CINCINNATI (AP) -This losing season sure got the Cincinnati Bengals' attention.
For the first time under coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals took a big step backward. Their 7-9 finish was a stark reminder that there are long-standing problems with the franchise that haven't been resolved.
``This year has been an eye-opener for everybody,'' receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh said. ``We expected, worst-case scenario, that we were going into the playoffs as a wild card. It kind of wakes everybody up, myself included.''
A team with a lot of talent on offense and top draft picks on defense sank fast and couldn't break even despite a favorable schedule and record-setting seasons by several players.
It wasn't quite the bad old days - 7-9 would have been cause for celebration during the team's lost decade of the '90s. But it felt a little bit like old times as the Bengals imploded.
Players grumbled about selfishness in the locker room and problems with the practice facility. Coaches couldn't figure out how to get it turned around until it was too late. Fans wondered whether the insular front office was dragging down the franchise the way it did before Lewis arrived.
It tasted familiar.
``Things have to change,'' Lewis said Monday. ``We need to start anew. We've got to do that. There's got to be revisions in things we do. There's got to be an urgency, and sweeping it clean.''
The question is whether there will be sweeping changes, or nothing more than the usual offseason moves that suggest a stay-the-course. The 7-9 finish suggests that wholesale change is needed.
Lewis is safe, but change could be coming to the coaching staff. The defense again finished near the bottom of the league, a common occurrence during Lewis' five seasons. The offense went stale, scoring fewer than 20 points in four of the last five games.
Asked on Monday whether he thought the current coaching staff could take this team to the next level, quarterback Carson Palmer said, ``I don't think so.''
Lewis acknowledged that the team went stale, but defended his assistant coaches.
``I'm very pleased with what our coaches have done this year,'' Lewis said. ``They went through some trying times with new players and injuries and so forth, so it's very difficult. Each and every week, you're looking at a different group of guys and moving guys from position to position. I thought they handled that very well.''
The front office can't avoid the introspection. Palmer and others complained about the poor quality of the team's grass practice field and the lack of a covered facility for when the weather turns nasty.
When the Bengals moved into Paul Brown Stadium before the 2000 season, ownership had the option of covering a practice field at its expense. There is still no covered field, which is a drawback in recruiting free agents.
The lack of a general manager also came under scrutiny when the team struggled to replace injured players. Decisions are made in a group setting, with owner Mike Brown having the final say. Lewis won't talk whether change is needed in the front office operations.
Players assume there will be more significant changes this offseason, given the way they underachieved as a group. Houshmandzadeh tied for the league lead in catches, receiver Chad Johnson set a club record with 1,440 yards, and Palmer set another club record by throwing for 4,131 yards.
Didn't matter. The Bengals still finished below .500 against a schedule that was as favorable as any in recent years. They faced only four playoff teams this season, including Pittsburgh twice, but scuttled their chances by losing six of their first eight games.
``A lot of guys weren't attuned to winning,'' safety Dexter Jackson said. ``They were attuned to getting a certain amount of yards or a certain amount of this instead of winning the game.''
Defensive end Justin Smith said the same thing: The locker room has some players who were more interested in themselves than the outcome. At times, they played like a team that wasn't very focused on what had to be done.
So many things went into the 7-9 record. So many things have to change.
``I thought about that a lot, man,'' Houshmandzadeh said. ``It's almost like trying to do a Rubik's Cube.''

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