For the second consecutive year, the Cincinnati Bengals went one-and-done in the NFL playoffs, losing, as they did last season, to the Houston Texans. The 19-13 loss spells the end of their season and the beginning of getting geared up for next year, when the outcome will hopefully be much sweeter. Here's what may lay ahead for the Bengals in the immediate future.
The first thing to think—or maybe even worry—about is the possibility of both or either of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden heading elsewhere as a head coach. Gruden's already on the Philadelphia Eagles' short list, and they should be inquiring about his interest on Monday, while Zimmer's name has been bounced around though not yet connected to any particular team.
Though Gruden's coaching stock took a hit in the playoff loss (the Bengals had just 207 total yards of offense in the game, converted no third downs and possessed the ball for a mere 21:07), he could still catch on in Philadelphia or elsewhere, considering the great offensive line he's helped build and the relative success he's had in developing second-year players Andy Dalton and A.J. Green in a short amount of time.
Zimmer, on the defensive side, has been a genius, especially where the defensive line is concerned. Though the Bengals had no sacks in the loss to Houston, they had 51 on the year heading into the postseason. He created beasts out of the likes of Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Vontaze Burfict.
Should one or both of the coordinators leave, that could result in coaching shakeups beyond that should the departing coach take support staff with him.
For a defense as established as the Bengals' that won't be a difficult transition; however, their offense is incredibly young, with a number of first- and second-year starters that would benefit from continuity at coordinator and another season in the same system.
After potential coaching changes and their subsequent search for replacements, the Bengals' next major offseason concern is their pending free agents. Twenty-four players currently on the roster are set to be either restricted or unrestricted free agents in a few months' time, with a number of those being vital contributors to their 2012 success.
The biggest names include the aforementioned Johnson, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (who may have sealed his fate with his struggles against the run and in coverage in the playoff loss), cornerback Adam Jones, running backs Cedric Peerman and Brian Leonard, defensive end Robert Geathers and defensive tackle Wallace Gilberry.
Financially speaking, the Bengals can easily afford to retain as many of these potential free agents as they want. With owner Mike Brown adverse to getting close to the salary cap (projected to be $121 million this year) and there being no minimum spending requirement until 2014, however, it's fair to assume that not everyone the Bengals should keep will be re-signed.
Losing Geathers and Gilberry is not an option, with the two being integral parts of their wildly successful defensive line rotation.
Though Jones isn't a spring chicken by any means, his contributions both on special teams and as a nickel corner in 2012 should at least earn him a tender offer if not a simple, one-year deal. Leonard and Peerman are important to running back depth, though Leonard could be cut loose if the Bengals finally use a higher-round draft pick on a rusher (Peerman's special teams skills give him a boost).
Further, there are a number of members of the Bengals secondary who are also in danger of leaving in free agency, beyond Jones—Chris Crocker, Nate Clements, Chris Lewis-Harris, Jeromy Miles and Terence Newman. That's not a short list, and it also represents a great deal of their defensive back depth. More than one of them will have to get new deals.
The main goal for the Bengals' 2013 season is to again return to the playoffs—and this time, win. That means keeping their defense performing at as high a level as they did in 2012 while also making necessary improvements to their offense.
While it's completely out of the question that the Bengals make a shift at quarterback (barring Gruden leaving to coach elsewhere and Marvin Lewis finally getting the axe—the latter not being terribly likely given his relationship with Brown), Dalton needs to take the next step as their offensive leader.
That means he must become more consistent on a game-by-game basis.
Another year of experience for his young receivers, as well as another offseason to build chemistry, should hopefully pay off the desired dividends. He also needs to trust his offensive line more—his propensity to hear footsteps has harmed his accuracy in his first two seasons.
The run game also needs a spark.
While Green-Ellis had a surprising, 1,000-yard season, the Bengals clearly need a young, explosive complement to his straight-ahead force. It will make them more multifaceted and unpredictable as well as help out Dalton considerably—just look at how he was both more comfortable and productive in the weeks Green-Ellis was able to put up 100 or more yards per game in 2012.
While there's a degree of "back to the drawing board" ahead for the Bengals when it comes to potential coaching changes, free-agency moves, draft planning and making specific offensive improvements, their 10-6 record and second consecutive season with a playoff appearance does indicate they've been doing enough right that blowing anything up would be a crazy, unnecessary gesture.
The next few months should therefore be rather quiet for the Bengals, with concerns no different than the other 31 teams in the NFL. The only major changes will likely come from either Zimmer or Gruden departing, but other than that, it's business as usual for the Bengals, with an eye, as always, ever on improvement.