CINCINNATI (AP) — Talks between Bengals owner Mike Brown and coach Marvin Lewis stretched into a second day Tuesday with no resolution , leaving the franchise in flux as other teams went about filling their vacancies.
Until Lewis’ status is resolved — presumably in the next few days — all other questions are on hold for a team coming off a second straight losing season.
Lewis has been the head coach for the past 15 seasons — the second-longest active tenure in the NFL to New England’s Bill Belichick — and was the key to changing Cincinnati from a down-and-out team to respectability.
He couldn’t get it to take that next step — win a playoff game. Lewis is 0-7 in the playoffs, the worst coaching mark in NFL history. He wanted to make sure that he and Brown were on the same page about making changes coming off a 7-9 season that ended with their stadium half-empty.
Players realize that a coaching change would ripple through everything.
“You’re going to be going with a new head coach, it could be a completely new staff … there’s just a lot of uncertainty with that,” quarterback Andy Dalton said. “I think that’s the biggest thing is just the unknown.”
A look at some of the Bengals’ biggest offseason challenges, regardless of who’s in charge:
WHO’S COORDINATING? In addition to Lewis’ contract expiring, the assistants are up for renewal. Beyond Lewis, the biggest question is who will be the offensive coordinator next season. Dalton and the offense were best when Hue Jackson was the coordinator in 2015 — Dalton led the AFC in passer rating. Jackson went to Cleveland, and the offense became less creative and less productive under Ken Zampese, who was fired after an 0-2 start this season. Replacement Bill Lazor was confined by Zampese’s system, but got more out of it. Still, the Bengals finished last in the NFL in offense for only the second time in club history. They need to bring in a coordinator who can redesign the offense.
WHAT ABOUT THE O-LINE? The Bengals knew that the offensive line was going to be a work in progress with two inexperienced tackles. It was far worse than they’d hoped, unable to protect Dalton or open holes for a running game that was the worst in club history. The offensive line is the first focus of the offseason.
DALTON’S BACKUP: The Bengals have been fortunate at quarterback, with Dalton avoiding significant injury over his career. The one time he got hurt — a broken thumb near the end of the 2015 season — AJ McCarron took over and led the team into the playoffs, giving them a sense of comfort should Dalton go down.
McCarron’s contract is up, and there’s a dispute over whether he’s a restricted free agent — which gives the club some control — or unrestricted, which means he can go wherever he wants. McCarron wants to start somewhere, and he knows that it won’t be in Cincinnati. A ruling on his status will come down mid-February and set everything in motion.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT BURFICT? The Bengals’ most valuable defensive player was again one of its least dependable because of suspension, ejection and injuries.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s no-holds-barred style of play got him another three-game suspension, an in-game ejection, and a series of injuries, limiting him to 10 games. He finished with only 1½ sacks. In 2016, he missed five games because of suspension and injury. He’s not going to change his style of play, which means the defense is never sure how much it can count on him week to week.
THE FANS: Attendance dropped significantly at Paul Brown Stadium, which was half-empty for the final game. The Bengals aren’t going to sell tickets until fans are convinced that significant changes are on the way. Brown is a traditionalist who likes to stay the course even in bad times.