Initial comments ...
"We spent this morning wrapping things up with our players, and we had good exit meetings with those guys, just setting the standard on what the future needs to be here — 2-14 is unacceptable. We've spent a year now getting familiarized with each other, the players and coaches, and things schematically that we can improve upon. We know that this isn't what we strive for, so we need to be a lot better when guys come back in April. I do think it was a good attitude this morning. It's good to have that winning feeling to finish the year off. We didn't get to experience a lot of that, but you get reminded of that when you're walking out the door. This is what a locker room is supposed to feel like. This is what a full game is supposed to feel like. We need to try to capture that as best we can and use that to motivate us in the offseason. So far, everything has been good with the players today, and now we're on to the offseason. We still get a chance to spend this week, as a coaching staff, processing everything and what our directions are going to be moving forward. we're excited to start that process and see how much we can improve ourselves this offseason."
Can you give us some insight into what the conversations were like in the meetings with players, and what the expectations are moving forward?
"Just our standard — I sit in here and talk about it all the time — and what that looks like. At times, there was drastic improvement in a lot of areas. Ultimately, our record is what it is, and it says where we were this year. Next year needs to be significantly better in all areas. It's one thing for the coaches to be the ones to say it all the time, but now that the players understand the schemes better, it's time for the players to take that ownership to the next level and demand accountability from their teammates in all that we do. That's the best way to be a championship team."
Is the level of understanding between you and the players enough to believe that next year will be different?
"I think there is room for a lot of improvement. We can feel it in a lot of areas, and now we get the chance to spend a whole offseason on it. One of the things that comes in is a new group on offense and defense, so there are a lot of things you work on in the offseason that you (tailor to) the way you think your team is going to play. And then as the season gets going and you get a better understanding of your personnel and the challenges of the opponents you're facing, things evolve. You saw that in the second half of the season on both sides of the ball. Things evolved and improved. Now you get a chance to capture that the entire offseason, and the players come back with a better understanding of what we expect from them, and that allows for a drastic improvement in the next season."
What's the first order of business for you this offseason?
"Cleaning up some of the loose ends from this season, and making sure that, while things are still fresh on your mind, you document them to prepare yourself for when the players come back. It's one thing to start preparing in March and April for those guys to come back, and then forget some of the things that are fresh. You just played 16 games, so make sure we have all that in order, and then start preparing. I don't think anything is official with the Senior Bowl yet, but that would be a great opportunity for our staff if that is able to happen, and it's something we would welcome. We want to get a great chance to coach those guys and see what they're all about. But that's the next step for us — evaluating our own roster and where we want to head. From there, it's starting to get ready for free agency and start to scout these guys for the draft."
With regard to this year's players whose contracts are expiring, would you ideally like to get deals done with them before free agency begins?
"Those are things we get the chance to talk through this week so that we're all on the same page, and then make those decisions. Right now I don't have anything further on that stuff."
Do you anticipate any coaching staff changes?
"We're still ironing everything out and making sure we get the chance to evaluate ourselves and make the best decisions going forward."
When you see head coaches like Freddie Kitchens of the Browns and Pat Shurmur of the Giants get fired, how much does your job security mean to you after a 2-14 record?
"I'm thankful to have a job. There's no question about that, because the expectations are so much higher. There's a belief here that we're heading in the right direction, although it didn't show in the wins and losses. We know that we're going to get things turned around and that there's going to be great days ahead, and I'm fortunate that the Brown family sees that and believes in that. It's hard. It's a hard profession. It happens out there. We all knew that it was going to happen to somebody. Those are two good men where, it's hard to see that happen to somebody, but it shows the nature of the business. Again, we always have that urgency to improve rapidly, because we need to get a lot better very quickly, and we all understand that."
How excited are you to have the first choice in the draft?
