Their once-promising season has turned sour. Now, there is uncertainty at the quarterback position, the Cincinnati Bengals haven't won a game since Oct. 28, and whatever steps the Bengals have taken into a brighter future are sliding into the abyss of their past.
The 4-7 Bengals will attempt to halt their slide this Sunday against the visiting Jaguars, but who will be under center for the Bengals? Are they committed to Jon Kitna? Or will they begin steps to reclaim the career of 1999 first-round pick Akili Smith?
"I'm confused. If I'm here, develop me," Smith said.
Kitna had held the starting job through this past Sunday's loss to Tampa Bay, but he was benched in Cleveland two weeks ago and head coach Dick LeBeau moved Smith ahead of Scott Mitchell and into the backup job last week.
"I would think the number one job is up in the air again next year if things keep going the way they're going. The next six games are pivotal for Kitna, the organization, everybody," Smith said.
"I'm sure he'll be playing pretty soon if we lose a few more games and we get mathematically eliminated (from the playoffs)," Kitna offered. "They've got decisions they need to make with him. I'm sure that will be in their thinking."
Clearly, the Bengals have a quarterback controversy. Smith believes he deserves the development a third-pick-of-the-draft prospect usually gets. Kitna has all but challenged the team to commit to him.
"In my opinion, that's a mistake," Kitna said of the prospect of being replaced. "As I've been saying, regardless of how this season ends, if we keep everybody together; you look at the teams that keep together and those are the teams consistently playing well year in and year out. You keep everybody together, we've got a chance. But if you're looking for the quick fix, well, hope we find it."
Quarterback has been the position of greatest instability for the Bengals. It was about this time a year ago that Smith lost his starting job to Mitchell, which led the Bengals to sign Kitna in free agency. The Bengals clearly need to decide who their quarterback of the future is and that decision may be offered this Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium.
"Whoever your guy is, hang with him," Kitna added in his campaign to remain the starter. "I think guys understand me, guys respect me in this locker room. Guys know what I bring to the table and whoever it is, stick with him. Stick through it in thick or thin. Ride the bad times like you ride the good. That's my opinion, but I'm not a coach, general manager or owner."
"We have a quarterback controversy every year," veteran offensive tackle Willie Anderson said. "It's my job to protect him and not complain. If he's going to lead us to a win and get some points on the board and be effective, I don't care who is back there."
The Bengals are playing their best brand of defensive football in more than a decade. They're ranked 10th in the league on defense, but the offense is in hard decline, including star running back Corey Dillon.
Dillon posted only 159 yards rushing in November and is currently 10th on the NFL rushing list. Last year's third-ranked running game is a lowly 19th in the league, following an overtime loss against Tampa in which Dillon handed the Bucs the win by fumbling at the Bengals' three-yard line in the overtime period.
"It's embarrassing to look at my friends on defense and to know they're playing championship-caliber football and here we go again on offense. It happens every year," Anderson said. "The talent is here; speed, strength. We probably have more talent than most other teams. Something is missing."
Most believe the missing link in Cincinnati is at quarterback, where the Bengals have yet to find that player around whom they will build their teams of the future.