INDIANAPOLIS This is the worst time of the year for Marvin Lewis. The only kind of football is not football at all.
"It's all speculative football," said the Bengals' head coach from inside Lucas Oil Stadium. "I know we're in the big show, but it's still speculative football. When we start doing football is when we get to July and August, that's fun. We get to preparing for the season, that's the fun of football."
Lewis, the Bengals and the rest of the NFL must settle for starting their annual cycle at the NFL Combine, where prospective players are poked, prodded and scrutinized from all angles in preparation for April's draft.
Lewis spoke in front of a gathering of national media and then held court with local reporters Friday. Coming off a 10-6 season and a second consecutive playoff appearance that resulted in a Wild Card loss at Houston, Lewis didn't divulge any trade secrets when it came to which position groups being targeted, the looming prospect of 23 potential free agents or what it will take for the franchise to end its streak of 22 consecutive seasons without a playoff victory.
"You have to have more points than the team you are playing in the playoffs," said Lewis, simplifying the simple truth. "The focus is on everyone. In order to win games you have to make plays in all areas. We have to do a better job. We've had opportunities and haven't played as well in those (playoff) games. I didn't think that would be an issue for us."
The Bengal reeled off seven wins in their final eight games, including beating the then-defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants at Paul Brown Stadium in November and division rival Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Week 16 to clinch their playoff berth.
The 19-13 postseason loss at Houston, however, leaves a franchise searching for answers. The offense scored just one touchdown over the final three games, including the playoffs. All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green wasn't targeted once in the first half against the Texans. A defense that had proved to be one of the stingiest in the league gave up 420 yards to Houston, including 140 yards and a touchdown on the ground to Arian Foster.
Shoring up the roster before draft day and the 21st pick in the first round arrives is a top priority. The Bengals have an estimated 54 million of room under the salary cap that is expected to exceed 122 million.
Lewis left no doubt that the Bengals plan on using that available space to retain their own players.
"That's the way you want to do it. We want to keep developing our guys in my way, our way," said Lewis. "Let's bet on our guys and move forward. Sometimes it doesn't work out the way you'd think. Unfortunately in this game guys get hurt but you can't let that pull you back. You've got to keep working. We've got to bet on them."
At the top of the list of potential free agents are starting right tackle Andre Smith and defensive end Michael Johnson. Smith, the team's No. 1 pick in 2009, and Johnson, a third-round pick that same year, have blossomed the last two seasons into core players. Smith has started 32 of the last 34 games, including the playoffs, after appearing in just 13 games his first two seasons. Johnson had a career-high 11.5 sacks last season but has become an every-down player.
Either player could end with the team's franchise tag if a long-term deal can't be worked out before free agency begins on March 12. Teams have until March 4 to use their franchise or transition tag on a player.
"We hope that we don't have to use the tag. But if we have to use the tag, we'll tag somebody," said Lewis. "We're going to retain our guys in every way possible."
The Bengals also have no punter (Kevin Huber) or kickers (Josh Brown and Mike Nugent) at this moment. Three key members of the secondary from last season corners Adam Jones and Terence Newman plus safety Chris Crocker as well as linebackers Thomas Howard, Rey Maualuga and Manny Lawson are eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Not everyone will be back.
Second-year player Vontaze Burfict could easily move into the middle to replace Maualuga, regardless if Maualuga is re-signed. Burfict, who a year ago at this time was in the process of underwhelming scouts with his Combine performance, is coming off a season in which he led the team in tackles after taking over the Will linebacker spot for the injured Howard.
Welcome to speculative football season.