Fay: Bengals face an uncertain 2017

Posted at 5:04 PM, Jan 02, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-03 11:28:52-05

CINCINNATI -- It could go either way for the Bengals in 2017.

The '17 Bengals season is likely to be a turning point for the franchise. Coach Marvin Lewis is in the last year of his contract. The '16 season was a big step back, and the free-agent list should scare everyone in Bengal-land.

To Lewis' credit, he has had back-to-back losing seasons only once in his 14 years as Bengals coach. But, after the playoff failures and 6-9-1, it would behoove Lewis to turn it around in '17. He knows that.

‘‘It’s my job to get us back to be playing (in the playoffs) right now," he said.

Lewis said he hasn’t talked to team president Mike Brown about his status, i.e, an extension, since Friday.

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"I’ve gone into the last year (of my contract) before and everything worked out fine," Lewis said. "I expect it to be fine one way or another. I’m not concerned about that. My biggest concern is we take care of the football team."

Lewis' post-mortem press conference was filled with generalities, but he said he thinks the problem was on the offensive side. The Bengals gave up an average 15.4 points in each of the last eight games and went 3-5.

"We weren’t scoring in the second half," Lewis said. "We’ve got to figure out why. We didn’t win the fourth quarter yesterday in a game we played very well."

Offensive coordinator Ken Zampese was in his first year, and Lewis wouldn’t say whether all the assistant coaches would be back.

Someone asked safety George Iloka if the Bengals are “close" to getting back to winning.

"The way the league is set up, the word 'close' is relative," he said. "Look at the Cowboys. Would you have said they’d be in the position they’re in now? It’s all how they attack the offseason (and) the things they do upstairs. Next year could be a whole different story -- for better or worse."

That’s astute analysis. Other players were more optimistic.

"We feel like we have all the potential we had going into this year," quarterback Andy Dalton said. “A couple games went differently than we thought. If a few things would have changed this year, we would be in a different position. We still have a lot of confidence in the guys we have. We’ve got to put it all together. That’s what the offseason is for."

But the reality is that the Bengals face a ton of questions this offseason. Their two best offensive linemen, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and guard Kevin Zeitler, are free agents. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick is a free agent as well, as are linebacker Karlos Dansby, defensive tackle Domata Peko and wide receiver Brandon LaFell.

That’s five starters.

Given how much losing free agents -- such as receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, safety Reggie Nelson and right tackle Andre Smith -- hurt the team in 2016, that’s a scary proposition.

Lewis wouldn’t say specifically who’s in the plan for '17.

"Everybody’s in our plans until they’re not," Lewis said. "That’s the way it is. I said early in the season that I like our guys. We finished and we still like them. We didn’t get to where we needed to get to. We’ll see how it works out."

Part of it is out of Lewis' hands.

“I’m not in on the end financial part," he said. “That’s the part that me as the coach has to separate from it."

Dalton is an optimistic guy, but he knows for the team to have a chance to rebound, signing Whitworth is paramount. Pro Football Focus rated Whitworth at 91.3, making him the only Bengal to earn elite status, but his value goes beyond that.

“I obviously want to have Whit back," Dalton said. “Whit’s a guy who’s been a key part of this team ever since he’s been here. He works with the young guys. He’s taken guys under his wing. If anything ever needs to happen, if guys have questions, he’s usually a guy everybody goes to. That how it was when I first got here, that’s how it still is.

“Hopefully, we can get him back."

The only thing Lewis said specifically about personnel is that there will be a competition for kicker. "I told Randy (Bullock) that," he said. “We can’t go through what we did this year."

The players cleaned out their lockers, met with Lewis and headed home for the offseason Monday. The scene had a different feeling from the previous five years when the season ended with playoff disappointment.

This year, the disappointment simmered all year. The finality of it set in with the loss to Pittsburgh in Week 15.

"We’ve known for a while," Iloka said. "It feels different. We’ve had a lot of time to come to grips with it. Then we ended on a win. ... It’s kind of a weird feeling. It doesn’t feel like the offseason yet."

But it is. It’s on to '17 and the changes it will bring.

"There’s a lot of changes every year," Lewis said. “We weren’t good enough this year. We’ve got to revise and be better."