The NFL's most beleaguered franchise has opened training camp with one of the league's most fascinating storylines. It's not surprising that the Cincinnati Bengals are trying to prepare a rookie quarterback for a Week 1 debut, in the wake of a lockout, with a rookie offensive coordinator. It's pretty much what they do.
How Not To Get Our Kid Quarterback Killed opened last week to decent reviews. Andy Dalton, the freshest of faces, a 23-year-old who could stand in for Opie Taylor all grown up, threw for 71 touchdowns and more than 10,000 yards as a four-year starter at TCU. The Bengals brought in veteran Bruce Gradkowski, just in case, but they'd like Gradkowski to caddie. They want Dalton to win the job.
As veteran Cincinnati guard Bobbie Williams put it, "God help the young man.''
"He doesn't know what he doesn't know,'' offered Boomer Esiason, once in the same leaky boat as an NFL rookie quarterback, now a star of radio and television. "If they force-feed him and put him in games right away, he will get killed. He will get eaten alive.''
The Bengals aren't listening to Esiason at the moment.
"We are having the time of our lives'' is how quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese put it Thursday. Zampese and the new coordinator, Jay Gruden, have been presented with the ultimate empty canvas. Whether they can make it a Renoir or a Jackson Pollock will be entertaining. Even as the potential for carnage is high.
Zampese came into his current job in 2003, the same year the Bengals made Carson Palmer the No. 1 overall pick. Palmer's rising tide also floated Zampese's boat. His name surfaced for offensive coordinator jobs around the league for several seasons. "That was my first time,'' Zampese said. "You screw that up, you don't ever get to coach quarterbacks again.''
Gruden's story is even more extreme. The brother of Jon Gruden gladly hung around pro football's fringes for more than a decade, coaching in the Arena League and the United Football League. He also spent seven years as an offensive assistant under his brother, at Tampa Bay.
"I wanted to be there for my kids,'' he shrugged. "And I was happy. I liked coaching players that have a passion for the game.'' He took the Bengals job in February, when no one knew whether Palmer was serious about retiring. The limbo didn't bother Gruden. "For the privilege to play quarterback in the NFL, you shouldn't have to beg anyone,'' he said. "I'd cut off my right leg to play quarterback in the NFL.''
Jay Gruden isn't as out there as his better-known brother, but his mind as an offensive coach is just as fertile. He brings a West Coast style and some of that Gruden charisma-tude.
On Thursday, he described his approach thusly: "Be confident in what you're presenting. If people don't like it, tough. Run it.''
Gruden and Zampese are connected at the brain with Dalton. Quarterback is the hardest position to play in all sports, and that's when you know what you're doing. Esiason recalled his 1995 season with the New York Jets, when Rich Kotite took over as head coach and promptly changed the entire offense. Esiason went to Jets offensive coordinator Zeke Bratkowski and said, "Are you serious with this playbook?''
"I was a 12-year veteran and I was struggling with it," Esiason said. "Think about that.''
Gruden and Zampese spend eight or nine hours a day with Dalton, Zampese said, the majority of which is spent watching video. Zampese has cut-and-pasted the collected good works of Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and others to show Dalton.
"Watch how Brees sets his feet,'' Zampese might say. "Watch his footwork under center.'' They'll move to a clip of Dalton, running the same play in practice:
"Here's you, here's Drew. Here's Philip Rivers' knee-bend and follow through, and here's what you're doing.''
Said Gruden, "He has seen a lot of things most quarterbacks won't see all year.''
It's the arcane, inside football things that separate the successful NFL quarterbacks from the washouts. Wake me after Gruden finishes talking about blitz protections, hot reads and sight adjustments. What will make Dalton better will induce sleep in the masses. Can we avoid lots of serious discussion about "going through his progressions''?
Zampese said Dalton has traits that can't be coached. He's a leader, according to Zampese. He's smart, he wants to learn. "He's not afraid,'' said Zampese. "He goes for the jugular.''
Problem is, so does Ray Lewis. And he's better at it.
"Dalton is a talented kid, with very little support,'' Esiason said. "He doesn't have Pittsburgh's defense, or Baltimore's. He doesn't have a very good offensive line. When Ben Roethlisberger started as a rookie, everyone wondered why Carson Palmer didn't start, too. They had two entirely different support systems.''
As for Dalton himself, he's keeping a low off-field profile. His answers to questions are predictable. "It's like being a college freshman again,'' he said Thursday. "They've made it pretty easy. I have a pretty good grasp of everything we have installed right now.''
How much of it is complex, regular-season stuff is anyone's guess. The offense is new to everyone. The problem comes if Dalton can't keep up with the learning curve. That messes up the other 10 players. As former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson put it this week, "You can't give him too much, too fast. But you also have to force-feed it to everybody.'' If that sounds contradictory, it is.
The Bengals are putting the best face on their freshest face. Coaches are privately delighted that diva receivers Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens are no longer around. Workouts are crisper, enthusiasm is greater. "There's an energy about the group,'' Zampese said. "That doesn't mean you're going to win any games. But you feel good about what you're doing, and you're doing it together.''
How that translates beginning five weeks from now is anyone's guess. Most teams don't enter a post-lockout season with a rookie quarterback and a rookie offensive coordinator. Of course, most teams don't have their franchise quarterback retire in his prime, either. Most teams are not the Cincinnati Bengals.
Esiason started four games his rookie year. "I was completely lost,'' he recalled. At one point, Esiason was befuddled enough that his center, Dave Rimington, chugged to the sidelines to tell coach Sam Wyche, "You gotta get this kid outta there. He's killing us.''
The Bengals hope that doesn't sound familiar. It might, though. Despite all best intentions and hard work, it just might.