CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals finished their season with an 18-16 loss Saturday to the Pittsburgh Steelers in an AFC wild-card playoff game. Here are five questions facing the Bengals this offseaon:
What has to change? Here we go again. Another long winter, spring and summer are ahead in the Queen City after another disappointing first-round finish. It's a shame, too, because this really seemed like the year the Bengals would get rid of the playoff albatross that has been around the necks of an entire generation of this city's sports fans. The date Jan. 6, 1991 continues to have an ominous place in Bengals history. Maybe a 31-team voodoo doll will do the trick, because coach Marvin Lewis' exorcism clearly didn't. What has to change to get the Bengals over the top? That will be the big question the team's brass asks itself. This time last year, team president Mike Brown pushed Lewis to have a "non-status quo" offseason. One way Brown did that was by signing off on key stadium and training upgrades. Players and coaches tried to do it by vowing better, more consistent play from one another. Apparently that wasn't enough.
What happens to Lewis? Though the Bengals' head coach just set an ugly record by becoming the first NFL coach to sport an 0-7 postseason mark, that shouldn't have a negative impact on his immediate future in Cincinnati. After all, he did lead his team to a franchise record-tying 12-4 regular-season mark and a fourth AFC North championship. He also did that without the benefit of having his starting quarterback for the last four-plus games. Yes, I did think the Bengals at least needed to start re-evaluating their stance on Lewis' tenure after last year's first-round exit, but he certainly gets a reprieve this year. But the thing is, with the changes that could be coming to other parts of the Bengals' personnel this offseason, could the franchise decide to go for a coaching overhaul? Maybe, but there are very few good reasons to do that. Still, this could be worth watching.
Who will be coaching in Cincinnati? OK, so it seems likely Lewis stays on as the Bengals' head coach. But who else will be coaching alongside him? At this stage, he could have a skeleton staff in the coming days. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is interviewing with the Browns and 49ers for their head-coaching jobs Sunday and could draw interest from other teams. The general vibe in the Bengals' locker room the past couple of weeks has been that he's probably on his way out of Cincinnati for a new gig. He could take defensive backs coach Vance Joseph with him, too. Joseph could be a defensive coordinator before the end of this upcoming week. The Bengals' current defensive coordinator, Paul Guenther, also is drawing interest for a head-coaching job, scheduled to interview with Cleveland on Sunday, too.
Will the Bengals have a QB controversy? It's hard imagining the Bengals making changes at quarterback -- even after AJ McCarron's mostly solid relief effort at the end of the season. McCarron's outings (2-2 in four starts in place of Dalton) definitely earned goodwill in the Bengals' locker room and stadium offices, but this is Dalton's team. He's the player the Bengals are paying to lead their offense. He's also the player who had an MVP-caliber year at one point, and who warrants the respect of being considered the starter when the team returns in April. Would the Bengals consider using McCarron as a trade piece this offseason then? Probably not. They like him a lot, and are glad to have a quality backup who can push their starter.
How will the Bengals handle free agency? With up to 14 starters and key contributors eligible for free agency, the Bengals have some uncomfortable decisions to make soon. They won't be able to sign them all. Will they keep Reggie Nelson or George Iloka at safety, or both? Adam Jones or Leon Hall at corner, or both? After the Bengals drafted two offensive tackles last spring, will Andre Smith get re-signed?