ML: "To look back a little bit at the game on Saturday, after watching the video, I just felt like we really missed a lot of opportunities. We didn't have much consistency offensively due to those missed opportunities, whether it be drops or one guy getting beat on a block. Defensively, we had some inconsistencies as well, and that led to some second-and-longs getting reduced considerably into third-and-more-manageable situations. It ended up that third down was the key to the game, with our inability to convert and them converting almost 50 percent. So it was, for a lot of our guys, a lesson well-learned that as good a brand of football as you can play, each of those plays means so much and can be significant in the big picture.
"It's a disappointed group, obviously. I don't know that, to a man, anybody had any plans other than to be working this week. It's an incredible fall off the cliff when you lose a playoff game. This group certainly prepared hard, did great things, and was ready to win. We didn't play well enough to do it.
"As a whole, this season was a good season; it wasn't a great season. We didn't accomplish our goal, and that's to win a championship. Obviously we would help ourselves by winning the division and having the opportunity to play at home in front of our fans. Our fans have been great. We did great things on the road this year, but you still want to play at home. "We've got great fans, and they've seen a lot of good things over the last two seasons. And it will continue to get better and better, I believe. But as I told the guys today, we don't get to start again where we left off. We've got to do incredible work and get after it. But we've laid some good pillars, some beams down, some foundations and spikes, and that's a good thing. We'll continue to enhance the football team. We'll continue to get better.
"We have a number of guys this year that will be free agent players. We hope to get the majority of our guys back. We know it's unrealistic to think we're going to get 100 percent of them back, but we'll enhance, fill in and continue to build upon the great nucleus we have of mature guys and younger guys and get us to a championship. It's kind of a bittersweet day here."
In terms of the expectations going into the playoffs, maybe compared to other postseason appearances, was this the most disappointing final team meeting that you've had?
ML: "I don't know if it's the most, but it was disappointing. I can't gauge and look backwards. I'm not very good at looking backwards."
As far as going through those evaluations, and formulating a game plan on which free agents you want to keep, do you take a break or do you get right into that right away?
ML: "I've asked our (position) coaches to write evaluations of their players, and the coordinators to write evaluations from their side of the football. I'll spend time over the next weeks – a month or so – with people in charge of that upstairs. and we'll formulate the plans. Some of it's already been in place and in production. The thing that management here wants to hear is the coaches' input. They don't just necessarily decide those things on their own. They want to hear the input from the coaches and from myself, and then go from there."
You have made the transition from coordinator to head coach. As your coordinators enter a situation where they could be making the same transition, how do you, in this organization, deal with the uncertainty of that process?
ML: "If guys have opportunities to be head coaches, I'm going to be as supportive as I can. I'm happy for them. Hopefully the next people to move into those jobs, if they're successful enough to move on, will have those same opportunities. But other than that, we're pretty much locked down. What's important for me is that I have to worry about the state of the organization and football team after that point. But I'm going to do everything I can to be as supportive as I can if they have opportunity, and if that's something they choose to do. That's the second part of it – sometimes you just don't choose to do it. I've been in that situation myself, where the grass isn't necessarily always greener."
You've now been to a four playoff games, but have not yet come away with a win. How do you get to that next level?
ML: "Win (laughs). Well, you've got to play better than the other team – it's plain and simple. That's being plain and simple with it. There are 30 of these guys that went to their second playoff game, and 20-something just went to their first. So there's not much carry-over."
Have any teams contacted you to interview your coordinators? If so, have you granted them permission to do so?
ML: "Just as I've done in the past, I don't think I've ever confirmed any of that. So I'll continue to stay that way. That's personal to those people. I think it's a better process done within the confines of the buildings, and not with everyone else publicly, until there have been decisions made."
People often talk about "coaching trees" of NFL head coaches, referring to certain successful NFL head coaches and their disciples – the Bill Parcells coaching tree, Bill Belichick coaching tree, etc. With the attention your assistant coaches have gotten, could there be a "Marvin Lewis coaching tree" at some point?
ML: "(Laughs) I don't know if anybody would claim me. They claim the coaches who win a championship, or as the lady sitting in the back said, a playoff game (laughs)."
Over the last few games of the season, your offense went into a funk. If you could do something over again, would you do something different offensively down the stretch?
