No controversy for Andy Dalton this year.
MOBILE, Ala. - There have been no visible changes since the Bengals season ended in the Wild Card Game for the fourth straight year 18 days ago in Indianapolis as the coaching staff and quarterback depth chart has stayed intact.
But head coach Marvin Lewis scanned the South's practice Wednesday during the Reese's Senior Bowl week and said despite the sheen of status quo, it has been anything but at Paul Brown Stadium.
He pointed to Bengals president Mike Brown's aggressive posture in the young offseason as the club eyes shoring up several positions in the draft, as well as free agency.
"I think everyone is committed to that. It's a different feel than where we have been. It's not a status quo," Lewis said. "There has not been a status quo conversation or 'Oh, we'll be OK, we'll just get these guys back.' No, no, no, that's bull. We got to be better.
"(Brown is) the one leading the charge. He doesn't want to hear we will be better when we get these guys back. No, we need to get better. He knows we need to get better. He's pushing people to identify players that will make us a better football team in free agency."
Everyone knows the laundry list of needs and not all of them can be met on Draft Day if this club is to get back the playoffs for a fifth straight season. A tackle. A pass rusher. A wide receiver. A blocking tight end. A middle backer. An outside backer.
Brown and Lewis are of the same mind when it comes to free agency. They aren't looking to go on a wild spree in those first few days of the league year, especially with four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green next in line to get paid.
(Also this: those big unrestricted free agent deals take you out of the running for compensatory draft picks, which are rewarded on a formula based on size of the contract and number of snaps and the Bengals are poised to have a big haul this year.
Losing defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins to the Bucs should net them at least an extra third-rounder and fifth-rounder. Signing a similar, upper tier UFA would knock them out of a draft pick, but free agents who have been cut don't count, and they've have had success with middle tier guys lately, like cornerback Terence Newman and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis a few years ago.
So they may be looking for those same kinds of reliable, solid, unspectacular veterans.
"I don't know who they would be," Lewis said. "Come in right away and play, not just a starter, but above the starting level. They can make everyone else above them better. You've got to be careful what you say with big free agent. That term doesn't fit me very well. The guy has to be a fit to what we are doing. We don't want to take a step sideways to try to immerse someone into what we are doing. This guy has to be an accent, an upgrade to the things you are doing."
Part of the plan, no doubt, is focused on signing some of their own free agents, such as middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, left guard Clint Boling, and kicker Mike Nugent. Another part seems to be not letting the draft dictate free agency. Find a fit in March and draft what's missing in May.
"I think we feel we have some holes to fill, some free agents at positions for us where they are a critical part of our depth so we have to look at parallel paths as well," Lewis said. "I think the way we are set up to go through it and look at it is let's go pick off whatever positions we can pick up and consider the rest through the draft. But don't go in and say we are just going to focus on this. Let's go get the best players that fit us in whatever ways we have agreed upon early on in March and finish the process in May."
Lewis thinks the Bengals are going to be better simply because his first-year coordinators on offense and defense return. But he thinks the locker room's massive facelift with an expanded weight room and cafeteria that basically turns it into a new facility and will be waiting for the players when they return in April is also a good way to set a fresh tone.
Something new? Lewis doesn't usually call out players but on Wednesday he sent a message to the top ones.
"We've got to raise the level of competitiveness to compete and make critical plays in critical moments which allow you to win the critical games all the time, consistently," Lewis said. "Your great players play great all the time in big games and your other players play as good as they can play.
"We are going into a new facility for the offseason. All those things take into account we have to look at everything we do every inch of the day and every minute of the day and make sure it is going to benefit us to be world champions. We are not satisfied. We have to have everybody pointed in that direction, every coach, every player. If you are not moving in the right direction we have to find guys that are committed to that. That means raise the level of competition."
But Lewis won't ratchet up the competition at quarterback with a hot-shot rookie or hired gun. In his 12 previous seasons he's never had a quarterback controversy and he thinks that's been a reason they've gone to six postseasons.
"I don't read about it," said Lewis of Dalton's polarizing status in Bengaldom. "There would only be about 25 teams that would take him in a heartbeat."
Dalton, Carson Palmer and Jon Kitna have started 186 of Lewis' 198 games in Cincinnati. The closest hint of a controversy came when No. 1 pick Carson Palmer came back for his second season after Kitna's NFL Comeback Player of the Year season. Lewis didn't hesitate in going to Palmer when the off-season workouts started.
"We have no problem with Andy Dalton as our quarterback. We don't have time to waste time with another quarterback," Lewis said. "To not continue to press forward and get Andy better and to get whoever the backup quarterbacks are better. The quarterback competition. Where has it worked? It doesn't get you wins."