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I just missed the Bengals at their training camp home in Georgetown, Ky., but I caught up with them on Friday upon their return to Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. The middle of the Bengals locker room was crowded with the temporary stalls that scream summertime and overcrowded rosters. The image always tells a powerful story. A lot of these players won't be here in a couple weeks. Even rookie quarterback Andy Dalton had his belongings in a temporary stall. Call it paying dues. He'll move to a permanent stall soon enough. It might be his only comfort this season.
1. Where have you gone, Ochocinco? Just by habit, I walked into the Bengals locker room and looked toward the right side, middle of the room, where Chad Ochocinco once held court. He's gone now, and so is the "retired" Carson Palmer, two of the more identifiable Bengals of recent vintage and, really, of all time. No more Ochocinco manning the stereo. No more Palmer sitting at his stall in the front, right corner of the room. The vibe feels different. It is different. "We still have a good locker room and good players," center Kyle Cook pointed out, looking around the room. "We still have the guys like [guard] Bobbie Williams and [tackle] Andrew Whitworth and [running back] Ced [Benson]." Of the absence of Ochocinco and Palmer, Cook said, "Them being gone, it's tough because they were good players, but this is a new year. It's a totally new team, and we've got to move on." The Bengals really have.
2. Jay Gruden will bring energy -- and long work hours -- to his role as Bengals offensive coordinator. And with a rookie quarterback, he will need it. I met Jay for the first time last year while I was moonlighting as a sideline reporter for the United Football League, and I immediately recognized the focus and determination that runs through the Gruden family tree (Jay is Jon's younger brother). Though not nearly as animated as Jon, Jay is a coach's coach who loves to talk about the intricacies of the offensive game. (He is installing the West Coast offense in Cincinnati). He played quarterback at Louisville, starred in the Arena Football League as a player and coach, and was an offensive assistant on Jon's Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII over the Oakland Raiders. In my year covering the UFL, Jay coached the Florida Tuskers to the title game, losing to Jim Fassel's Las Vegas Locos.
I asked Jay about taking on his new role with a rookie quarterback, and he emphasized how well Dalton was digesting the verbiage of a complex offense. "He's handling all of the audibles and all of the good things that you have to do as a quarterback," Gruden said. "He's a calm, cool customer right now. We definitely like what we see in his progression." One of the big questions will be how much the Bengals max protect versus how much they turn their weapons loose. "Especially with the exotic blitzes you see on second and long and third down, the problem is when you max protect, you don't get anybody out [on routes] hardly, and if [the defense] plays Cover 2 man or drops eight [defenders], you've got problems," Gruden said. "We have to have a good combination of both."
That Dalton's first two preseason games were against the Detroit Lions -- who unleashed Ndamukong Suh on him -- and the New York Jets will only help him in the long run, Gruden guessed. "Let's see worst-case scenarios for him and prepare and show him what it's going to be like in the regular season," Gruden said. "It's not going to be easy any week, any game that we play. He's going to see some things, take his licks, get up and come back at 'em."
3. Dalton is going to love throwing the football to A.J. Green. The rookie wide receiver from Georgia stands 6-foot-4 and is already making an impression on the coaching staff. "He's the real deal," Gruden said. "So far he's everything as advertised." Gruden says the biggest adjustment Green is going to have to make as a pro is using receiver fundamentals to combat the best defensive backs in the world. "He's going to see some different looks," Gruden said. "He's been able to use his raw talent to get open his whole career. Now he's going to have to make sure his depth and his routes are consistent, to set up people, and find holes. That's going to take some time, but as far as raw talent goes, he's a special character."
Cedric Benson, running back. Two years ago, Benson led a renaissance in Bengals football. He had 301 carries for 1,251 yards in helping lead Cincinnati to the playoffs. Last season, he carried the ball 20 more times but had 140 fewer rushing yards. With a rookie quarterback under center, Benson's production will be the key to the Bengals' offensive success. "Cedric hopefully is going to be a major part of the offense," Gruden said. "It opens up the play action and bootlegs and all that. Without the running game, our playbook diminishes considerably. [Benson] is very, very important."
Nate Clements, cornerback. Clements grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and played college football at Ohio State. And after 10 seasons in Buffalo and San Francisco, he is happy to be playing in his native state. He also noted that rumors of the Bengals' demise are greatly exaggerated. "Two years ago, this team swept the division," Clements said. "We have what it takes. It's been proven and guys realize that. Success doesn't discriminate against anybody. With winning comes confidence. That's the key, to start fast, win games and that breeds confidence within the group. This is a young, talented team. I'm excited."
Cincinnati opens the regular season as it should -- against intrastate and division rival Cleveland at Browns Stadium. For the two teams chasing the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North, the game should reveal plenty about their prospects in 2011. None of the Bengals' first five opponents (Browns, Broncos, 49ers, Bills and Jaguars) had a winning record in 2010. Of course, neither did the Bengals. With a rookie quarterback under center, the odds for a playoff season are long. Another losing season appears likely.