AFC North: Cincinnati Bengals

videoAndy Dalton still hasn't won a game in January.

With 3:10 remaining in Sunday night's Pro Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback had a chance to lead a dramatic comeback drive that would have given his team the win and an additional $27,000 in his and his teammates' pockets.

None of that would happen, though.

After generating momentum and getting his offense into the red zone, Dalton effectively ended Team Carter's (coached by Hall of Fame receiver and ESPN analyst Cris Carter) hopes at winning 13 plays later when he delivered a poorly-thrown pass that fell several yards away from the two pass-catchers that were in its vicinity. Rushed by four defensive linemen, including his Bengals teammate Geno Atkins, Dalton delivered the throw off his back foot while trying to avoid the rush.

The incomplete pass, thrown with 53 seconds left in the game, sealed the 32-28 win for Team Irvin (coached by Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin).

Only once on the drive did Dalton target his Bengals teammate, A.J. Green. It was one of three passing attempts Green drew from Team Carter's quarterbacks. He didn't catch a single one of them. Defended by Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes on all three plays, Green had a tough time generating enough space to make a catch. The lone target he had from Dalton landed well short of his feet as Dalton felt Grimes stepping up for an interception, and decided to throw short so the corner couldn't complete the pick-off.

Dalton completed four of his first five throws on the final drive -- all screens or other short routes to running backs Alfred Morris or Justin Forsett. After Forsett's 13-yard reception put Team Carter at Team Irvin's 19, Dalton missed on four-straight passing attempts, including the one to Green. Officially, Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen was credited with being targeted on Dalton's last incompletion, but the fourth-down throw was headed toward both he and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown.

Dalton, voted the seventh alternate by fans in December, was added to the Pro Bowl roster last week after the Super Bowl quarterbacks were forced into missing the game, and also after Baltimore's Joe Flacco bowed out because of the birth of his child. The Bengals' signal-caller who signed a six-year contract extension in August went 9-for-20 for 69 yards Sunday. He was sacked once, had a 54.0 passer rating and averaged 3.5 yards per completion.

Like Green, Atkins didn't have any statistical contributions. The Bengals' other Pro Bowl selection, punter Kevin Huber, had one 56-yard punt that traveled to the opposing 6 before the return team tried to bring it back with a lateral. The return only went for eight yards.

Dalton still hasn't won a game in January. He entered the Pro Bowl 0-5 in regular-season and playoff games in the month. His latest January loss was his 26-10 loss at Indianapolis on Jan. 4.
CINCINNATI -- It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason, but in certain circles, Cincinnati Bengals president Mike Brown has earned the reputation of being an owner who abhors winning.

That couldn't be further from the truth.

Maybe it was all those years of abject mediocrity and abysmal play his team showcased for so long after he took command following the death of his father, NFL legend Paul Brown, in 1991. Or perhaps it was the Bengals' apparent penchant during most of the 1990s for missing out on draft picks and picking more duds than future stars.

Maybe it was a combination of both.

[+] EnlargeMike Brown
AP Photo/Al BehrmanBengals president Mike Brown is "pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency," according to coach Marvin Lewis.
Whatever earned Mike Brown such a reputation, it's long past time for the myth to be put to rest. Coach Marvin Lewis' comments this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, indicated as much. If you go by what Lewis said, Brown is as adamant as anyone around the Bengals about clearing this four-year, first-round playoff hurdle and getting them one step closer to their goal of getting back to the Super Bowl.

Lewis made it clear in a conversation with the Cincinnati Enquirer and that with respect to the Bengals' free-agency plans this year, don't expect the team to sit back and let the rest of the league wheel and deal around them. Look for them to be a little more aggressive. You can thank Brown for that.

"He doesn't want to hear, 'We will be better when we get these guys back,' " Lewis said in the Enquirer. "No, we need to get better. He knows we need to get better. He's pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency."

Yes, pushing is the job of an owner or team president. And yes, the members of the Brown family who run the team have made similar charges to coaches and scouts in years past. In this instance, though, management is angered the team keeps hitting a wall.

