CINCINNATI -- It was one of the best seasons in the Cincinnati Bengals' 45-year history.
An 11-5 regular-season record. A division championship. A top-three playoff seeding. A top-three defense. A top-10 offense. Indeed, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year it all finally came together for a franchise that, believe it or not, long ago discarded its status as a perennial loser. Some outside southwest Ohio might have trouble comprehending it, but these really aren't the Bengals of old. This organization now not only thinks it belongs in the annual NFL playoff picture but also does well to prove it.
Still, I know what you're thinking. Even with the Bengals' recent track record of success, surely it'll be virtually impossible this season for them to top, let alone match, the accomplishments they had a year ago.
You would be right. It's time the Bengals are told that, too. It's time they brace for a step back. Right now, some three weeks before training camp, it's hard seeing them progress past the leaps and bounds they made a year ago. Regression is real in the NFL. It will find a home on the banks of the Ohio River this fall.
Don't try telling that to the Bengals, though. Understandably, their optimism this offseason has been every bit as high as it was last July and the July before that. The focus in the locker room isn't on sliding backward, nor should it be. Cincinnati's goal, just like any other team's goal, continues to revolve around improving and building upon what it did the year before.
"This team can do a lot," offseason newcomer and veteran safety Danieal Manning said. "Everybody wants to be better than they were the day before. You don't hear that all the time in locker rooms."
Certainly all 89 players currently on Cincinnati's roster believe that a 12-4 regular season is possible, along with another AFC North title. The same group currently sees itself as a lock for a first-round playoff bye and is confident it has a top-five defense and offense.
It's possible that each of those feats gets realized this year. Good teams are able to steadily improve year by year to the point where they eventually become great. But the way things stand right now, such vast improvements just don't seem all that likely for the Bengals.
Along with playing in the same division as a Pittsburgh team that seems poised to make a legitimate turnaround from an injury-plagued 8-8 season, the Bengals enter the season with the same player behind center who regularly wilted in some of the biggest games and moments from the past three seasons. Quarterback Andy Dalton appears to have made mechanical improvements, but he'll need boosts to his psyche to make constant success his norm instead of the bouts of inconsistency that have routinely sabotaged his otherwise stellar play.
Combine the Pittsburgh factor and the Dalton factor with the coaching factor, and the odds the Bengals progress from good to great this season continue looking less than favorable.
We talk often about how the Bengals are replacing coordinators Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer, but there were other changes made aside from Hue Jackson's and Paul Guenther's promotions. They also brought on a linebackers coach and a co-defensive backs assistant from the outside and will have a first-time position coach in running backs assistant Kyle Caskey.
The last time Cincinnati made a change at either of the coordinator positions was ahead of the 2011 season, when Gruden was hired to replace Bob Bratkowski as offensive coordinator. Each year since the change, the organization steadily improved. After a relatively unexpected 4-12 showing in 2010, the Bengals rebounded and made the playoffs in 2011 with a 9-7 record. In 2012, they were 10-6 and went to the postseason. The common thread in the past three playoff years, though, has been the disastrous first-round exits. To some players, those defeats alone rendered the respective season's failures.
Which brings us to an interesting point: Could we actually call it a step back if the Bengals fall to 9-7 this year yet make the playoffs and win a playoff game?
If they knew this instant that very scenario would come to the fore, most Bengals fans would want to throw a parade downtown tomorrow. And they wouldn't be faulted. Nineteen years of postseason misery would be released in a cathartic celebration few other cities these days could truly comprehend. Along with the Bengals' playoff-win drought that dates back to 1991, the Reds haven't won a baseball playoff series since 1995.
A playoff win, regardless of what happened in the regular season, certainly should be greeted as a positive. But would that be a sign of progress? In the postseason sense it would, but unless that playoff win kicks off a string of victories that put the Bengals in the Super Bowl, it would do little to show where they have grown between 2013 and 2014.
Playoff-win daydreams aside, the reality is the Bengals haven't won in the postseason in a long time and didn't do much this offseason to make themselves dramatically better than what they were last year. True year-over-year progress would mean the Bengals this season will compile a 12-4 record, claim another division title and make, at worst, an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
Right now, it's hard seeing a season like that in Cincinnati in 2014.
The realistic, pre-training-camp view of the Bengals' upcoming season is that it won't be as good as the last. So it would be wise the Bengals start bracing for the possibility they'll be taking the undesired step backward.