"All we can handle is what's in front of us, and we have the No. 1 pick. Now you really get the chance to know who you're going to take. It's not just hoping that Jonah Williams is going to be there (when you pick) and hoping nobody takes him before you. Now, we get to make that selection. There's a lot that goes into that process, as we research these guys and try to reach a conclusion on who we want to take, but we have plenty of time for that. That's the good news. We don't have to make that pick until the end of April, so we'll use all of that time to figure out what we want to do."
Which position groups would you like to improve this offseason?
"Those are things that we want to make sure we talk about as a staff this week. You do talk about it as the season goes, with the improvements we need to make. But you get the chance now to take a step back, take New Year's off, take a deep breath there and then come back and finalize the direction we believe we need to head in all areas of our personnel."
Are there units on the team you feel like should have been better this season?
"I think all units need to perform better. To only win two games, that's a reflection on the entirety of the team and the coaching staff. I don't believe anyone walked through the building today thinking that they did their job to the best of their ability. Everybody has room for improvement. We need to put our egos aside and be ready to make those corrections."
Entering free agency, do you feel that the front office is going to give you what you need to make improvements in that area?
"We've been on the same page every step of the way. Again, those are conversations we'll have this week to make sure we're all heading in the same direction — which I know that we are — just with how we see the personnel going forward. Again, that's something that we'll take care of now that the season is over with."
How much better did the team play in the last few weeks, compared to the beginning of the season?
"There were a lot of good signs of improvement. To get the two wins in December was good, but we expect a lot more than that. We felt like we were in all of these games. We always felt every week like we were going to go win. We felt like, as the games got kicked off, 'Hey, we're going to be in great position to win this game,' and then we just didn't handle our business and the other teams that we played did. There's a lot to be encouraged by on our end in December. There were some improvements that we saw in a lot of different areas. It was great to finish the way we did yesterday, because that was the expectation we had all year — finish games out like that. To finish, really, with the way that the game ended, with the offense needing a big drive to go put points on the board up seven, and we did that. Randy (K Randy Bullock) kicked the field goal to give us three points and then the defense went and got a turnover. That's the conclusion that we've been waiting for. You look back to the Arizona game — those were very similar circumstances, and we didn't get it done. There are examples of us throughout the season not finishing the games that we had opportunities to do, and yesterday we finally did it. That was a positive way to end the year."
You started OT Fred Johnson and CB Darius Phillips yesterday. How did they play, and what is your plan with them moving forward?
"They're certainly part of the plan. To what capacity, we don't have to make that decision yet. They're two young players that we're encouraged by who did some good things yesterday. Obviously there haven't played a ton, so there's still some of the growing process there, but they're two guys that we got to take an extended look at and both did some really positive things that we can build upon in the offseason going into next year."
When you look back to the games you played at the beginning of the year, how differently were you approaching games as a head coach in those, compared to later in the season?
"Just learning from the situations. I wouldn't call them all mistakes. Our coaching staff has been really open with each other in terms of, 'What could I have done better? What could you have done better? If we face this situation again, we need to make sure that we're really on top of it.' That's an area where, with the communication, no one would ever see it on game day or internally during the week, but we've made improvements in it since the season has gone on, to where there was a clear line of communication there. We were always on the same page. We improved on how we communicated things as they came. (The season-opener in) Seattle seems like years ago. I know that I, personally, have learned and grown a lot over this last season, which is to be expected as a first-year quarterbacks coach, coordinator, head coach or whatever it is. We just need to continue to build off that."
Was the job harder than you thought it would be?
"I don't think harder. I've gotten the opportunity to work for some head coaches that I'm really close with. I feel like I've gotten more insight than other people might. You know the challenges that are in front of you, until you have to confront them as a head coach. You can't ever be fully prepared for it. Again, we have great people around us all throughout the building, on all floors, that are there to help you through the whole process. We've seen growth from everybody as this year's gone on."
Was there any point this year where you doubted your job security?
"No. We have great communication throughout. The key is that we have to continue to make improvements, and now we have to make a big jump for next season. We've always been open and honest with everyone around here about the expectations. I know that we need to be better than 2-14, there's no doubt. That's on me. We look forward to getting that opportunity here next season."
