“The key to winning is poise under stress.”
- Paul Brown
CINCINNATI — That quote from the founder of the team flashed on monitors inside the Bengals' locker room Monday morning — 36 hours or so after an extreme lack of poise cost the Bengals dearly in an 18-16 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The team was left to pick up the pieces and move on. The players defended coach Marvin Lewis, but some of the team leaders acknowledged that the lack of discipline must be overcome for the team take the next step.
“I think a lot of people put emphasis on (Lewis),” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “But the reality is we played a lot of great football all year long. We were a great football team all year long. He’s the reason for that. The things he does on a day-in, day-out basis, you get credit for that, too. When you lose, everyone wants to find the exact person who is at fault. That’s the nature of this business. But the reality is coach Lewis has done a great job here and will continue to do great job.
“The onus is on the players. Leadership is a hard thing. I think that’s on us as players.”
Defense tackle Domata Peko said Lewis talked about the discipline issue in the players' meeting Monday.
“Like coach said, it’s something we’ve got to learn from our mistakes," Peko said. “Under stress, we’ve got to keep our composure. That’s something we’ve really got to improve on to get over the hump. That’s the closest we’ve ever been. We had it.”
The Bengals basically let the game slip away with two penalties on one play with 23 seconds remaining. Linebacker Vontaze Burfict was called for a hit on a defenseless receiver. Adam Jones was called for bumping a referee. The 30 yards made Chris Boswell’s game-winning field goal a chip shot.
“I learned a lot from my actions in that game,” Jones said. “I hurt myself and I hurt the team. But you can’t let one play take away from that I played a hell of a game.”
Jones thinks the blame placed on Burfict is misplaced.
“It doesn’t all come down to that,” Jones said. “That’s what (the media) makes it. Everyone says me and Vontaze lost the game. That game should have been over with. Of course, we have to keep our composure.”
Jones has a point there. If Jeremy Hill doesn’t fumble, the Bengals win and they’re talking about playing New England instead of rehashing another heartbreaking loss.
“The reality is if we keep the football . . . we would have had second-and-2 or 3. . . we had a chance to put away the game,” Whitworth said. “We wouldn’t be talking about us losing control. I don’t think we can be judged on a 12-4 football season on one playoff game. I think it would be hard to say that’s an uncontrolled football team. This locker room is a bunch of great guys. I don’t think you judge them on two minutes.”
Jones said his penalty resulted from Pittsburgh assistant coach Joey Porter being on the field. Another assistant coach, Mike Munchak, was flagged for grabbing Reggie Nelson.
“I learned a lot from this game,” Jones said. “Coaches have to be held to a higher standard. Mike Munchak grabbing Reggie (Nelson’s) hair -- thank God that wasn’t me. I just wouldn’t have walked away in the heat of the moment.”
Others pointed to Porter’s behavior as well.
Whitworth said he has tremendous respect for the Steelers. He gave coach Mike Tomlin a hug and apologized for some of the behavior by the Bengals.
“But Joey Porter isn’t one of the guys I respect,” Whitworth said. “He’s not a player anymore. He’s a coach. He has to be held to a higher standard.”
But Porter got the reaction he wanted.
“That was crazy,” Dunlap said. “They were in the huddle of my guys. He wasn’t attending to the injured guy. But at the end of the day, you can’t bite the cheese. You’ve got handle your emotions better.”
Discipline was emphasized all week in preparation for the Steelers game.
“That was one of the keys all week,” Dunlap said. “I feel like it came from a string of things, a mix of things not exactly going our way. High emotions. But you’ve got to put the team ahead your emotions.”
It was the seventh straight loss in the first round of the playoffs under Lewis. It was different because the Bengals had this one in hand. Burfict’s interception with 1:23 left seemingly sealed it.
“I was on the highest of highs,” Peko said. “I thought the curse was lifted. At end of the game, we killed ourselves.”
Peko said Lewis said he will sit players for discipline lapses in the future. But a lot of it falls upon the players.
"It's extremely important for the leadership of this team to look at that," Whitworth said. "How we carry ourselves. Also making sure that we have the discipline it takes to win all the time. That means not just winning in the sense of getting Ws, but if it’s a close game, keep your composure, pull together. What you see this time of the year is the best teams win.”
The Bengals obviously thought they were better than how their season ended.
“It still hurts not to go where you think you could have gone,” Whitworth said. “The reality is, from coach Lewis to the staff to all the players, it says a lot about us that every year we rebuild and improve every year. Every year, we get better. It takes real men to do it over again. I look forward to the opportunity to rebuild.”
This year’s rebuilding process will be difficult. The club has a long list of free agents, including receivers Brandon Tate, Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu; offensive tackles Andre Smith and Eric Winston; linebackers Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur; cornerbacks Jones and Leon Hall; and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is a candidate for several head coaching jobs.
“This team and the leadership of it upstairs will do what they can,” Whitworth said. “It’s a hard process. But it’s also a great one. When you have success, players get rewarded. Hopefully, those guys will be rewarded here. But you never know what’s going to happen. When you have success, teams want your guys badly.”
For now, however, the sting of the end of season is too fresh to think much about the future.
“It’s like bad dream,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “I feel the same I did on Saturday.”
John Fay is freelance sports columnist. This column represents his opinion.