The Bengals offseason storylines are rushing out of Saturday's loss in the AFC Wild Card game at Houston.
Building off two straight playoff appearances. The career track of quarterback Andy Dalton. The effort to keep the NFL's No. 6 defense intact. The future of head coach Marvin Lewis's offensive and defensive coordinators. What to do with three draft picks in the first 55 selections?
BUILDING OFF TWO STRAIGHT PLAYOFF APPEARANCES
The torches and pitchforks have been let loose in the streets of Bengaldom running with Rey Maualuga's eye black and the orange scraped off Jermaine Gresham's gloves. The Mayan Calendar had it right. Just two weeks late. Doomsday has arrived and there is no bottled water with no playoff victory since George Bush I.
But the men who have kept this team together, like left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko, preached perspective in Saturday's crushed locker room that housed Cincinnati's first back-to-back postseason team in 30 years.
A team that lined up on offense with five first- or second-year starters had a shot on the road in the last three minutes to beat a 12-4 team that had lost only to playoff teams. Whitworth talked about the youth and how it is part of his job to lead the youngsters to water. Peko talked about the foundation of a team that has won 17 games over the past two seasons with one of the league's youngest rosters.
"No one is ready to go home to the offseason. It's very disappointing; very disappointing," Peko said. "One thing I can tell you is we had guys that played their hearts out.
"We have a good solid foundation of guys here in this organization. We have young guys that are great players. Geno (Atkins), A.J. (Green), Andy, Gresham. All the keys to the puzzle are here. We have to keep getting better. We made the playoffs twice in a row. That's a great step for this organization. We look forward to getting farther next year."
There was a lot of talk Saturday about knocking on the door and breaking it down. Expect to hear the doorbell many times between now and training camp.
One thing that was impressive was how Maualuga and Gresham owned up to their struggles Saturday, Gresham via Twitter and Maualuga in his postgame remarks to the media.
DALTON'S CAREER TRACK
For a young guy that has accomplished so much in his 32 regular-season games (two postseason appearances, a .594 winning percentage, 11-5 on the road, a Pro Bowl), Dalton knows he now has to live down his two playoff appearances, in which he hasn't thrown a touchdown pass, has completed just 57 percent of his passes and has a postseason passer rating of 48.2. All that on the heels of his final six games, when he threw four touchdowns and six interceptions.
When the players meet the media one last time this season Monday, no doubt the straight-shooting Dalton is going to talk about needing to improve his game.
But any talk of replacing Dalton is premature. A quick review of the Bengals careers of Ken Anderson and Boomer Esiason shows the Bengals are going to stick with Dalton through at least year three.
Still, 2013 is no doubt a big year for Dalton because the Bengals can start talking contract with him at the end of the year. When Carson Palmer had a Pro Bowl season with MVP-type numbers after his third season, the Bengals gave him the biggest deal in history at that time.
But let's remember back in November when the Bengals were running the ball well enough to get 100-yard games from running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and giving Dalton some play-action shots that helped keep people out of his face. Dalton was excellent with a string of triple-digit passer ratings. Yet he hasn't had a lot of time in the last month as evidenced by the sack stats. We'll be hearing from now until training camp how the rest of the offense has to play better around him. In the four-game winning streak, he was sacked a total of five times. In December he was sacked at least five times in three games.
And Dalton's deep ball is going to be a Hot Stove topic.
Dalton came into last spring's workouts concentrating on his deep ball accuracy and he goes back into the offseason after missing three long ones that might have won Saturday's game. Dalton underthrew rookie wide receiver Marvin Jones at the Texans 10 in the first half, probably put too much air on the ball to Green in the end zone that gave cornerback Kareem Jackson time to run over and give Johnathan Joseph help early in the fourth quarter, and he overthrew Green in the end zone with 2:57 left on third-and-11.
(And although it wasn't a long one, Dalton's low throw on the next snap to Jones on fourth-and-11 didn't give him a chance to catch-and-run for the first down.)
But then again, he threw a beauty to Green for a 45-yarder early in the third quarter to get the Bengals back in the game. So he can do it, but we'll be hearing about Saturday's 1-for-4 percentage for the next half year and how Dalton and Green should be able to do what Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin did for the Ravens on Sunday in their Wild Card game: get it close and let the receiver make a play.
KEEPING THE DEFENSE INTACT
The Bengals have a couple of free agent starters they'd probably like to keep, such as ends Michael Johnson and Robert Geathers, and cornerback Terence Newman. Where Maualuga falls on that list is interesting because of the productive year Vontaze Burfict had playing out of the middle for the first time in his career and the emergence of rookie Emmanuel Lamur outside. Geathers turns 30 in training camp but he had a solid season and won't be looking at the mega deal as Johnson. Johnson is the leader-in-the-clubhouse to get franchised if there's no deal before March.
Besides Burfict, the Bengals have other rookies they're excited about. Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and Shaun Prater were basically hurt all year, and the fact Lamur played so much Saturday shows what the club thinks of him. Tackles Devon Still and Brandon Thompson looked promising.
And with veteran nickel corner Adam Jones coming off a fine year after signing a one-year deal, that is part of the storyline. So is the safety spot opposite Reggie Nelson, a position that figures to be addressed.
None of Cincinnati's young players have made a big enough impression at that spot. The Bengals got 32-year-old Chris Crocker in the third week of the season and when he couldn't play on Saturday they replaced him with 33-year-old Nate Clements playing his first season at safety.
Guys like Johnson and Geathers have said they want to be back.
"Great guys and we've got something good going," Johnson said after Saturday's game.
THE FUTURES OF DC MIKE ZIMMER AND OC JAY GRUDEN
This is a storyline with a short shelf life. It shouldn't go beyond a couple of weeks with a handful of teams looking to fill head coaching vacancies. Published reports have the Eagles and Cardinals interested in Gruden and at some point Zimmer's name may surface again after a year his unit paved the way for another playoff appearance. The next big date on the calendar is Jan. 20-22, when the Bengals coaches head out to scout the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., which doubles as an NFL job fair.
Another guy that figures to be a factor somewhere is assistant secondary and special teams coach Hue Jackson, a respected offensive mind who found himself on the market when the Raiders surprisingly fired him last season after one season at 8-8.
Thanks to Carson Palmer and the Raiders, the Bengals get a top five pick in the second round in addition to their own in the bottom middle of the round.
It would appear to be the perfect spot to get a playmaking running back. The Bengals have the consummate blue-collar runner in Green-Ellis and to team him with an explosive stretch-the-field guy would make Dalton better in a hurry.
Other spots they could grab with those first three picks? A safety, an outside backer, and what about a tackle? Right tackle Andre Smith is a guy the Bengals would probably like to re-sign, but at the moment he's scheduled to become a free agent. The Bengals have drawn raves for their last three drafts. Three solid picks here can go a long way in making them better. The buzz will be just as intense as last year's draft run-up with two first-round picks.
Let's see. The first Bengals.com Media Mock Draft is ticketed for the week after late February's NFL Scouting Combine.