Some reading this will question why the Bengals -- if they recognize the need for change -- didn't fire Lewis after a fourth straight early playoff exit?

Because for now, the organization values something else over making such rash moves: stability.

There is a belief around Paul Brown Stadium that the Bengals have a solid foundation for success right now. They believe that foundation is the reason they have won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons. It's also the reason they aren't in favor of letting go of coaches or even demoting slightly underperforming quarterbacks. Between coaching, talent, development, and potential, the Bengals believe their window for making a third Super Bowl trip still is wide open, thanks to the base they have established the past four years.

Brown's insistence on more free-agency aggression seems a sign he's putting this latest wild-card loss on himself. If another early exit happens next season -- particularly after a second-straight season with a fully intact staff, and a year after making these philosophical changes to free agency -- then perhaps the foundation gets rocked as the blame can more easily be shifted to others -- like the head coach.

The pressure to build a 2015 contender is on.

"It's a different feel than where we have been," Lewis said. "It's not a status quo. There has not been a status quo conversation or, 'Oh, we'll be OK, we'll just get these guys back.' No, no, no, that's bull. We got to be better."
CINCINNATI -- First, let's give credit where it's due.

Kudos to the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner and's Geoff Hobson for the news they gathered out of a nearly 40-minute sit-down interview with Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Wednesday. Yours truly did not make the trip down.

Among several news nuggets Lewis provided Dehner and Hobson was a comment that the Bengals are content with Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback. Lewis made it clear the team has no plans to look for a quarterback via the draft or free agency to compete with Dalton this year.

[+] EnlargeAndy Dalton
AP Photo/Michael ConroyThe Bengals haven't shown a willingness to upset the applecart at quarterback.
None of this is a surprise.

"We have no problem with Andy Dalton as our quarterback. We don't have time to waste time with another quarterback," Lewis said, according to "To not continue to press forward and get Andy better and to get whoever the backup quarterbacks are better. The quarterback competition: Where has it worked? It doesn't get you wins."

Lewis' comments also seem like an indication the team will be welcoming back Jason Campbell, the backup who is slated to hit free agency when the new league year opens in March. If he does return, it means the Bengals will go into the year with three quarterbacks. That's because he and Dalton will be joined again by AJ McCarron, who could in theory at least compete this summer with Campbell for the top backup job.

It be jarring to see Lewis make these assertions on the heels of one of Dalton's worst seasons, statistically speaking. But the Bengals have been steadfast in their commitment to the starting quarterback throughout his four-year tenure in which they have reached the playoffs four times, albeit all with first-round exits. Right or wrong, it's a decision they have firmly stood by. It's one they backed up in August when Dalton signed that massive contract extension that covers the next six seasons and pays him up to $115 million.

We have discussed at length here how the structure of Dalton's contract permits the Bengals to move on from him after the 2015 season, without a cap hit, if he isn't playing to their standards. So even if Lewis supports Dalton now, the quarterback still is entering a pivotal fifth year. The hope is that with a second season under offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, Dalton will thrive.

To thrive, Dalton has to make reducing turnovers his primary focus this offseason. He had 17 interceptions in 2014, one year after a career-high 20. Many of them came at inopportune times and turned momentum away from the Bengals. If he cuts down on the picks and manages the run game as well as he did late this season, the Bengals' offense should be dramatically better than this season's No. 15 ranking.

As we've also mentioned, the Bengals believe they have a firm foundation all the way around right now. If they were to shake it up with a quarterback controversy or a coaching change (whether it's at head coach or defensive backs coach), it could create a harmful ripple effect. While certain personnel changes will come to improve the defense, they believe it's best to keep key positions intact.

Dalton may not be great, but the security of knowing they won't be going through a transition at quarterback has the Bengals completely at ease.
It only took a matter of minutes for A.J. Green to come off the board during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

Taken with the third overall pick, the Cincinnati Bengals receiver was drafted by the Pro Bowl team that will be coached by former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame receiver and current ESPN analyst Cris Carter. Green was the first non-quarterback taken, and the second player selected by Irvin and player-captains, Antonio Brown and J.J. Watt. Brown and Watt were named captains of the team Tuesday.

