All the telltale signs that the Bengals offseason had begun began to whir late Sunday afternoon at Paul Brown Stadium after the last decimal point had been crunched in the 38-3 loss to the Ravens in the season finale:
- With the Bengals locking down the fifth pick in the draft, old Joe Burrow target, LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase, along with Northwestern tackle Rashawn Slater, were the mock draft leaders.
- As Burrow moves into his second month of post-op for a reconstructed knee and is expected to surface at PBS in a week or so, the post-holiday Joe Rehab Marathon is now officially on the Who Dey Channel 24-7.
"I text him, check in on him. Early on I know he was going through a lot. Surgery and all that," said tight end Drew Sample. "It seems like he's doing well out in California. That's all you can really hope for. I worked out with him a little bit and saw the kind of work ethic he has. I know he's grinding it out there. He's attacking rehab. It's exciting for us as players because he's obviously a leader on our offense and it will be exciting when he gets back in and is ready to roll next year."
- After 10 Opening Day starters were left standing when Sunday's game ended, head coach Zac Taylor knows he has to build on the two previous winning weeks his team scored 64 points without their leading passer, rusher or receiver. The offense that could manage just 48 passing yards against Baltimore had just four Opening Day starters in Sunday's final huddle.
"You have to compartmentalize it all," Taylor said. "It's not how we wanted to end, no question about that. Certainly we did some good things those last two weeks. We have to continue to build from everything — good and bad — happened over the course of the season. We have to focus on improving over the course of the spring."
- After wide receiver A.J. Green went into free agency with one of the Bengals greatest careers, one of the leaders of the next generation offered a heart-felt salute.
"He has a great life ahead of just that record, " said free safety Jessie Bates III, "so he'll go play ball, maybe not here next year, and I'm sure he'll have a lot of success because I know what he stands for. I'm very honored to be able to play with someone like him and also learn to help my career as well."
- As the coaching carousel started to grind even before the Bengals went through the final walk-through late Saturday afternoon (reports have the Bengals moving on from several assistant coaches), Taylor deferred all off-season questions. They'll come in a torrent when he's expected to make his Zoom remarks early Monday afternoon.
"Definitely haven't heard anything," said running back Trayveon Williams, whose position coach, Jemal Singleton, is reportedly headed elsewhere. "Today was our game plan to go out there and play the Ravens so that's all we care about right now so didn't hear anything. This is the NFL, it's a puzzle league so puzzle pieces move around. You just have to be ready for what you have when you have it."
The Bengals know they've got some big puzzle pieces in place. On offense they know for sure there is Burrow and running back Joe Mixon, who have played 5.5 games together, and wide receivers Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, who were both on pace for 1,000 yards at one point until injuries derailed them.
On defense, they need more pieces in the front seven. But the middle of the field is set with their two safeties in Bates, PFF's No. 1, and Vonn Bell, their leading tackler and turnover man. The young linebackers emerged along with the season, but on Sunday they were also playing behind one starting tackle that got here Labor Day (Christian Covington) and one that got here Columbus Day (Xavier Williams).
And, make no mistake, Covington and Williams were terrific and the scouts were good to find them and lucky to have them. But they also weren't a healthy Geno Atkins, D.J. Reader or Mike Daniels.
Plus, there are a slew of injured defensive players coming back. But Bates understands there is plenty of change coming.
"You know, today was kind of special as far as it being our last game, a lot of uncertainty going on into the offseason with guys that have been here a long time," Bates said. "Having new guys in the locker room next year will be very different, so my mindset going into this game was just play really hard for all the guys that have put so much time into the season. Even though we lost, got our butt kicked tonight, I just want to focus more on the guys that continue to fight.
"You get two wins back-to-back in Week 15 and 16 and that's not easy to do, so I don't want to focus on the negatives. I'm just going to go enjoy the teammates tonight because this won't be the same without some of those guys who won't be in the locker room next year."
Some eyebrows were raised with the Ravens leading, 31-3, late in the third quarter and running back J.K. Dobbins walking through the Bengals middle virtually untouched for a 72-yard touchdown run. If there's ever a sign the offseason is here, it is questions about effort. But Taylor and Bates were quick to defend the defense's motor.
Taylor was thinking about guys like Covington and Williams going all out and how his three pre-season starting cornerbacks in July, Trae Waynes, William Jackson III and Mackensie Alexander, were nowhere to be seen on Sunday. Not to mention nickel linebacker Logan Wilson.
"We were missing a fair amount of guys. That's no fun. I don't question the effort," Taylor said. "I haven't seen the tape yet obviously, but there wasn't anything that stood out from that standpoint. We ran into a really good football team that can run it as well any team in the league. They had enough long runs there that really broke our backs in some situations. We do expect to be better, but it was a tough matchup right now."
And you know it's the offseason because there are chicken-and-egg questions. Bates admitted, "It was kind of bumpy," for the defense in 2020.
"I feel like the word consistent always comes up when you talk about this year. We were close," Bates said. "We did a really good job of doing the things we didn't do well the (previous) year, and having a better understanding of the defense. That's how I feel about the way our defense played. I think a lot of guys were banged up, and a lot of guys stepped up into roles. That was good to see."
But what came first? Inconsistency? Or injury?
"I'm not sure exactly," Bates said. "I think it was something that we have to focus on throughout this offseason."
And now it's here.
You'll know for sure when the pundits note the Bengals allowed a record 404 yards rushing against the Ravens Sunday and start mocking them Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons to start the four-month guessing game.
Parsons? Chase? Slater? Or somebody else?
The offseason has only just begun.