After Sunday's 27-10 upset loss to the Chargers in Sunday's wild card game, the Bengals were sticking with Andy Dalton and the program that secured three straight playoff berths with records on both sides of the ball.
That could change as soon as this week with both coordinators confirming they have multiple interviews scheduled for head coaching vacancies amid reports that offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is the heavy favorite in Washington.
Meanwhile, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis began his 12th season with a face-to-face endorsement of embattled quarterback Andy Dalton before reiterating it publicly at his Monday news conference.
"He's won big games for us and he'll continue to win big games. We ask a lot out of him, there's no doubt about it. He just finished his third season of doing it. I believe in his abilities, I believe in his makeup, I believe in his maturity and I believe in his ability to let the last play go and move on to the next play. That's probably one of his best attributes along with his abilities," Lewis said. "He had another very good season. He's progressed well. We need to continue to do things to make his job just easier and easier to do, and make sure to continue to be repetitive with what we do for him, and continue to let the players around him continue to get better, and they continue to get better and that's all we have to work at."
Apparently Dalton was looking for that assurance. After taking part in three turnovers in his third straight poor postseason performance, Dalton is under terrific heat from fans and pundits despite his three-year starting record in the regular season of 30-18 as one of four quarterbacks in NFL history to lead his team to the postseason in his first three years as a pro.
With Peyton Manning poised to play the Chargers in Denver this week, Dalton has more regular-season wins (30-26) than Manning, the same number of postseason wins, and trails by only five (85-80) in TD passes after their first three seasons. Only Dalton, Manning and Dan Marino (98) have thrown at least 80 TDs in their first three seasons.
Lewis is also under fire with his postseason record at 0-5 after three home losses. But he, New England's Bill Belichick and Baltimore's John Harbaugh are also the only AFC coaches to go to at least four of the last five postseasons, so Lewis doesn't think it is so crazy that he keeps his job.
"I don't think it's a unique situation. I think we've been in a unique area where we've continued to progress and do things. We continue to move forward," he said. "Yesterday we lost a playoff game we all thought we would win. We didn't win it. I think that's the thing. I don't think the situation is unique at all. I think if the other places were in the situation they were in and lost the playoff game after winning the division their head coach would be in place. Don't you?"
Lewis is as emphatic about his job as he is Dalton's.
"Yes, I believe so. Is there a better answer for that?" Lewis asked when questioned if he's the coach to get the Bengals to the next level. "I'm the guy in the seat. So, we'll be fine. Today sucks. We'll be better. We'll be all right.
Dalton's outing, a scattery, scrambling 67 passer rating in which he threw 51 times and was picked off twice while fumbling away one, was viewed as part of a national doubleheader that averaged 38.9 million for the most watched Sunday wild card games in at least 20 years.
"That moving forward there is a lot that's still out there. He said I am the guy he believes in and he believes that I can get us over the next hump," Dalton recounted of Monday's conversation with Lewis. "It's great to hear that from your coach and that's what I wanted to hear.
"I think everybody knows what I've been able to do here, what we've been able to do since I've been here as a team. And so I think I've got a lot of confidence in the stuff Marvin has been telling me. I expect to be here for a long time. I'm hoping that is the case. I've got a good relationship with Marvin; he's been telling me a lot of good stuff. Yeah, it's unfortunate that we lost but we've been able to improve every year that I've been here."
Gruden agreed, saying "it didn't show yesterday, but I think over the course of a 16-game season, 17-game season if you look at what he accomplished, the points that we scored and the yards of offense that we had and the wins that we accumulated, I think that shows progress."
But Gruden also said he felt Dalton pressed once the Bengals fell behind, 14-10, with nearly six minutes left in the third quarter.
"Once you're in the playoffs and you get a lead and then all of a sudden you lose a lead and then all of a sudden you start pressing just a little too much and you start trying to scramble to try and make things happen that you're not used to making, it becomes difficult," Gruden said. "If there is one negative, I think that Andy probably pressed a little too much and tried to do too many things out of pocket, which is not what his strength is.
"I don't think he's ready to be the guy who wins the game by himself. I don't know how many quarterbacks are. There's only a select few of those in the NFL. But we need to be great around him, and we weren't great around him. I wasn't great. The receivers weren't great. The line wasn't great. So he needs some help, and we just didn't get enough to him.
Dalton has a good idea what he wants to work on during the offseason and it's not so much mechanics or the long ball. It's the mental part of the game.
"It's managing different game situations. Knowing different things that go on," Dalton said. "I was sitting there talking with the coaches about certain situations we wished would have turned out different. It's just understanding where you are at in a game, what's going on, clock management or whatever the little things are that help with a game. There's different things of controlling that. And it's making sure that everybody is on the same page. Knowing when I look back at some of the bad plays that I had and how much risk I was taking on certain throws and things like that. It will be good to reflect on that and also the good stuff. You want to see what you are doing well, what you like and keep moving forward from there. "
Dalton isn't the only one taking heat. Gruden is under fire for exposing him to 51 pass attempts that allowed the Chargers to heat up the battered Bengals offensive line.
"We tried to stick with the run a little bit. We didn't hit any of the big ones and we were stuck in second-and-eight, second-and-nine a lot of times," Gruden said. "I still tried to run the screens and draws and some of those one-back power things but we just didn't have a lot of success. When we did move the ball we threw the interception on first-and-10 at the 45, and Andy tried to dive for the first down and fumbled and Gio fumbled at the one-yard line. Turnovers, they hurt us. They hurt us bad, obviously."
When Lewis and Gruden were asked how they can help Dalton more, Lewis didn't exactly jump on the Philip Rivers comparison. Rivers, the Chargers quarterback, committed no turnovers throwing just 16 times Sunday.
"There's maybe ways we can just keep getting better at it," Lewis said. "We are comparing him to guys that have been in the league for a long time. And doing a lot. Some of them didn't play when he played. We're asking a lot. Some got to sit and watch others. But we want him to be better than they are. That's what we are asking him to do and we want it done in short order."
Gruden says there's no such thing as making throws easier for an NFL quarterback.
"He threw a couple of screens. One of them Gio (Bernard) got tackled and we had to throw it away, another a release screen the guy tipped it down at the line," Gruden said. "Every throw, there's not a throw you can have in the NFL that doesn't take work and is easy. It's not like we can just throw it to him right there, he's going to be wide open. … There is no sure-fire way to make it easy on him but we have to do a better job of trying to get him easy completions and move the chains and stay in positive downs and distances … I think yesterday we had again too many third-and-nine plusses. That's the big thing that we discussed going into the game, was staying out of third and longs. It's a blitzfest."
Sunday's game plan was complicated by last week's injuries that took tackles Anthony Collins and Andre Smith, and center Kyle Cook out of most of practice, as well as left guard Andrew Whitworth. And right guard Kevin Zeitler appeared to struggle physically (he played just 63 percent of the snaps). Plus tight ends Jermaine Gresham (hamstring) and Tyler Eifert (neck) were late appearances during the week and Gruden basically held out Eifert when he saw him in warmups.
"I didn't know if we'd have the two tight-end package up or not until Saturday," Gruden said. "Every defense is unique in the style that they play and not being able to give those guys those looks early in the week I think had an impact on the game, and them not being 100 percent had a little bit of an impact, too."