) that you can handle (injuries). But when you get devastated position-by-position —it happens —you have to find a way to overcome it and do something different. You have to rely on the wide receivers if you lose your tight ends. Whatever it may be, you have to do things a little differently. You do have to make your own luck. … As a coach, it’s my job to put them in position to make plays and have an opportunity for us to win.”
Lewis remained composed for most of the 12-minute press conference but his eyes welled up briefly about midway through while talking about his players. At other parts he was laughing, joking about how he thinks he already overstayed his time here.
Addressing the players in a 20-minute meeting Monday morning was the most difficult part, he said.
“That’s the thing, I enjoy the players,” Lewis said. “Our players got younger this year, we know, and you enjoy that part of them. … They are kids. I wish there were more hardened, veteran kids, but they are kids and they ran around yesterday and played their tails off.”
The Bengals immediately will begin the search for a new head coach and expect it to take a few weeks.
Lewis took the opportunity when asked Monday to lobby for Hue Jackson to at least get an interview.
Jackson was Cincinnati's offensive coordinator for two years before becoming Cleveland's head coach in 2016, but was fired midseason after going 3-36-1. Lewis brought him back as a special assistant in Week 10. Jackson declined an interview Monday with media at Paul Brown Stadium.
“I think Hue should get an opportunity to speak with them,” Lewis said. “I think he’s more than qualified. I think he’s been in a couple difficult situations, and that’s tough and it hasn’t broke his way, but I think he would be an excellent football coach. He’s a great motivator and he’s detailed and so I think he deserves an opportunity, if not here, somewhere else.”
When asked if he himself was given a fair chance to succeed in Cincinnati, Lewis simply said he worked his “tail off – everybody did.” And that’s the only thing he wants people to remember.
“I’m not nostalgic,” Lewis said. “I’m a football coach. We worked hard and competed. We played hard. Our guys played hard. That’s it. There’s no doubt the group of players (here now) is better than when we began, and that’s the way it should be all the time. That’s part of it. It’s professional sports.”