Green was the only Bengals player actually picked in the draft, as the other four Pro Bowl selections were assigned to their teams as part of this second year of the "unconferenced" format. Before Wednesday's draft, players either were voted or named as alternates to one single Pro Bowl team that was subsequently separated into two teams with the draft.

To help keep Sunday night's all-star game in Arizona fair, certain players were assigned to each team.

In the Bengals' case, quarterback Andy Dalton was assigned to Carter's team with Green, while punter Kevin Huber and defensive tackle Geno Atkins were assigned to the other team coached by Hall of Famer Michael Irvin. It means if Atkins and Dalton are on the field at the same time, the lineman actually could sack his quarterback.

Atkins only had three sacks this season after coming off an ACL tear last year. By all accounts, physically, he was fully healthy all year. He had 12.5 sacks in the last complete season he played before this year, 2012.

Dalton threw for 3,398 yards and 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in 2014. Green, who was voted to the Pro Bowl with Huber, caught 69 passes and set career-lows with 1,041 yards and six touchdowns. Hurt off and on, Green missed parts of five games. Huber ranked fourth this season in net punting, but he led the league in percentage of punts inside both the 10- and 5-yard lines.

This is Green's fourth Pro Bowl, Atkins' third, Dalton's second and Huber's first.
The Cincinnati Bengals have blocked co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph from leaving for a job with the Denver Broncos, according to a report from Fox Sports.

Fox Sports' Alex Marvez, who is in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl, reported late Tuesday night that the Bengals will not allow Joseph out of his contract in order to become the Broncos' new defensive coordinator.

ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold reported Wednesday that Denver had been informed the Bengals would not let Joseph out of his contract.

It had been reported earlier Tuesday that Bengals president Mike Brown wanted to meet with Joseph before deciding whether he would let the assistant coach leave. Brown and Joseph are both in Mobile, assisting other members of the Bengals' coaching staff and front office in scouting potential draft targets.

What set all of this in motion were the events of last Friday, when Joseph interviewed with the Broncos for their still open head-coaching vacancy. Ultimately, the job went to former Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, who was introduced as the team's 15th head coach Tuesday.

From 2011-13, Joseph served under Kubiak as a Texans assistant. Once Houston transitioned last offseason from Kubiak's staff to current head coach Bill O'Brien's, Joseph was among those out of work. He wasn't out of a job long, though. Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis quickly hired him as a secondary coach paired with Mark Carrier. It was a move that had many in NFL circles envious of the Bengals because Joseph, 42, has long been tabbed a coaching prospect on the rise.

It's clear the Broncos flew Joseph out to see how he might fit as a defensive coordinator. By all indications, they liked what they heard from the former Colorado Buffaloes backup quarterback, and had plans of making a move to bring him into the fold. That was until Brown and the Bengals reportedly stepped in between.

This isn't the first time Cincinnati has blocked an assistant coach from leaving. In 2011, then-defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle was blocked from interviewing with the Eagles. A year later, the Dolphins hired him as their defensive coordinator.

Regardless what Joseph's future looks like, the Bengals know they are on borrowed time with him. The way his career is trending, it is only a matter of time before he becomes a defensive coordinator and/or a head coach.

When he was first hired last offseason, Joseph harped on how technique and teaching proper fundamentals were his greatest assets as a coach. It clearly paid off this season with Dre Kirkpatrick, a third-year backup cornerback who had the best season of his career in 2014. Kirkpatrick was seldom beat and was routinely in position, even on the throws that did get by him. He also had three interceptions, including the two pickoffs he had in the final three minutes of the Bengals' Monday night win against Peyton Manning and the Broncos last month.

With Joseph reportedly staying, the Bengals will have in place a defensive staff that will move into its second season with Paul Guenther as its coordinator.
CINCINNATI -- The NFL's coaching carousel has claimed another Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach for an interview, according to multiple reports, including one from ESPN's Josina Anderson.

Bengals co-defensive backs coach Vance Joseph is traveling to Denver on Friday to meet with Broncos officials regarding their head-coaching vacancy that came open earlier this week when John Fox was fired after leading the team to a 12-4 regular-season record and a home divisional-round playoff loss to Indianapolis.

