In retrospect, Dave Shula was right. The Cincinnati Bengals were contenders, as their former coach had forecast.
They had talent enough - more than enough - to reach the National Football League playoffs. Their trouble was with temperament. The Bengals couldn't win until they had nothing to lose. And then they were a steamroller.
The season that ended Sunday afternoon at Cinergy Field was both tantalizing and exasperating. The Bengals ended their campaign with seven victories in their last nine games, a 31-24 triumph over playoff-bound Indianapolis, and the nagging knowledge that they had botched something better than a .500 finish.
Cough medicine is more easily swallowed.
''I just wish we were still in this thing,'' said Jeff Blake, the quarterback. ''The way we're playing now, I think we could make a run for it.''
The Bengals learned, about two weeks too late, that the right stuff was within them all along. Shula's mistake was in treating his players as if they might mature as part of a natural evolution. Bruce Coslet's masterstroke was in recognizing that the growth process could use (and could stand) some prodding.
Coslet achieved no strategic breakthroughs following his October battlefield promotion. He made no significant personnel changes on the playing field. His success was almost entirely attributable to the tone he set - accountability being its theme; bluntness its mode of expression - and the enthusiasm with which the players embraced it.
It was much the same effect forceful Forrest Gregg had on the Bengals following the feckless Homer Rice in 1980. Coslet created a sense of urgency and a fear of embarrassment among his players. When athletes can be convinced the clock is ticking, they can grow up in a hurry.
''It's really a state of mind,'' said Dan Wilkinson, the defensive tackle. ''It's what you believe, what you stand for. If you feel that no matter what - with your backs up against the wall- that you can still come out with a win, then you can. If you don't feel that, you won't.''
Confidence is part of the equation. Another part is commitment.
If the Bengals are to build on Coslet's foundation, the players must see a purpose in off-season workouts and late-afternoon lifting. James Francis, among others, needs to find more time for voluntary camps. Darnay Scott needs to report in playing shape.
Standards should be set high, and they should be reinforced through positive peer pressure. The Bengals will know they can aspire to the Super Bowl when players regularly show up when they aren't required for fear of being seen as slackers.
''It's easy to say, 'Yeah, we'll be better,''' wide receiver Carl Pickens said. ''But unless we come in here during the off-season and prepare, get on the same page, learn what to do and cut down on mistakes ... That's the easy part.''
The games are more glamorous, but it is often toil that tells in the National Football League. Those teams that experience continued success - Dallas, San Francisco, the '70s Steelers, the '60s Packers - are invariably built around a core of determined grunts and exacting skill players. Much as Jerry Rice might contribute on a Sunday afternoon, his play is no more vital to the 49ers' success than the work ethic he demonstrates during the week.
King Carl must lead
Pickens could have a similar impact on the Bengals. He can be a difficult personality, but he is indisputably the best player on the team. His last catch Sunday afternoon was his 100th of the season - bettering by one his club record of last year - and his next stop is the Pro Bowl.
King Carl is a reluctant role model, but an inevitable one. His precise execution, competitive spirit and sustained excellence are the standards all Bengals should seek.
''I'm not going to stand up in front of the team and say, 'We've got to do this or that,''' Pickens said. ''That's not my style. (But) with a lot of the younger players we have, we kind of have to bring them along.
''We're still a young team, regardless of how long I've been in the league or Jeff (Blake) or Tony (McGee) or David (Dunn). We just have to play together.''
The Bengals finished this season as if their growing pains were in the past. They no longer need to profess themselves contenders, for it is presumed.
''I think we know how to win now,'' Pickens said. ''I wish we had about two more quarters and three or four more games.''