A month ago, there wasn't a wise guy in the world who liked the Cincinnati Bengals. The perfect storm had hit the beleaguered franchise again. What other team could enter a lockout with its franchise quarterback newly and shockingly retired and its two best receivers decidedly elsewhere?
Other teams start rookie quarterbacks. Who starts a rookie quarterback, a rookie wideout and a rookie offensive coordinator? In going from Carson Palmer and Terrell Owens to Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and coordinator Jay Gruden, the Bengals have retooled completely their offensive image. What a disaster this would be.
So what happened? What went right?
Two weeks into the season, Andy Dalton and A.J. Green appear to have been partners for a decade. Green makes catches Owens did not. He runs clean routes, something Owens and his TV partner Chad Ochocinco either couldn't or wouldn't do last year.
And last Sunday in Denver, Dalton threw for 280 yards. In the second half.
Can the Bengals actually thrive without their two diva receivers, and with a quarterback who actually wants to play in Cincinnati?
"We're just trying to show we're going to be in a position to win every game,'' Dalton allowed Wednesday. "I hope the fans see that.''
They might or they might not. Last Friday, the team announced its home opener, Sunday against San Francisco, would be blacked out. Nine days ahead of time seems a bit extreme. But when your stadium seats 66,000 and your season ticket base is somewhat beneath 40,000, maybe not illogical.
Regardless, fresh air has entered the room. It seems to agree with everyone.
"Sometimes, young talent that has no fear is dangerous,'' is how left tackle Andrew Whitworth puts it.
Start with Dalton. The Bengals took him in the second round. He was the fifth quarterback taken. The Bengals said he was the best of the five. Of course, the Bengals also have used first-round picks on quarterbacks David Klingler and Akili Smith. They thought Dalton could make all the throws, and that his style would suit Gruden's new offense.
What they could only surmise was the poise with which Dalton plays the NFL game. This is no run-first rookie. On Sunday in Denver, