Seven years ago, a younger, energetic Marvin Lewis arrived in Cincinnati with big dreams. In his first head-coaching gig, Lewis aimed to turn the lowly Bengals into a winning franchise and perennial Super Bowl contender.
Lewis had the No. 1 overall pick, which turned out to be Carson Palmer -- a quarterback with prototypical size and arm strength to be Cincinnati's franchise player.
Lewis also inherited a young receiver named Chad Johnson, who was physically gifted and hungry to develop into one of the best at his position.
This trio was expected to deliver multiple playoff victories -- and perhaps even a championship. Yet, seven years later, the Bengals have neither and are in the midst of an embarrassing 2-5 season.
Lewis looks tired, stressed from all the losing and battles through the years with ownership. He has a career record of 58-60-1, no playoff wins and doesn't wield much power behind the scenes.
Palmer, 30, hasn't had the career many expected. Outside of a few good statistical seasons, Palmer's career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency. He looks far removed from his Pro Bowl form.
Johnson -- now named Ochocinco -- is a 32-year-old receiver having his second bad season in three years. Ochocinco has more television shows (three) than touchdowns (two) and can't get on the same page with his quarterback.
It's officially time to blow up the Bengals. The Lewis/Palmer/Ochocinco era in Cincinnati has run its course, and the team needs to hit the reset button.
But first the Bengals must play out the season, starting with their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (5-2) on "Monday Night Football" (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). If it weren't for the higher-profile Dallas Cowboys (1-6) and Minnesota Vikings (2-5), Cincinnati would be the NFL's most disappointing team. With their playoff hopes virtually gone, the best the underachieving Bengals can do is play spoiler the rest of the season.
"I think everyone is more frustrated and emotional right now," said Palmer, describing the mood of the team. "Losing does that to you. Losing is frustrating and can wear on you."
Lewis, Ochocinco and Palmer have contract situations that will be addressed in the offseason.
Lewis is coaching in the final year of his deal, and there's a lot of speculation that both sides are open to parting. Despite winning the Coach of the Year award in 2009, Lewis has not reached a contract agreement with the Bengals. Yet Cincinnati recently signed defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer to a three-year extension, which raised some eyebrows. Zimmer is now the top in-house candidate to replace Lewis if the head coach doesn't return.
There are also some changes Lewis pushed for, such as an indoor practice facility, that failed to get by Bengals owner Mike Brown. With the Bengals struggling, Lewis doesn't have as much leverage as he had in the offseason.
Lewis hasn't talked about his contract situation during the season, but he discussed it in-depth at the NFL combine.
"There's a lot of things [in terms of] what we're doing and how we're doing things -- all of those things are important to me," Lewis said in February. "There were things that when I started this job in 2003 that were important, and we can't change those.
"We have to stay on track and I have to make sure that we're continuing to progress that way. Those are the things that are as important to me as anything."
The contract situations for Ochocinco and Palmer aren't as simple.
Ochocinco's deal is up at the end of the season, but the Bengals have a team option for 2011 if they want to keep the receiver for another year. Palmer is in the fifth season of a nine-year, $118.75 million contract. He's one of the NFL's highest-paid players, and his base salary will balloon to $11.5 million next season. Palmer's production is declining, and Cincinnati must decide whether he's worth that kind of money.
Cincinnati also has important offseason decisions to make on other key veterans. Starters such as cornerback Johnathan Joseph, tailback Cedric Benson, middle linebacker Dhani Jones and leading receiver Terrell Owens are pending free agents.
Coming off a division title and playoff appearance last season, this team was built to win this year. It didn't work. So it's time for the Bengals to cut their losses and build for their long-term future.
It's been a decent run for Palmer, Lewis and Ochocinco. They brought much-needed excitement to a franchise that was desolate before their arrival.
But after eight seasons together, these three carried the Bengals as far as they could. The window is now closed, and it's time for some -- or all -- to go their separate ways.