[+] EnlargeDre Kirkpatrick
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesDre Kirkpatrick and the rest of the secondary have improved under Vance Joseph.
"I'm excited for Vance to have this opportunity to possibly become a head coach," Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis told Anderson. "He is a talented and well-versed football coach."

Joseph came to Cincinnati last offseason after a three-year stint coaching the Houston Texans' defensive backs. He also served as an assistant in San Francisco for six seasons and played and coached at the University of Colorado.

He's the second Bengals coach to be courted for another coaching job after offensive coordinator Hue Jackson interviewed for the Buffalo Bills' opening that went to Rex Ryan earlier this week.

Viewed in many NFL circles as a coach on the rise, Joseph's addition last spring followed a shakeup in the wake of the Texans implementing a new coaching staff. Coaches with many other teams told the Bengals often they felt the landing of Joseph was a relative coup, considering how high his potential for success appeared. If he isn't a head coach next year or the year after, it's possible the 42-year-old could be a defensive coordinator somewhere.

When he came to Cincinnati last year, Joseph lauded his ability to teach technique.

"I consider myself a very positive coach in the way I work with players, and I put a lot of stress on great technique," Joseph said. "I believe I can get those technique points across very well."

It translated to a secondary that was among the best at preventing deep touchdown passes. The Bengals were one of five teams to allow three or fewer touchdown passes that traveled at least 20 yards in the air. The 25.4 completion percentage they allowed on throws that distance also was the third-lowest in the league.

No player saw the effect of Joseph's coaching more than cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, who had three interceptions -- including two in the final three minutes of a win over Peyton Manning -- in a reserve role. At the end of the season, the third-year cornerback lauded Joseph for helping make him better this season.

Joseph reportedly will be competing for the Denver head-coaching position with Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who served as the Texans' head coach the seasons Joseph was in Houston.
CINCINNATI -- One week after his defensive coordinator blasted him for being "just a guy out there" this season, Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was named Friday as an alternate to the Pro Bowl.

 Now a three-time Pro Bowl selection, the fifth-year lineman takes the place of Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who won't be able to play in the all-star game due to injury.

Atkins joins Bengals receiver A.J. Green and punter Kevin Huber who were voted onto the Pro Bowl teams late last month.

It's a bit of a bizarre honor for Atkins, considering how poorly Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther felt he played this season. In a 30-minute, on-the-record conversation with reporters the day after the Bengals' season ended with a wild-card round playoff loss at Indianapolis, Guenther was quite direct and honest when asked his assessment on Atkins' season.

"This year, he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," Guenther said. "He was just a guy out there."

Atkins had 34 tackles this past season, the lowest single-season total he's had in a year he completed since becoming a starter in 2011. He also had three sacks. Last season, in about half the number of games, Atkins had six sacks in a season that was shortened after Week 9 because of an ACL tear. By all accounts, Atkins was fully recovered from the injury, although the Bengals took it slowly with him throughout training camp.

The last season Atkins played all 16 games like he did in 2014 was in 2012 when he had 12.5 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, his pressure percentage (a special metric tracked by the analytics site) that year led the league at 12.7. It meant that he was either getting a sack, a hurry or a quarterback hit on 12.7 percent of the snaps he was part of during the season. This year, he was middle-of-the-road, garnering a 6.7 pressure percentage.

"He didn't have the explosion he had in the past," Guenther said. "When you start seeing that, you've got to make a decision as a coordinator. Can you [rush] with four guys or do you have to [get pressure] somewhere else?"

Pro Football Focus also rated the Bengals as having the worst pass rush in the league this regular season.

"We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside," Guenther said of Atkins. "Otherwise, we need to go find a new inside rusher."

Atkins becomes the first Bengals defensive lineman to be a three-time Pro Bowl selection.

"Unconferenced" for a second straight year, the Pro Bowl teams will be decided by Hall of Fame captains Michael Irvin and Cris Carter next Wednesday. The game itself will be played Jan. 25 in Arizona, one week before the Super Bowl is played there.
CINCINNATI -- Now that the Cincinnati Bengals' season is over, we turn our attention to the offseason.

