Updated: 1/10/12, 2:15 p.m.
Marvin Lewis admitted that spending Sunday out of the NFL playoffs "sucked." But as he started his 10th season as Bengals head coach Monday, Lewis sounded as optimistic as he's ever been at his season wrap-up news conference that ranged from the health of his team to the nuts and bolts of training camp.
Lewis stopped short of saying what everyone expects and that the Bengals are going to stay at home for training camp for the first time ever. But with spring practices now back in place and a possible change in venue, he said there are going to be some camp changes.
Asked about the extra first-round pick the Bengals received in the Carson Palmer trade from the Raiders (No. 17) as well as their own (No. 21), Lewis says "we're in a great position."
"Just because of the attitude of the guys," Lewis said. "You just kind of dip your finger in the deal. We're not satisfied with that. That's going to be the key … they know the difference between good and great."
Lewis echoed what his players said in the visitors locker room following Sunday's 31-10 Wild Card loss in Houston and Monday at PBS as they packed up for the offseason.
"There are a lot of positives to build on," he said. "I felt there was a great mesh between the returning team. They embraced the draft picks initially and they embraced the guys we brought in in free agency. I thought they collectively shared a lot of the same disciplines.
"They shared the same goals and the same work ethic and the same no-nonsense approach to what they were doing. I think they reflected that and they felt good about that and they look forward to that for the future."
Lewis said it's the healthiest his team has ever been heading into an offseason and that all players are expected to be on the field for the first day training camp. That includes cornerback Leon Hall, rehabbing a torn Achilles tendon, and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, believed to be underdoing ankle surgery sometime soon.
Maualuga severely sprained his ankle in practice on Oct. 13 and missed the next three games and four weeks. He came back but never regained the consistency he had early in the season as he grappled with the injury.
Lewis said Hall is coming around well since ripping the Achilles Nov. 13 against the Steelers.
"It can be as good as it was, where it was," Lewis said. "All that's been positive so far."
It's believed Lewis has one year left on his deal even though it has never been confirmed. He said there have been no talks about a contract extension.
GRUDEN SAYS NO CONTACT: Although he was recently characterized as the leading candidate for the Jacksonville head coaching job, Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said Monday he hasn't been contacted by the Jaguars or any other team.
"I haven't heard anything. I'm just sitting here after saying my piece to all our players," Gruden said in his Paul Brown Stadium office as players checked in for one last time this season. "Not that I know of. I'm really just dealing with this season that just ended."
On Tuesday, Gruden had no comment on a report in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch that the Rams have asked permission to talk to him about their head coaching job.
A report surfaced over the weekend that Gruden said he doesn't think he's ready for a head coaching job after one year as an NFL coordinator. On Monday he said whether he's ready or not he's trying to slow down just a bit. After getting hired 11 months ago, Gruden wasn't able to work with players because of the lockout until the start of training camp in late July. He then produced a playoff offense with two rookie of the year candidates in wide receiver A.J. Green and quarterback Andy Dalton.
"It was a grind for 20 some weeks," Gruden said. "I just want to take time and take a deep breath … whatever happens, happens."
NFL Network reported that Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is interviewing for the Dolphins job on Monday. With Jeff Fisher expected to go to St. Louis, other candidates in Miami are interim coach Todd Bowles, Bears special teams coach Dave Toub, and Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin.
But on Tuesday the Rams appeared to be preparing for Fisher not to take the job.
Zimmer has close ties with Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland from their long association in Dallas. Plus, the man that brought Ireland to Miami, Bill Parcells, is a big booster.
Dalton, a first alternate Pro Bowler who says he'd love to get the call for Hawaii, hasn't been thinking about the possibility of losing Gruden. After the scouting process, Dalton was Gruden's first choice of the top quarterbacks and Gruden's West Coast scheme was Dalton's first choice before they were united in the second round.
"Obviously we would love to have Jay stay here," Dalton said. "He's done a good job and I think he's really helped us all out. I think what we were able to do this year would give him that opportunity and what he's been able to do. I guess it's part of it. Everybody is trying to move up. He's done a great job."
