The biggest equalizer in the NFL is the day after every team's last game. Whether you win it to avoid the first draft pick or lose it like the Bengals did in Sunday's AFC title game, the next day is always the same at 0-0.
So on Monday, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, whose five playoff wins are the most of any current head coach with four or fewer seasons, conducted exit interviews with the players on the what he calls the closest team he's ever had while his players packed their belongings in garbage bags,
Or, if you're like running back Joe Mixon, who lives near equipment assistant Sam Staley, you can get some stuff dropped off at the house before you take off to go back home to California.
And since it was the day after the season, Taylor began answering questions about keeping said team together with two of his coordinators being interviewed for head coaching jobs while three of the four starting defenders who are free agents made it known they'd like to stay.
Off the franchise's first 10-game winning streak, first back-to-back division titles and first appearance in two straight AFC title games, they're trying to keep together one of the NFL's elite teams.
"We're in the final four two years in a row," said center Ted Karras. "That puts us in the top four, I guess, for the year. There's no rollover factor; there's no transitive property in the NFL. We have to come back ready to go. There's been a lot of history of teams that don't do well after a long season like that. We'll do everything we can to start faster next year and our goal is to get back to the championship game."
The continuity of Taylor's coaching staff in this era is mind-boggling. If offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo return for a fifth season, it would be the longest stint the Bengals have had the same head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators. In the '80s, head coach Sam Wyche had offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for four seasons before Coslet became head coach of the Jets in 1990.
The Bengals are already moving to keep things status quo around quarterback Joe Burrow. According to reports, quarterbacks coach Dan Pitcher just reached a contract extension with the Bengals rather than field more interest from teams like Tampa Bay looking for offensive coordinators.
Such a move cushions the potential blow of losing Callahan, reportedly being brought back for a second interview as the Colts head coach and now in the mix for the Arizona job. According to reports, Anarumo is also under consideration with the Cardinals.
"I certainly hope that they get a chance to take advantage of those opportunities and become head coaches," Taylor said. "And if they're back, that's great for me and all of us. That's part of being a successful team. People are going to come and want to talk to your coaches. And we've got a lot of great coaches here that are more than capable."
Any player numbers most likely revolve around the contract extension for Burrow and Taylor officially kicked off the offseason when he fielded a question about Burrow's deal, eligible to be negotiated this offseason.
"I think that starts now internally. We just wrapped up with the team today and as you go forward, you get a chance to start talking about Joe and all the other players that are up," Taylor said. "Fortunately, I don't have to put that on paper in terms of what that is. That's just the business we're in right now. He's everything we want to be about. He is a hard worker. He cares about his teammates. He cares about where he's from, Ohio, this fan base. I think he represents us the right way. I think we take a lot of pride in having Joe Burrow as our quarterback."
The Bengals are banking on free agents feeling like linebacker Germaine Pratt, one of the engines of Anarumo's defense with his remarkable film study.
"Yeah, absolutely," said Pratt of wanting to return. "I would say we've got Joe Burrow as a top quarterback. You want to be around a franchise quarterback that can compete for championships. Nobody wants to leave and go to a team that (doesn't have) a top five quarterback that can take us to championships. I don't want to leave that."
Indeed, Burrow is a big reason center Karras signed in free agency last year. And he's glad he did.
"I had a fantastic time. I think this is an amazing culture. Fun offense to be a part of, a fun team to be a part of it," Karras said. "I'm just really grateful to be here. It was a great opportunity, hopefully made the most of it and hopefully we get another shot to get back to a championship game in 2023.
"The team's not going to be the same. There's going to be changes to every NFL franchise. It's just the nature of the business. Guys are going to have to find their role. I don't know if we have a lot of free agents, but some guys have been there. I've been there. This is my first year in four years that I'm not a free agent going into the offseason, so it's a little different feeling. But I emphasize with a lot of the guys that are going to go on a journey and understand that it's a business. Hopefully we can get everybody back that wants to be here."
Free safety Jessie Bates III says he does despite playing this season under the franchise tag.