There are many questions the Bengals must answer. Let's take a look at five of them:

1. How does the pass rush improve?

One of the biggest problems the Bengals had this season, particularly in the playoff loss at Indianapolis, was getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. While coaches and players are quick to point out the complexities of the pass rush -- for instance, it's more important how the unit manages the rush on third downs, some have said -- the fact is the defense wasn't as good getting to quarterbacks as it has been in the past. The Bengals finished the regular season with 20 sacks, the second-fewest since Marvin Lewis became head coach. They also allowed 243 passing yards per game, 36 more than they did in 2013. Defensive tackle Domata Peko was one of the players who said earlier this week that change would be coming to the defensive line next season as the Bengals seek to get a better rush.

2. Where to turn in the NFL draft?

So what change could be coming to the defensive line? Different players and line combinations is one possibility. When the Bengals begin whittling down their draft board in the coming weeks, there probably will be several defensive ends and tackles on them. It's possible that Cincinnati will address its line woes in free agency, but it's more likely that ultimately gets done in the draft. The last three seasons, in particular, they have turned to the draft to tighten up the line, selecting Devon Still, Margus Hunt, Brandon Thompson and Will Clarke. Other position areas to watch when the draft comes around: offensive tackle, linebacker, tight end and receiver.

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyIt seems unlikely that Jermaine Gresham will be one of Andy Dalton's targets next season.
3. Is Jermaine Gresham coming back?

For now, it seems the answer to that question is "no." Gresham disappointed some around the team when he didn't play in Sunday's playoff game and in the game at Cleveland four weeks before that after testing out respective injuries during pregame warm-ups. He also has fallen out of favor with fans and appears content with having done so. The free-agent tight end has had better years, but he didn't have an abysmal season, catching 62 passes. Used as one of Andy Dalton's top targets following injuries to A.J. Green, Tyler Eifert and Marvin Jones, he was a key option in this year's passing game. With Eifert expected to be healthy before training camp and Ryan Hewitt coming off a strong rookie season, the Bengals -- again, for now -- seem content moving along from Gresham and going a different direction.

4. What can Dalton do to take the next step?

This was a big question last offseason, particularly with Dalton getting close to signing a massive new deal. It's safe to say that overall, Dalton this season didn't live up to the six-year contract extension he signed in August that could pay him up to $115 million. He had issues with interceptions (he threw 17) and lost a fourth straight playoff game. He also witnessed a steady decline in his passing numbers at the end of the season, around the same time the Bengals' rushing game became a prominent piece of their offense. Dalton said earlier this week that he expects to go to Southern California to work with throwing coach Tom House again. Dalton's time with House seemed to pay off early this season, as his throws looked vastly better than they did in previous seasons.

5. Will the Bengals need a new offensive coordinator?

While Dalton continues to figure out what he can do to harness some of what he had at the beginning of this season, he could end up with a new offensive coordinator as well. Hue Jackson reportedly met with the Buffalo Bills on Wednesday about their head coach vacancy. Other opportunities could come as well, meaning he could soon be on his way out after spending one year with Dalton. If that happens, the Bengals will need a coordinator who can push Dalton much the way Jackson did this season. This question could be the first to get answered this offseason.
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Injuries and changes at their top two assistant-coaching positions had many convinced at the start of the season the Cincinnati Bengals would struggle to repeat as AFC North champion.

Despite all of that, they almost did it. For six of the last seven weeks of the regular season, they led the division, helped in large part by a tie that should have really been a win. Had they made a 36-yard overtime field goal against Carolina, they would have finished with a somewhat unexpected 11-win season.

It was in the regular-season finale that they lost the division following a 27-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. On Sunday, they lost something bigger: a fourth straight playoff game. The defeat calls into question what the future ought to look like for a talented team whose Super Bowl window might be closing.