Safety Chris Crocker has played for Zimmer in Atlanta and Cincinnati and endorses him, as well as secondary coach Kevin Coyle, an 11-year defensive staffer that would be the leading in-house candidate if Zimmer left.
"He would be the same person he's always been," Crocker said of Zimmer as a head coach. "He's going to be in your face and he's going to be a realist. He's going to tell you the facts and he's going to have a system and a format of the way he wants it done. He's always been about doing things the right way. Any coach like that isn't going to show favoritism. Things won't slide with him."
CED ROLE: Gruden also indicated Monday that the club has to evaluate all aspects of the running game and that means the Bengals must decide if they're going to try and re-sign their leading rusher of the past four seasons.
It doesn't look like it's going to be a slam dunk if they sign Cedric Benson up again. But it never has been in their two deals with him. It sounds like they're going to see if Benson fits the way the offense is evolving. Benson did say Monday he thinks he can succeed in this offense but he also understands he's a free agent.
Gruden realizes that Benson bristled when he put him in a rotation with Bernard Scott even though Benson still ended up with most of the carries.
He loves Benson's hard-running style and toughness, but Gruden also is looking for a lot of out of his running backs.
"From a consistency standpoint, you'd like to get Bernard more carries, more touches and Cedric has earned the right to be a feature back in this offense the last couple of years," Gruden said. "So there's a fine line there. Know what I mean? The more you give it to Bernard, the more you've got Cedric over there scratching his head and not real happy. Really, to me, on a good football team nobody should worry about who's scoring or who's getting the ball. So long as the team is moving."
Gruden cited the powerful offenses in New England, Green Bay and New Orleans as examples of spreading the wealth.
"You look at the great offenses right now and it's somebody different all the time," he said. "It could be (Rob) Gronkowski, it could be (Wes) Welker, it could be (Benjarvus) Green-Ellis one game. It could be Jordy Nelson, (Donald) Driver, it could be (Greg) Jennings, it could be the back. That's the way it's got to be. In New Orleans it's the same way. It could be (Marques) Colston, it could be the big tight end, it could be (Darren) Sproles. So everybody is a viable option on every play.
"We've just got to make sure if Cedric is out there, it's just not Cedric's deal. You've got to be able to do some other things. You've got to be able to come out of the backfield, pass protect better and still do our play-action and drop back and throw. We've got to be more versatile in that regard, but overall we do have to get better in the running game."
Benson admitted Monday, "I'm not a fan" of the rotation that had him getting 161 more carries than Scott for a total of 273.
But it marked Benson's fewest carries in his three full seasons as the Bengals feature back (48 fewer than last year) and with just seven carries in Saturday's Wild Card Game, it's a long way from 2009 when he set the Bengals postseason record with 169 yards in the 24-14 Wild Card loss to the Jets.
All signs would seem to point to Benson, 29, taking his last snap as a Bengal. But he says he's keeping "all options open" in free agency.
He says he'd like to come back, he likes the team's chemistry and says it's a team that focuses on Sundays. He also thinks he can be successful in Gruden's scheme.
"I'm a professional athlete. I can adjust to anything," Benson said. "I may not like it. I may not agree with it. I'll make it work if I get an opportunity, no question."
While Gruden says the Bengals need more long runs, Benson says he thinks that's the one part of his game that improved this season.
"What I took away from this season and I'm grateful to being put in that position is creating long runs, explosive plays in the secondary, putting a move on a guy, continuing on running, breaking a tackle, continuing on running," Benson said. "I couldn't just pound the rock. That wasn't the style. With a limited amount of carries, I had to take 15 (carries) and try to make 100 (yards) out of it. It really brought out an extra part of my game."
But while Benson had slightly more runs of at least 20 yards or more than last year (four compared to two), it was nowhere near his 10 of 2009. His eight runs of at least 15 yards didn't rank in the NFL's top 20, according to Elias.
Despite averaging 3.9 yards per with the limited carries, Benson retains his confidence of a bell cow back.
"As long as the field is 100 yards long and the games are being played outside," he said, "they are always going to need someone to pound the rock."