"I want to be here," Bates said. "Unfortunately, this business, there's different scenarios where I'm not in a situation where I can leave $10 million on the table and be OK with that. It wouldn't be fair to myself, my family, my legacy. Obviously yes I want to be here. My family is three hours away from here. I've created bonds in this locker room. I want to be here."
It still sounded like a thank you letter to the fans, coaches and teammates who have embraced him while watching him grow from 21-year-old second-round draft pick in 2018 to senior statesman. With the top of his locker stuffed with 2022 game balls, Bates wondered aloud what the heck else he'd find if he has to clean out five years worth of stuff.
"Lou came in when I was a knucklehead thinking I could make every play in the game. The amount of detail work that he taught me. I used to go home, like, 'Man, this new DC doesn't like me. This dude don't like me at all,'" Bates said. "He pushed me. He pushed me to levels that coaches never have before, and that's all you can ask for as a DC, and out of the coach is to challenge you every single day.
"And I think he did that. To watch what he created, the culture that he created in our defense room, I'll be able to take that maybe somewhere else. I'll be able to take that and be a father. I'll be able to do multiple things with the stuff he taught me on the football field. It's an emotional time for me to speak about that. But I'm thankful for him."
The next day after the last game is always about injuries, too. Right guard Alex Cappa (ankle), who was injured in the last minutes of the regular season, confirmed the plan was to play in the Super Bowl, which would have been sweet for a guy who had to sit out the Super Bowl his Buccaneers won in 2020. Yes, he says. He'll be ready for the spring.
But not No. 1 cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who tore his ACL on Halloween in their last loss before Sunday. He has no idea about his timetable and although Joe Burrow won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year last year when he got back for training camp after a November injury, Awuzie knows all knees are different. He also said he's going to stick in Cincinnati to rehab.
Defensive lineman Joseph Ossai's knee buckled on the play that was flagged for a late hit, but Taylor wasn't aware of any MRI results yet. And Burrow's wrist that he looked like he was shaking after taking a shot late in the game appeared OK.
"I talked to him this morning. We had a good conversation. I didn't stare at his wrist," Taylor said. "I'll find out more of the injury stuff a little bit later today."
The day after the last game is also about cleaning up matters and not just lockers. Pratt apologized to Ossai. He was caught on video after the game walking off the field and yelling about Ossai getting so close to quarterback Patrick Mahomes at that key point in the game.
"A guy made a mistake, over and done with it. I was emotional. I was in the moment. I was wrong. I would say I was wrong," Pratt said. "As a man you can look yourself in the mirror and say I was wrong. I wasn't a great teammate in that moment. That doesn't define me as a man. It is what it is, 24 hours, I am going back to work. I've got a great offseason ahead with my kids and family. That's all that matters at the end of the day. When I go home to my kids they love me. When I go home to my fiance who loves me that's all that matters. All the offer stuff isn't relevant it's back to work."
The day after the last game is also about reflecting and Taylor had a lot to do there.
"They should be proud of the way they carried themselves this season and the things that they accomplished," Taylor said. "Back-to-back division titles. Back-to-back AFC Championship appearances. We went from 4-4 to 14-4 and had each other's back and supported each other every step of the way. There's significant things to take away from that.
"You build your own foundation that you want to stand upon. I've just been really proud of sticking together through tough times, whether that's the coaching staff, front office, players that have been here throughout the whole deal, adding new players. I think you're just really proud of the way that everybody's had each other's back, stood firm and allowed us to continue to grow as a team."
And the day after the last game is the first day of the offseason and Karras has plans as he tips his Cincy hat to the fans. Since the bye week, which is the week after the winning streak began, the hat sales have blown up. The goal was to raise $100,000 to build two facilities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities focused on independent living in his hometown of Indianapolis.
"Between donations and sales, we've raised over half a million dollars, which is exceeding the goal to build a new facility in The Village of Merici," Karras said. "It means the world to me. It's an amazing feat. Thank you to all the fans who embraced me, embraced this team. It's been a wonderful year in Cincy. I'm really thankful to be here. Disappointed we couldn't get it done."
That day after a last game? Even tougher the bigger the game.