Team MVP: Three players deserved true consideration for this. Veteran offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth didn't allow a sack all season and led all qualifying offensive tackles in Pro Football Focus' pass-blocking efficiency metric that accounts for how few times the linemen allow pressures on their quarterbacks. Cornerback and return specialist Adam Jones keeps playing better the older he gets. On Friday, he earned first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors as a kick returner. As well as those two played, though, rookie running back Jeremy Hill was the real difference-maker. His 929 rushing yards in the final nine weeks of the season led all backs and provided a much-needed spark to the Bengals' offense. He's a legitimate rookie of the year candidate.

Best moment: Amid a steady rainfall on a chilly December night in Cincinnati, the Bengals defeated future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning for the first time when cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick picked off two of Manning's passes in the final three minutes. The first one, with 2:41 left, was the product of Kirkpatrick making a smart, outside-shoulder read on his receiver's route. It looked like Manning practically threw the short pass directly to him. Kirkpatrick's subsequent return for touchdown put the game out of reach, helping give the Bengals a playoff berth and allowing them to prove they can win in prime time.

Worst moment: The low moment of the season came in Week 6 when kicker Mike Nugent was brought on at the end of an overtime period to kick a game-winning, 36-yard field goal. The ball sailed wide right as time expired. The game ended in a 37-37 tie that was one of the difference-makers in getting the sub-.500 Carolina Panthers into the postseason. It was the last miss Nugent would have before pushing another wide at Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. He went 15 straight before the 50-yarder didn't go through the uprights at Heinz Field. The 10-year vet further redeemed himself with a franchise-long 57-yarder at Indianapolis on Sunday.

2015 outlook: Just as the 2014 season seemed promising last January, so does the 2015 campaign at this point. Though it remains to be seen what changes might come to the coaching staff and personnel ranks following a fourth-straight playoff loss, little else should be lost in positions of value. If anything, the Bengals will have gains -- and big ones -- entering next season. Receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones will begin the year healthy, with a more experienced Mohamed Sanu. Tight end Tyler Eifert will presumably be at full strength, as will linebacker Vontaze Burfict. As four of their biggest-name free agents, decisions on Jermaine Gresham, Rey Maualuga, Terence Newman and Devon Still could create intrigue during the offseason.
CINCINNATI -- Tyler Eifert expects to be back to full health from a pair of arm and shoulder injuries long before the Cincinnati Bengals open training camp in July, the second-year tight end said.

As he was leaving Paul Brown Stadium on Monday afternoon with his left arm in a sling, he told reporters that for now, it appeared he might be limited in May when the Bengals go through their minicamp and voluntary offseason workouts. By the end of July, though, he should finally be fully ready to go.

[+] EnlargeTyler Eifert
AP Photo/Nick WassTyler Eifert, who injured his elbow in the Bengals' season opener, aims to return to the field by July.
It's been a long time since Eifert could say that about his health.

Nagged by a left shoulder issue all last spring and summer, he was an off and on participant during training camp. The Bengals were trying to give Eifert's shoulder some rest in the preseason, but also were trying to see if he could push through it. He tried, and was on the field for the first game of the season at Baltimore.

Throughout the first quarter of that game, he didn't seem to have any issue with the shoulder as he caught three passes on three targets for 37 yards. The last two receptions went for big first-down gains; a 20-yarder and a 14-yard pickup.

It was at the end of the 14-yard catch, though, as Eifert was fighting for extra yards, that he landed awkwardly on his right arm. He ended up dislocating the elbow on the fall. Days later, he went on the injured reserve with the designation to return.

He never would.

With his recovery from the elbow injury taking much longer than anticipated, the Bengals decided to extend Eifert's time on the injured reserve though the season. It gave them time to simultaneously put him through surgery and rehab for the left shoulder issue. The hope has been that with time, both injuries would heal to get him to 100 percent by the start of the 2015 season.

Eifert's loss was big for a Bengals' offense that had to get creative with Marvin Jones' absence, and A.J. Green's string of health problems. While Jermaine Gresham had slightly better numbers than he did last season, the fifth-year veteran tight end couldn't stay on the field, either. He didn't play at Cleveland late in the season and neither did he in Sunday's wild-card round playoff loss in Indianapolis.

He tested out injuries ahead of both games, but wound up on the inactives list.

