Zac Taylor never thought he'd be in this position when he became the Bengals head coach the day after the last Super Bowl. He thought he'd be in the middle of the AFC North race with a play-off veteran quarterback leading the way. But there he was Tuesday in a news conference at the halfway point of the season installing Ryan Finley as the starting quarterback answering questions about trades, re-building and 2020.
- Taylor wouldn't talk trades, but when Tuesday's 4 p.m. deadline passed with no deal it was pretty clear where the Bengals came down on the subject. They don't believe giving up good players for a raft of mid-to-late round what-ifs is the way to dig out of a 0-8 start. They also apparently weren't enamored of dealing said players to contenders, where the exchange rates would be sharply reduced with draft position. Left end Carlos Dunlap, who was supposed to be one of those guys, didn't think the team had to gut the roster to display urgency. He believes the message was sent when Taylor was hired and reinforced Tuesday.
"I feel like we have a lot of talent in this locker room. There's always room for improvement or development, guys have got to step up and seize the opportunity because obviously the window is short," Dunlap said as the dust cleared. "They made a drastic move in the offseason. I think it sends the same message with this move with the quarterback. Obviously we're not looking to trade him because he's still our franchise quarterback. Right now they want to use Ryan, go with Ryan. We're all going to get behind Ryan and support him."
- Taylor refused to talk about 2020, except to say he won't sacrifice wins for position in next year's draft. He's focused on the second half of his first season that begins Nov. 10 against the Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium and believes Finley is talented enough to warrant a long look.
Remember, after being bowled over by his pre-draft effort on the PBS grease boards, the Bengals thought Finley was good enough to go up and grab in the fourth round with only their fifth trade up in team history. He didn't disappoint in in the preseason, when his 73.4 completion percentage was the second best of anybody that threw at least 64 passes. They also like the way Finley steps up in the pocket ("He does a good job climbing in the pocket and buying some time," is how Taylor put it), a trait that Dalton didn't always flash.
Taylor didn't pull the curtain over the Red Rifle Era in Cincinnati. Obviously no one came calling with crown jewels like the Raiders did on Deadline Day 2011 to officially end the Carson-Chad Era. But as Dalton heads into a contract year, it's like Taylor said. They have to find about Finley.
"I don't want to speculate about the future right now. I just know we need to see what Ryan can do right now, and what he can provide for us," Taylor said. "Since we drafted him, he's shown well — in training camp, (and) his opportunities in the preseason games were very impressive. We feel like there's talent there, but you don't know what you have until you see it live. That's where we're at right now, and we'll give him an opportunity to showcase what he can do. With any rookie quarterback, there are ups and downs. We understand that, but we're going to give him an opportunity to show us what he can do."
- Nobody is saying the 'R,' word even though the Bengals just haven't done this sort of thing lately. It's the first time they've turned to a rookie quarterback during the season since 1999, when Akili Smith went to Cleveland and won his first start on a last-second TD and two-pointer. It's the first time they've made an in-season switch not because of injury since the fifth game of the 2002 season, when Dick LeBeau went back to Jon Kitna. And when Dalton was drafted to start a rebuild in 2011, a 6-2 start turned it into re-boot.
So no one is saying "rebuild," now.
"We need to win as many games as we can this season. There's been no thought to, 'Let's build for next year,'" Taylor said. "We need to win football games and create some momentum. That starts with (12) days from now, playing against Baltimore. We've got to put our best foot forward and do everything we can to win that football game."
Taylor has been up front. Dalton can't take the total blame for an offense second in sacks allowed, fourth fewest points, next-to-last in red zone scoring and last in rushing. Taylor hasn't been shy about taking some blame himself as he adjusts to a different offense than the one he had in mind as he built his playbook. Taylor said he thought about making the switch after Sunday's game (he began the flight home watching snippets of games with Dalton) and then raised it with his staff Tuesday before he made the call.
"It falls on everybody on offense. We're all accountable — linemen, tight ends, running backs and receivers. We're all in it together," Taylor said. "When we're not playing up to par, not scoring as many points and we're not as explosive as we need to be, it's hard to just point at one person, or one group. It's everybody in it together. When you look back at that game, you can look at every position and say, 'Hey, you guys should have done this better, you should have done that better and you should have called better plays.' It's everybody. Obviously there's frustration when you're not winning, but ultimately we all have to take accountability for it."
Dalton, on pace to be sacked a career-high 58 times behind a gutted offensive line, hinted after Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Rams (the third straight game he's missed an open double-move route for a potential touchdown) that there's a fine line between feeling pressure and holding on to the ball.
"I felt like I had to get out of my hands. It goes back to holding onto the ball or getting it out," Dalton said. "That's unfortunate I missed that one. I wish I could have that one back. That could have kept that drive alive. That could have been a big play right there.
"I mean, there's -- you have to trust your feeling out there. You have to trust the timing of when things happen. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to hit that one."
Whether it's a rebuild, a reboot, a revise, the 6-5 Finley is an intriguing guy. Like Dalton and Carson Palmer, he comes in with loads of big-time college experience, starting all 39 possible games at North Carolina State, where he holds the record for career completion percentage, is second in yards passing and reflected the experienced snaps when he cut the preseason with an icy 99 passer rating.
"That was a factor in drafting him. With his playing experience, he's done it for a long time," Taylor said. "He's gotten a lot of reps against good defenses, and that does carry over in a positive way to his time in the NFL because he is an experienced quarterback in that sense. We're confident he'll be able to play well for us moving forward."
But Taylor acknowledged two things Tuesday. They don't know what they have in him and they have to find out.
"We saw in the preseason that he had some really good drives, and some really good games. That lets you know that we have a really good player there," Taylor said. "But again, he's playing against backups for the most part, so until you see him live against starters, you really don't know what you have. Everything that led us to draft him — watching his college tape, meeting with him, being in meetings with him and then watching him in preseason — leads us to believe that we got a good player.
"He has great touch on the ball and can anticipate where it needs to go. He does a good job climbing in the pocket and buying some time. We'll see how it translates to playing 'real life' football in the NFL."