As a head coach who has both played and coached the quarterback position, how hands-on will you be in studying the incoming quarterback draft class?
"It's something you need to be heavily involved in. I can't speak to any of these guys, because I haven't watched them. You need to evaluate all the positions that could potentially be first picks in the draft and be very involved in that, like you would be with any first-round pick. There's really no change in that regard. I'm excited to start that process."
Is it too early to say the team will draft anybody but Louisiana State QB Joe Burrow?
"That would be way too early (laughs). Our personnel staff has done a great job of starting the process and evaluating these guys. But obviously the coaching staff likes to watch the players as well, and we haven't watched a snap on anybody yet. We'll just piece together that process as we go."
This team has struggled with fan attendance. Do you feel the need to draft a player that will energize the fan base?
"We need to take somebody that's going to help us win games. When we have the production on the field and the wins on the field, the fans will start to come back in the stadium. We know what we have to do to make that happen. I'm excited to get back to work today and start that process in the offseason because nobody wants to fill the stadium more than we do. It's a lot more fun when you go out there and the stadium is packed and it's loud. It's something that you deal with at some other stadiums. Again, we know that it's a production-based business. We need to win games, and then people will come to the stadium. Those are things that I look forward to improving next year."
How hard is it to nail the quarterback selection with the first overall pick?
"You need to be very thorough with the first pick, whichever position it is. We have plenty of time to do that. You don't make any assumptions. You need to do all the work with the personnel staff and the coaching staff to leave no rock unturned, and just make sure that whoever we decide to take with the first pick is somebody we've fully vetted and we all feel comfortable with and we feel can help us win a lot of games."
What are some of the traits you look for in a quarterback?
"Leadership. A guy that leads by example. Somebody that outworks all of this teammates and elevates their level of play. There's no question that there's the accuracy that plays into it, and the timing and anticipation and all those things that come with it. No. 1, you want a guy that will lead by example and show others the way and raise the level of their teammates."
When you see a player that makes a big jump in the year of a scheme change, how do you decide how much credit to give the player and how much credit to give to other factors?
"We have the chance to research past years of all these players. It's not just what they did recently, it's what their growth has been throughout their entire college career. It is tricky sometimes with college players. Do they just benefit because their scheme is great? Do they have great teammates around them? Or, is it a guy that has elevated the players around him? Those are all things that we fortunately have plenty of time to research and figure out. It's not as if there's a clear-cut answer to what you're asking me. That's part of the draft, and that's why people have missed on draft picks before, because it's not always clear-cut. You really need to try to find what's inside the player and what motivates him, and make sure he's all about the right stuff."
Are there specific "tells" that indicate that a player's performance is justified rather than crediting the scheme he played in?
"That's just part of the process of learning everything you can about them. Those things make themselves clear. I don't think there's one thing I can put my finger on that would tell you that. The process helps solve that problem."
Do you plan on looking for a player that fits your scheme?
"You factor in everything to that. You can't have an ego. We've demonstrated that this year. There's been some pretty drastic changes at some moments on offense and defense. We just want to win games, so whoever we can bring in here that will help us win games — whether we have to adapt our schemes to get the most out of our players — we're all willing to do that. No one is going to be hard-headed and stubborn throughout this process. We're just going to make sure we make the Bengals the best team that we can make them."
Do you think you were stubborn early on?
"No, I think that's part of what you believe in. You hit it with all the things you just said, but there are things you believe in that you've seen work first-hand. You don't put pads on until training camp to see, and then you're just going against one defense every day. In the process, you learn a lot about yourself. Now, we have this whole year behind us. We've seen what our division looks and feels like. We know what our players are capable of, and what they do best. That's been a part of the process, and we've learned a lot about ourselves during that."
When you're trying to bring in leaders, can you sign leaders in free agency or do they have to be grown from within the organization?
