CINCINNATI -- Did the Cincinnati Bengals spend this offseason tooling up for this year or next?
That has been one of the more intense debates among the Bengals' fan base the last few months, particularly after coach Marvin Lewis vowed in late January that this would not be a "status quo" offseason for the organization. He said team president Mike Brown was tired of losing in the first round of the playoffs and had given the franchise carte blanche to make whatever personnel moves would get the team one or more postseason wins.
But the question is, did the Bengals improve themselves via free agency and the draft?
Overwhelmingly, a panel of ESPN Insiders doesn't think so.
In his compilation of offseason grades that was published Wednesday, Mike Sando questioned fellow Insiders Field Yates, Matt Williamson, Bill Polian and Louis Riddick about how individual teams helped or hurt their teams the last five months.
Only Polian believed the Bengals did well.
"Everything fell right into place," Polian said, referring primarily to how Cincinnati was able to woo defensive end Michael Johnson back in free agency. The Bengals received a compensation pick in this year's draft in exchange for originally losing Johnson as a free agent last year. Polian praised that.
He was right to. The Bengals did have a quietly good offseason; one that deserved a slightly better grade than the C-plus they received from the Insider panel.
Pieces of the other Insiders' arguments were plausible, but it really is hard to call it a stagnant offseason when the Bengals got rid of a star player whose fractious attitude they disliked, and veterans whose departures finally allow opportunities for rising young players such as Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard.
Williamson commented that the Bengals keep getting praised like they are "loaded and building with guys for tomorrow." He felt the praise was wrong, and that it was a mistake for Cincinnati to add little, particularly through the draft where Cincinnati took offensive tackles with its first two picks.
The thing is, the Bengals are pretty loaded in key areas. They bring back their entire offensive line, one that likely will be broken up next spring. They also have a four-time Pro Bowler at receiver (A.J. Green), and are getting back healthy another receiver (Marvin Jones) who missed all of 2014 after catching more than 10 touchdown passes in 2013. Then there's the second-year running back (Jeremy Hill) who closed out the regular season having the most rushing yards of any NFL player in the final nine weeks.
Johnson's return gives a defense that was in transition a year ago and that dealt with a slew of untimely injuries a much-needed jolt. No, the unit isn't full of J.J. Watts or Darrelle Revises or Luke Kuechlys, but remember, it's a group that two years ago was part of the No. 3 defense in the league. Many of the players who were on that defense are still on this one.
Riddick put it best when he said the players the Bengals have simply "have to play better." If the old Bengals guard can do that along with the complementary pieces that were added and the players who were re-signed, that ever-elusive postseason win ought to come.
So, was it a "status quo" offseason? The usual, relatively low number of free-agency signings indicate as much. The more important question, though, is will this Bengals offseason produce status quo results?
That question can't be answered until the playoffs begin next January.