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Exit Interview: Cincinnati Bengals

After an 0-10 start to the season, the Bengals have officially been eliminated from playoff contention. The team will have plenty of decisions to make—including what to do with longtime stars A.J. Green and Andy Dalton—this offseason.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s getting later in the season, and for many NFL teams, the playoffs are in sight. But some squads are already looking to next year. As each club is eliminated from the postseason, The Ringer will examine what went right, what went wrong, and where the franchise could go from here. Today it’s the Bengals, who fell to 0-10 and were mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with a 17-10 loss to the Raiders.

What Went Right

This is the first of the Exit Interviews that we’re publishing at The Ringer. Cincinnati still does not have a win, and the team doesn’t even have a treasure trove of draft assets like the Dolphins. They failed to trade either A.J. Green or Andy Dalton at the deadline, when they could have gotten returns for either player. Again for emphasis: They are 0-10. They tied the longest losing streak in franchise history and were eliminated from playoff contention with six weeks of football left. All of this is to say: Nothing went right.

What Went Wrong

The flip side of nothing going right is everything going wrong. Recounting every failure on the team wouldn’t be interesting to anyone, and for the most part this team entered 2019 with extremely low expectations. But there is one person who has especially disappointed: new head coach Zac Taylor.

Taylor, the trendy Sean McVay protégé hire taken to its extreme, didn’t do much to inspire confidence in his first year. Taylor was hired to be the Bengals head coach after serving as the Rams quarterbacks coach in 2018, a massive jump for the then–35-year-old. The hope was that he would modernize the Bengals offense, rejuvenate Dalton, and get Joe Mixon on track. Instead, the Bengals are near the bottom of the league by every offensive metric, Dalton lost his job to Ryan Finley, and Mixon scored his first rushing touchdown of the season in Week 11. Taylor doesn’t have a ton of talent to work with on offense, but even considering the state of the roster, the results have been a disappointment.

The in-game decision-making has also been questionable. In Sunday’s loss, Taylor punted from no-man’s land despite being down a touchdown late in the third quarter. Given the situation, it was one of the most cowardly punts in the league this season:

The Bengals front office is probably asking themselves if Taylor truly has the promise they thought when they hired him, and McVay’s Rams’ own flameout isn’t inspiring much confidence. But this is the same franchise that kept Marvin Lewis around for 16 years despite a plethora of underwhelming results. Taylor will likely get at least one more year to turn things around.

Free Agency

A.J. Green is an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and negotiations with the wide receiver have gone nowhere. He’s said that he’ll resist a franchise tag, and wants either a long-term deal or to be free to pursue other teams. That said, Green doesn’t seem set on leaving Cincinnati: “I’m genuinely happy here,” he told ESPN. “We might not win, but I’m happy here.”

Green has missed every game so far with an ankle injury he suffered in practice before the season. The longtime Cincinnati wideout has made the Pro Bowl in seven of his nine seasons—but at 32 and coming off an injury, it’s not clear what his value on the open market will be. If Green doesn’t come back this season and show some of his usual playmaking talent, he may not have to worry about a franchise tag at all.

The team will also have to decide what to do with Dalton, the quarterback version of the Mendoza Line. They don’t appear committed to him long term, and can save all of his $17.7 million salary if they cut him in the offseason. It seems likely that Dalton’s days in Cincinnati are done.

Outside of Green and Dalton, the Bengals are projected to have the 12th-most cap space in the league next year, with a cool $65 million to burn, per Over The Cap, and that’s before accounting for how much the team will save if they cut Dalton. That’ll give the front office a decent amount of wiggle room to remake the roster.

Draft Targets

Cincinnati has all of its draft picks and none from any other team, but they are in line to have the best draft asset of all: the no. 1 overall pick. Even if they slide (read: win a few games) late in the season, they’ll be in prime position to take whomever they want. It would make sense to draft a quarterback, given that the team benched Dalton and his long-term future with the team is in doubt. The prime draft suspects right now are Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (even despite his hip injury) and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow.