CINCINNATI -- Long before the Instagram live streams, the property listing and snapshots of depth charts, a flashpoint in the relationship between the Cincinnati Bengals and defensive end Carlos Dunlap occurred in front of the entire team.
In a team meeting on Sept. 21, Dunlap and coach Zac Taylor got into a heated exchange four days after the Week 2 loss to the Cleveland Browns, according to sources who witnessed the event. It was a tenuous point between Dunlap and the franchise, one that escalated in recent weeks.
After another confrontation between Dunlap and the coaching staff on Week 7 -- this one partially captured by TV cameras -- it was clear the situation was no longer sustainable. Dunlap, the Bengals' career leader in sacks, was traded to Seattle on Wednesday for offensive lineman B.J. Finney and a seventh-round pick in the 2021 draft.
While the move was significant in the short term, it has bigger long-term ramifications for the franchise. It signaled that this team and its composition will be Taylor's, for better or worse.
"I know people have been frustrated with the lack of wins we've had so far, but it's being built the right way," Taylor said. "The communication is great. We're all on the same page with who we add to this building."
The situation pitted Cincinnati's front office in a tough position between Dunlap and the coaching staff.
In 2018, Dunlap was given a three-year contract extension worth $45 million, including $19 million guaranteed. But at the end of that season, the Bengals fired coach Marvin Lewis and replaced him with the 35-year-old Taylor, who had a much different vision for the franchise.
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who was hired by Taylor after their time as assistants with the Miami Dolphins, envisioned his scheme as a 3-4 and Dunlap as someone who could play the hybrid edge position, citing Dunlap's collegiate career at Florida.
However, since the Bengals drafted Dunlap in the second round of the 2010 draft, he was an integral part of the 4-3 defense preferred by Lewis. In that system, Dunlap was primarily a pass-rusher who didn't drop into coverage.
Dunlap, 31, was not nearly as productive in 2019. At one point, defensive tackle Geno Atkins said he'd talk to the media if Dunlap reached the 10-sack mark, which he's only done once in his 10-year career (13.5 in 2015). Atkins, an NFL All-Decade selection, has steadfastly declined to speak to reporters. Dunlap rallied at the end of the season to finish with nine sacks -- his most since 2015.
But the situation was far from ideal for both sides. This year, a team meeting room was rearranged partially so defensive line coach Nick Eason could make sure Dunlap was engaged during meetings, according to a team source.
In an exit interview with the Bengals website on Wednesday, Dunlap expressed his feelings about the scheme.
"(Anarumo) is executing what he wants for his defense," Dunlap told the website. "As you saw, I had 12 plays last game and (five) of them were in the last minute of the game. That's not where I feel like I am in my career."
What was brewing behind the scenes finally manifested itself publicly in an October that featured Dunlap venting at a news conference about being benched, an Instagram Live in which he voiced his frustrations, a picture of the team's defensive end rotations and finally on Sunday, a sideline altercation with Anarumo over playcallling and a property listing for his home in now-deleted posts on social media.
The front office had to make a decision: keep Dunlap or support the wishes of the coaching staff, which clearly did not have a role for him.
The trade prompted a statement from team president Mike Brown, who has not held a formal news conference since before the 2019 season.
"There are a lot of fond memories I have of Carlos and I wish him well," Brown said in a release.
While difficult, the move was in line with unusual aggressiveness for the Bengals under Taylor.
Cincinnati cut veteran linebacker Preston Brown in the middle of the 2019 season after he was benched. The Bengals went on a spending spree in free agency that featured a combined $95 million on deals for defensive tackle D.J. Reader and cornerback Trae Waynes.
Dunlap's trade reinforced the front office's commitment to Taylor's vision for the franchise. But that also means it's up to Taylor to deliver. As the Bengals approach the midpoint of his second season, the franchise is still looking to turn the corner. Cincinnati is 1-5-1 entering Sunday's game against the Tennessee Titans and is 3-19-1 under Taylor.
However, the locker room, including Bengals rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, is squarely behind its coach who inherited a roster in need of a serious rebuild.
"He's going to keep us together," Burrow said. "He's the leader of the team, the leader of the organization."
Ultimately, the trade should benefit both sides.
Dunlap, who declined to comment for this story through his agent, posted a video on his Instagram that expressed his feelings about the move to Seattle.
"I'm not gonna lie, I'm nervous as hell, but I'm excited as f---," Dunlap said.
Taylor is left with the task of helping the franchise get back on track for a return to the postseason for the first time since 2015 and first playoff win since 1991. And he knows that with all of the Bengals' recent moves, there will be more pressure on him to succeed.
"When you are the head coach of an NFL team, you better have some urgency to go win some football games and feel that pressure," Taylor said. "That's fine with me."