Cincinnati Bengals believe future is bright
After the 2009 season, when the Bengals won the division and lost in the first round, many wondered what the team would do for an encore. It resulted in a 4-12 campaign and the end of the Carson Palmer-Chad Ochocinco era.
In the big-picture scheme of things, a 9-7 regular season and second playoff berth in three years was better than anyone could have hoped during training camp.
In the narrow prism, a 6-2 mark at midseason raised the stakes that they didn't match. Instead, the Bengals dropped six of their final nine games including last Saturday's 31-10 loss at Houston.
With Andy Dalton and A.J. Green forming a young nucleus, the Bengals are in the best position they have been in for a long time. However, many wonder what the team can do with two first-round draft picks and a lot of salary cap room.
"We've got things to do, and it's with a group of guys that I think just scratched the surface a little bit this year, and they realize that," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "They are not beating their chest. They realize we didn't quite get where we want to finish. We've crossed some hurdles, but we've got more hurdles yet to make."
Of his previous offseasons, this is the best position that Lewis' Bengals have been in. The only other time that comes close was following the 2005 season, but many wondered if Palmer could come back from knee surgery.
The thing that makes Lewis upbeat about this offseason is that it will be largely void of drama and that everyone should be here when offseason conditioning starts on April 16.
Besides trying to find players to build around Dalton and Green, especially at running back, there are concerns at offensive guard. Defensively, the secondary remains a priority.
"I feel good about the guys we have and where we are, what we can build on because if you look at film I don't see things that worry me as far as the future of this franchise and what's wrong," offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "I see details, young players and things we need to get a little bit better at and learning why they are important to do them a certain way every time. All things that are very fixable, the talent and ability is there, we just have to build off of it."
Lewis, who will be entering his 10th season as head coach next season, has one year on his contract and said that he has not discussed an extension yet with Mike Brown. When asked if this could be a repeat situation to 2010, where it wasn't done until two days after a 4-12 season, Lewis said: "I don't know. We'll see. Not trying to put a curse on me, are we?"
Dalton would love trip to Pro Bowl
--When he had his season-ending meeting with tackle Andrew Whitworth, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden commented how things won't let up next year, especially with the defensive lines of NFC East and AFC West teams that they will face.
"I'll face the 12 guys that lead the NFL in sacks every year. I can run the list off," Whitworth said. "Between our division guys and Tamba Hali, (Elvis) Dumervil and (Von) Miller, the NFC East ... it would be a lot of fun, be exciting."
--While most players try to avoid going to the Pro Bowl, quarterback Andy Dalton said he would welcome the opportunity to join receiver A.J. Green in Hawaii. Dalton is the first alternate at quarterback at the moment.
"I think it would be a great experience," he said.
Whoever ends up going to the Pro Bowl with Green, Lewis hopes that they all use it as a business trip instead of relaxation.
Said Lewis: "They can be a sponge there. I used to motivate Ray Lewis every year that way. Don't go there to hang out by the pool. You go there and come back learning. You learn how other people do things and what makes other people great year after year after year, and that's the opportunity they'll have."
--The team has not announced a deal yet to return to Georgetown College, which means that many are expecting that the team might train in Cincinnati this year. The Bengals have trained at Georgetown since 1996.
Lewis though didn't say where they would train, just saying that camp "will be different."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we were having this conversation Feb. 6, we would have closed a book. So, we are just closing a chapter. The book is still being written. But we've got things to do, and it's with a group of guys that I think just scratched the surface a little bit this year, and they realize that." -- Head coach Marvin Lewis, when asked if the end of this season felt more like a book was being closed.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
With Jay Gruden's solid first year as offensive coordinator, many wondered if he would be moving on or not. But Gruden ended all speculation on Tuesday when he said he was declining all interview requests for head coaching openings.
"I'm happy here. I like working for Marvin (Lewis) and with the team," Gruden said on Tuesday. "I feel like we're just scratching the surface on offense, but we have a lot of good, young players and have the potential to do even better next season."
Gruden had hinted on Monday that this year might not be the best time for him to take a promotion. With the drafting of A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and with two first-round draft picks this year along with free agency, there is the potential to add more pieces.
Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has one year left on his contract but interviewed for the head coaching opening in Miami. Should Zimmer become a head coach somewhere, secondary coach Kevin Coyle and former Jacksonville head coach Jack Del Rio, who worked with Lewis in Baltimore, would be considered the favorites.