The disappointment, much like the postseason losing streak at the root of it, only continues to grow for the Cincinnati Bengals.
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“It hurts and stings and it will for a long time,” coach Marvin Lewis said two days after his team fell in the first round of the playoffs for the fifth consecutive year with an 18-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“It brought the season to a screeching halt way too fast,” added Lewis, who dropped to 0-7 in the playoffs to become the only coach in NFL history to lose seven in a row. “This won’t get behind me for a long time. I don’t know that a loss in the playoffs ever does. It’s a disappointing finish to the season.”
So disappointing, in fact, that it doesn’t seem real.
“It still feels like a bad dream,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said during a break from cleaning out his locker Monday afternoon. “It’s going to be very difficult to swallow knowing we beat ourselves again.”
Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth has been through as many first-round losses — six — as any player on the roster.
“It still hurts,” he said. “It hurts to not go where you think you could have as a team, but the reality is from Coach Lewis to the staff to the players, it says a lot about us that we’re able to respond every year with rebuilding a new resolve and a better record and we’ve been able to do that every year over that stretch.
“So every year we’ve improved, every year we’ve done something better,” he continued. “I think it takes real men to do it all over again, and I look forward to the opportunity.”
While the process of regrouping is the same, the Bengals know the team will not be in 2016. In fact, there could be more change this offseason than there has been since the roster reboot in 2011 with the start of the Andy Dalton-A.J. Green era.
And the changes will affect the coaching staff as well as the roster. It already began Tuesday with defensive backs coach Vance Joseph leaving to become defensive coordinator in Miami.
The Dolphins fired defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle — another former Bengals defensive backs coach — in October.
Joseph spent two years with the Bengals and was a big reason the team had the fifth-best opposing quarterback rating in the league this year and ranked third with 21 interceptions.
Denver wanted to hire Joseph to be its defensive coordinator last year, but the Bengals blocked the move because he was still under contract.
According to published reports, Joseph will be taking Bengals linebacker coach Matt Burke with him to fill the same role in Miami.
Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson also could be leaving. He has interviewed with San Francisco and Cleveland and is reported to have an interview with the New York Giants today.
Asked about the prospect of losing a number of coaches from his staff, Lewis smiled and said, “It messes me up, but we’ll be fine.”
As far as the roster goes, the Bengals have a number of key players entering free agency, including right tackle Andre Smith, wide receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, cornerbacks Adam Jones and Leon Hall and safeties Reggie Nelson and George Iloka.
“I don’t think we’ll have as much change as you think with players,” Lewis said when asked about the team’s 14 unrestricted free agents. “We’ll do a good job of getting guys back here and signed. I think our guys know they have a good home here. I think we’ll be OK that way. There’s a lot of pieces in place. We’ve put some young guys in place.
“We’ve had more free agents in other years,” he continued. “I think the core is here. I think positionally we’re in good shape.”