As Gresham enters free agency, the very real possibility exists he won't be re-signed. Alex Smith, who had a season-ending biceps injury at the start of the season, also is a free agent this offseason. If neither tight end is brought back, the Bengals would -- for now -- enter next season with Eifert, Kevin Brock and Ryan Hewitt at tight end. If that's the case, it's likely Cincinnati would try to add one more tight end through the draft or free agency.
CINCINNATI -- Marvin Lewis said Monday he and the Cincinnati Bengals' front office hadn't yet discussed the potential for changes to be made to the team's coaching staff, but at least one could soon come that he'll have little control over.

Now that the coaching carousel season has begun, offensive coordinator and former NFL head coach Hue Jackson has started getting courted for league head-coaching vacancies. He's expected to talk with the Buffalo Bills this week.

"Hue deserves an opportunity," Lewis said, "and hopefully, if it's what he wants and if it works out, it works out."

Jackson was the Oakland Raiders' head coach in 2011 after spending the 2010 season as their offensive coordinator. Both seasons, the Raiders finished 8-8. They are the only seasons since 2002 the Raiders haven't had a losing record.

It was after Jackson was fired by the Raiders following the 2011 season that he came to Cincinnati as a secondary coach. The next year, he coached running backs. Last January, in the wake of Jay Gruden's hiring as Washington's new head coach, Jackson was promoted to offensive coordinator. He's been credited for the drafting of Jeremy Hill and the possible 1,124-yard Rookie of the Year campaign the running back has had. Only Corey Dillon at 1,129 had more rushing yards as a Bengals rookie.

In addition to Hill's success, Jackson brought life to the Bengals' running game with his insistence on sticking with it during the regular season. He also showed a measure of creativity that relied upon the Bengals using receiver Mohamed Sanu as a passer and quarterback Andy Dalton as a receiver, among other wrinkles. Injuries to Marvin Jones, Tyler Eifert, A.J. Green -- and in Sunday's playoff loss -- Jermaine Gresham, tested Jackson's schematic creativity.

Dalton, who would enter next season with his third offensive coordinator in five seasons if Jackson leaves, said he'll be monitoring Jackson's interview process.

"We'll see what happens," Dalton said.

Dalton said Jackson helped him this season by instilling a coaching style that included getting the quarterback to be more vocal and to push the on-field tempo faster than it had previously operated.
CINCINNATI -- Twice in his end-of-season news conference Monday -- once at the beginning, once more near the end -- Marvin Lewis offered remorse to the city of Cincinnati and the fans of his team who inhabit it.

The 12th-year Cincinnati Bengals head coach understood how desperate they have grown for a playoff win. After Sunday's 26-10 wild-card round loss at Indianapolis, they still haven't seen a Bengals postseason victory since January 1991.

"I'm disappointed for the team. I'm disappointed for our fans. I'm disappointed for the city," Lewis said during his near 30-minute media session. "The city needs to win on a big scale. Big time. They deserve it. And that's what I'm disappointed in. It's not about me, it's about them.

"One day when I walk out of [the news conference room], hopefully I leave that trophy in here, and I just keep on stepping. That's all I want to do. I'm telling you, that's all I want to do. And you'll never hear from me again."

[+] EnlargeBengals
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCoach Marvin Lewis says his team's goal isn't just to be in the playoffs, but to be "world champions."
With Sunday's loss, Lewis became the second coach in NFL history to have lost six consecutive playoff games while associated with the same team. Steve Owen was the only other coach to accomplish the ominous feat, doing so in 1939-50. He had two NFL championships before the playoff drought began, and ended up coaching three more seasons after the sixth playoff loss. His 22-year career -- all spent with the New York Giants -- ended following a 3-9 campaign in 1953.

Like Owen, even after playoff loss No. 6, Lewis doesn't appear to be heading anywhere.

In order to better put his team in position to win a playoff game, Lewis said Monday his entire staff needed to coach better.

"I told our coaches [Monday] that moving forward, we're going to find a way to do better," Lewis said. "We've got to do better. We've got to find a way to get our guys through the little things, the critical moments of the game, to get those things done in a game that has the importance of a playoff game."