"No, I think you can do both. I think it's great to have a little bit of both. That's part of researching (free agents). Were they captains? What do their coaches really think about them? What does their position coach think about them? Guys that you evaluate that are already in the league, you want to find out a lot about them to know how they'll affect your team. I don't think it always has to be homegrown. I think it can be anybody that has the respect of the guys they play (with). Everyone wants to win. They'll respect anyone that they see who puts in the work to do it the right way. That's the easiest way to follow a guy."
Do you feel like this place would be a hard sell for a free agent?
"No. I think anyone that has played against us, as silly as it may sound because we're 2-14, sees a team that fought like crazy, and that great days are ahead. People want to be a part of that. I know this coaching staff believes that, and the players I've talked to this morning all believe that. That gets out. People understand that and see it for what it is. I have no concerns there."
What mentality are you looking for in a player?
"It's OK if a guy has an edge to him. The bottom line is, do they do everything the right way at a championship level? That's what we need. We need that standard across the board from everybody. You can impose that leadership on guys a little bit when you're consistently doing it the right way. Then you've gained the respect of people, and you can start to hold people accountable. But if you have some flaws in the way you prepare and you're trying to call other guys out, then it doesn't work that way. Guys see right through that. We need to have that consistency from all of our players."
Is that part of what makes coaching the Senior Bowl appealing, getting to see how some of these players tick?
"You do (see that there). There are still unknowns that come out of that process, but it's one more way to learn about guys and see how they best learn, how they prepare and what their work ethic is like. It's an opportunity we would love to have."
Do you expect to make that decision today?
"I think relatively soon. I don't know the exact timeline on that. I think sooner rather than later."
Moving forward, would you like to utilize "11 personnel" with the regularity that you did early in the season?
"We're willing to do whatever it's going to take to put us in the best position. That's the beauty of the offseason. We'll get the chance to spend the next couple months getting ready. Our thought process already is getting ready for our players to come back in April and how we want to start off. Again, we're putting our egos aside. 'OK, this was our vision when we walked in the door. This is how it changed during the season. What's the best of both worlds?' I think we'll do a great job evaluating all of that."
What was the turning point that led you away from running "11 personnel" earlier in the season? Was it the plane ride coming back from London?
"That was the best time, when we had the most time to evaluate it, during that bye week. There's week-to-weeks where we involved some new things, but I would say that that was a turning point for us on both sides of the ball."
How different will the 2020 playbook look compared to the 2019 playbook?
"Impossible to predict right now. While things are still fresh on our minds, we get a chance to put all our thoughts on paper and communicate as a staff and start to formulate the initial plan for when the guys come back later in the offseason, so that when you're looking at your notes and reviewing the film in March and April, it's not trying to remember why you were doing certain things. It's important to get all that stuff (written down) while it's still fresh in your brain."
Can you speak to C Trey Hopkins' extension, specifically to him as a player and to the deal's timing?
"He's a great example of everything we want to be about here. He's a guy that approaches his job the right way, and sets the standard in that offensive line room, has been a great communicator for us, does his job to the best of his ability every day he walks in the building, and has gotten better as we've been here. His road to this point is unique in a sense, but he's earned it. It's great to see a guy who's fought for however long he's done it, and to finally be rewarded. He has earned it. He has earned every cent of it. We're excited to have him back."
What does Hopkins' extension mean for the future of C/G Billy Price?
"Billy's approach has been great. It's been more about Trey than it is Billy. Trey had a great season for us. He's a guy we wanted to reward. We felt good about him at center. Just like all of our other linemen, we fight to find roles for them to make our line the best we can make it."
Does president Mike Brown have the final say in any draft or personnel decision?
"I'll keep that between all of us, but we've been on the same page every step of the way."
What happens when you're not on the same page?
"We talk through it like any group would do. So far, there have been no issues."
When did you find time to get a haircut (laughs)?
"I got a haircut on Friday, but I was wearing a hat yesterday during the game, so you wouldn't have seen that."