The offseason is once again here far too soon for the Cincinnati Bengals.
After another crushing first-round loss in the playoffs, players and coaches are again left to ponder what might have been. As bad as each of the postseason setbacks this team has suffered through the years may have been, none were as crushing as the one endured during Saturday's Wild Card collapse against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
A loss like that can not only leave a stinging pain in the short term, but in some cases around the NFL has even lingered throughout the offseason and caused a team to take a step back the following year.
If you take a look at the Bengals every time they've won a division crown, they've had less success the following year. After seasons in which they won either the AFC North or AFC Central title (8 times), Cincinnati has a combined record of 51-65-1, or a 44-percent winning rate the following season.
The Bengals also have made the playoffs just twice the season after winning a division title out of a possible eight tries. All of this means history says the Bengals have a better shot of having a record closer to 7-9 than 12-4 next year.
Brutal end-of-season losses may linger with some teams, but these Bengals believe they have the talent, depth and will to make sure that doesn't happen to them next season. All-Pro tackle Andrew Whitworth was part of three of the Bengals teams that in seasons after the Bengals won the division. Those teams went 8-8 in 2006 (11-5 in 2005), 4-12 in 2010 (10-6 in 2009) and 10-5-1 in 2014 (11-5 in 2013).
Whit knows this team is different from those clubs and will have the resolve to keep battling back.
"This is a much different team than that one," said Whitworth Monday, via Bengals.com. "Just the resolve we've shown. People can criticize this team for (not winning) playoff appearances. But they have to acknowledge the resolve that this team has shown to get back to the playoffs. It’s tremendous."
Whitworth will again be part of next year's team after the Bengals signed him to a one-year extension at the start of the 2015 season. The Bengals have typically done a great job of keeping their own, and even if they lose some of the many key players set to hit free agency, they'll still field a team of mostly returning players next season.
Defensive tackle Domata Peko has also been part of much of Cincinnati's recent success, and he too thinks the Bengals have enough firepower to get back to the postseason next season.
"There aren’t many teams that have been to playoffs five straight years," Peko said. "Andy (Dalton) is back. On defense, most of our key pieces are here. Geno (Atkins) is playing at a high level and Tez is playing at a Pro Bowl level."
Peko is right. The defense has their MVP back in Atkins, and then it's just a matter of building around him.
"It’s like night and day," Guenther said of the defense compared to last year at this time, when he called Atkins "just a guy out there" in January 2015.
"Our great players played great for most of the season and guys were in new roles guys and we’re healthier than a year ago," Guenther said. "I see us having a number of guys coming back. I think we have a good team here for years to come. We just have to put this behind us. You could have said the same thing last year. We lost the AFC North, we lost in the playoffs, they picked us as the AFC team to fall the farthest. I think we have good team with a bunch of good guys that will respond."
The same is true on offense with Dalton, Tyler Eifert and A.J. Green all set to return next season. The offensive line will return pretty much all of their starters, with the only question being Andre Smith who was a liability more often than not the past two seasons. One of the Bengals' current rookie tackles should be able to make up for his loss.
Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard will also back to lead the ground game. All of this is why Marvin Lewis isn't sweating free agency as much this year as he has in years' past.
"We’ve had more free agents in other years," Lewis said. "When I looked, it wasn’t as many as I expected, so I do feel good about things. I think the core is here, I think positionally we’re in good shape."
Saturday's loss stung, but with Dalton having looked iffy at best for the Divisional Round to go with guys like Reggie Nelson and Peko possibly out due to ankle injuries, and Dre Kirkpatrick on crutches that wouldn't have allowed him to play this week either, it's hard to have seen this team going into New England and winning on Saturday.
Whatever could have happened in the playoffs this season shouldn't overshadow what this Bengals team has the potential to do in 2016.