The Bengals didn't have any memorable plays on offense, and they couldn't take advantage of cornerback Darqueze Dennard's forced fumble in the second half. Big, momentum-turning plays like Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's well-placed third-quarter, 36-yard touchdown pass to Donte Moncrief while being tackled, didn't happen for the Bengals.

Lewis said he hadn't yet reached the point in the offseason where he and the front office have discussed making changes to the coaching staff.

At least one change could come whether he wants it to or not. Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson could land a head-coaching job for the first time since the Raiders fired him in 2011.

Whether that happens, the bottom line is Lewis believes it's on all his coaches to get the team better prepared to achieve more.

"You're fortunate to have earned your way into the playoffs again, but we're not here just to go to the playoffs," Lewis said. "In fact, that's not even a goal. Our goals are to be undefeated at home, win the AFC North and be world champions.

"So we're not satisfied with just being in the playoffs. There's a lot to be proud of for our players, the things they've accomplished, but there's more to it than just getting there. That's why we do this."
CINCINNATI -- Defensive tackle Geno Atkins' salary commanded 7.15 percent of the Cincinnati Bengals' cap this season.

That was the second-highest cap percentage on the team behind quarterback Andy Dalton. His recent six-year contract extension, worth up to $115 million, made him command 7.2 percent of the team's 2014 cap, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Clearly, Atkins wasn't being paid this season to be an ordinary, middle-of-the-roster player.

Yet that's exactly the type of player he appeared to be at times this season in defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's eyes.

"This year, he was just three-technique No. 20, in my mind," Guenther said. "He was just a guy out there."

One year removed from the extension that will earn him $55 million by 2018, Atkins hasn't played like the pass-rusher that earned the massive contract. Neither has fellow well-paid lineman Carlos Dunlap, for that matter. The two combined for 11.5 sacks in 17 games this season, including Sunday's 26-10 playoff loss at Indianapolis. In 2012, the season that practically earned both their respective massive contract extensions, they combined for 18 sacks in 17 games.

"I always tell them our best players have to play good in these big games," Guenther said. "All the time. It can't be sometimes. It's got to be all the time. If our best players don't play good then there is a big chance we are not going to play good."

Against the Colts on Sunday, Atkins had three tackles and a half sack. His lone partial takedown of Andrew Luck came when Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt pushed past his blocker and forced the quarterback into his hands and, consequently, Atkins'.

Atkins is also now a year and two months removed from the ACL tear he suffered in a Thursday night game at Miami. After surgery, he spent all offseason rehabbing the injured knee and slowly eased his way back into practicing at the tail end of training camp. He appeared to be somewhat limited and a little timid as he took on blockers at the beginning of the season.

It really wasn't until Week 8 when he started showing flashes of his old self before the injury.

"He didn't have the explosion he had in the past," Guenther said. "When you start seeing that, you've got to make a decision as a coordinator. Can you do this with four guys or do you have to do this somewhere else?"

The old Atkins, the one that had 12.5 sacks in 2012 and 7.5 the year before, was a Pro Bowl player.

Guenther is desperate to get him back.

"We need to get him back to where he was, being that game-wrecker there inside," Guenther said. "Otherwise, we need to go find a new inside rusher."

Any decision to release Atkins would come from somebody well beyond Guenther. Financially speaking, it's not likely. The Bengals won't get a cap savings for letting go of Atkins until after the 2015 season.
The Cincinnati Bengals have 15 free agents as they enter the 2015 offseason following Sunday's 26-10 loss in the wild-card playoff game. The new league year opens at 10 a.m. ET on March 10, when unrestricted free agents can sign with any team.

Here's a list of the Bengals' unrestricted and restricted free agents:

Jason Campbell, QB
Cedric Peerman, RB
Dane Sanzenbacher, WR
Brandon Tate, WR
Jermaine Gresham, TE
Alex Smith, TE
Clint Boling, OG
Marshall Newhouse, OT
Eric Winston, OT
Rey Maualuga, LB
Terence Newman, CB
Taylor Mays, S
Mike Nugent, PK

Devon Still, DT
Emmanuel Lamur, LB