ML: "We're calling plays to be successful. It's not like were calling plays not to be successful. But we've got to execute them better, we've got to get in better position, we've got to make plays and have more opportunity. We've got to convert third downs – that would be the one message to that the last part of the season -- we fell off on third down. That's something that's always a critical area of playing – being great at third down.
"We went through a stretch where we were really good in the red zone, and we were scoring touchdowns in the red zone on third down. If there's an area that changed, that's probably one of the things. We continue to run the football – we'd have liked to have done it more consistently. We have to build our game off of running the football. We know that when we get into the latter half of the season, that's going to be so, so important. Some of the things are out of our control – what kind of day it is, how windy it is, and some of those things. You get caught trying to throw the ball around the lot, you can have some negative plays that are very minor – tipped ball – that throw you off sequence. But if we can out-physical the other group and get good matchups and good lanes running the football, we have an opportunity to make those third downs more manageable.
"How do we win (in the playoffs) and move on with our season? That would be one of the ways – figure out a way to continue to be very, very good at running the football and defending the run. Defensively, we played a lot of snaps (at Houston) and played all but about 10 exceptional. But 10 snaps kept moving them. They had basically five explosive plays, and we had three. That's the difference in the football game. We had the penalty on the punt that gave them good field position. Things like that. We did a good job in covering (kicks and punts), and we had some good returns. We were kind of going back and forth pretty good. With the line on our behalf, the pendulum kept swinging the other way a little bit, but we kept trying to push it back over."
This may be a little early, but what kind of players are you looking to draft?
ML: "It's way too early to ask that, yes. I can make a blanket statement that we're going draft guys that are going to be productive. It could be the day before the draft, and these guys (the regular media) can tell you, I'm not going to tell you what players we're looking to draft or what kind. Guys that can be productive."
Andy Dalton is getting a lot of heat due to his struggles over the last few games. Do you think the pressure – he's gotten sacked a lot – was much of a factor in his struggles?
ML: "He got sacked one time the other night. The other times he was running to avoid and tried to step up in the pocket. There was one legitimate sack, and he avoided two others very well. I think Andy kind of stood in there and did a good job.
"But we didn't win the game. We didn't have anybody that went out there and played lights-out. That's important. That's the quarterback – he takes the brunt of it sometimes, but we need good things around him as well -- whether it be protection or timing on route. We've got to do those things and keep the pressure off the quarterback as much as we can. They (Houston) did a good job and protected with eight or nine and kept us off their quarterback. There are things design-wise that as we keep looking and getting better, we'll continue to look at them and work from. But we were in a close football game, we had some opportunities, and we failed to make some early plays where we had legitimate looks at things, and they hurt us."
You guys didn't play as well as you probably would have hoped, but you still had an opportunity at the end. If Dalton's pass to A.J. Green in the end zone was a tad shorter, you could very well have won the game:
ML: "I only saw bits and pieces, but there was a game essentially that way last evening (Washington vs. Seattle). In a close football game, every play matters. We were fortunate to hold them to some field goals when they got field position, and we scored a touchdown on defense. We got some points on field goals on offense, but we didn't get touchdowns. We've got Marvin (Jones) running free, we've got some things like that. He (Dalton) is about to release the ball, and the ball gets knocked out of his hand – some of those kinds of things that occur.
"And that's what happens against a good team and good football, playoff football. That's what it's all about. We've kind of ascended to that level, and now we've got to go beyond. The expectations are to go beyond that. But, as I told Andy, 'You've done a lot of good things, you just have to keep pressing forward. Just keep putting your stamp on the football team.' You keep impressing that upon them.' "
Four trips to the playoffs, but you have a goose egg in playoff wins. Do you feel growing pressure?
ML: "Susan Lucci (laughs)."
You're ascending a lot of bad lists in terms of no playoff wins:
ML: "(Cincinnati Enquirer writer Joe Reedy), I just can't wait to get off your next list that you put before me (laughs). I'm going to look forward to next season so I can get off that list for you. You just keep building the lists and we'll keep knocking them down. I thought we had this one knocked down, and I was looking forward to knocking down that one for you. You guys always seem to find the negative of things, and I'll keep trying to look for the positives."
You clearly feel Andy Dalton is the guy who is going to take this team to the next level then, right?
ML: "I clearly feel that way, yes."