CINCINNATI -- The disappointment was discernible in coach Zac Taylor's voice in the minutes following the Cincinnati Bengals' final game of the season on Sunday.
Taylor was speaking on the heels of a 38-3 drubbing against the Baltimore Ravens in which the Ravens rushed for 404 yards, the most allowed by Cincinnati in franchise history. It capped a 4-11-1 season that featured several key injuries, some close losses and moments of optimism that were all too fleeting.
Taylor has a 6-25-1 record over two seasons during one of the NFL's most daunting rebuilds. Monday morning, Bengals president Mike Brown issued a two-paragraph statement that said the franchise remained "bullish" on the foundation of Taylor's rebuild.
But it also came with a significant underlying message -- all signs point to a make-or-break season for Taylor in 2021.
"We are not discouraged, but instead feel motivated and confident that next year will reap the benefits of the work that has been done to date," Brown said in the statement. "We must capitalize on the opportunities in front of us. Next year we will earn our stripes."
From the moment Taylor was hired, it was clear he had a massive task ahead of him.
Not only did he have his own coaching inexperience to overcome (Taylor, 37, had never been a full-time coordinator in the NFL before coming to Cincinnati), but he also had a roster that needed a massive overhaul. Cincinnati has not had an All-Pro selection since 2015 and the 2013 draft class was the last one that yielded a Pro Bowler (tight end Tyler Eifert).
Over the past two seasons, Taylor and the Bengals front office reshaped the roster. On Monday, Taylor said he never looked at 2021 as the season that was going to truly determine where the franchise stood under his tenure. However, he acknowledged that a couple of years of familiarity should prove beneficial.
"Certainly now, after two years, you have a full grasp of the players' strengths, weaknesses, things that we need to improve, places we need to add," Taylor said. "That's the exciting part."
The historically risk-averse Bengals shelled out more than $125 million in contracts to external free agents and landed a 2020 draft class that was good enough to make an immediate impact.
That included rookie quarterback Joe Burrow, the top overall draft pick who was immediately pegged as the franchise quarterback. Burrow was in the midst of one of the most impressive first seasons in NFL history when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Washington in Week 11.
Even with Burrow, however, Cincinnati squandered chances. In seven games, the Bengals led at the end of the third quarter but managed to win only three of them. The Bengals also went winless against the woeful NFC East.
During exit interviews with the media Monday, several players voiced support for the direction under Taylor. But the strongest comment came from Burrow, who tweeted Monday afternoon: "Couldn't be more excited about the future of our organization. We have a great foundation and great people at the top."
However, some of the moves made beneath Taylor in the wake of a four-win season are a clear indicator that winning will be required in 2021. The Bengals have already moved on from at least three coaches, sources told ESPN -- defensive line coach Nick Eason, defensive assistant Gerald Chatman and offensive line coach Jim Turner.
Eason's and Chatman's defensive line had to contend with a pass-rush scheme that wasn't conducive for producing pressure, which is reflected in 17 sacks in 2020, fewest in the NFL. Turner's dismissal, however, comes after the offensive line finished 29th in Pass Block Win Rate, an NFL metric. The Bengals spent the entire season trying to find a working combination.
Taylor declined to address any coaching changes during his press conference Monday. However, when asked his thoughts on Turner, he provided a window into what will be required moving forward.
"I think Jim is a really good football coach," Taylor said. "When your record is what your record is, nothing was ever good enough. We have to continue to evaluate all of the players and everything."
That mentality will continue to be the driving force as Taylor approaches a critical 2021 season. Through two years, his .203 winning percentage is the lowest of any Bengals coach. And while firing a coach after two seasons is unprecedented in Cincinnati, Dick LeBeau was canned after three years following what previously was the worst run in franchise history.
Taylor said he was tired of losing, a sentiment shared by a frustrated fan base. After Brown's comments and another losing season, a turnaround in 2021 will be crucial for Taylor.
"Certainly expect to win a lot more football games than we have," Taylor said. "That's the standard that we have to set going forward."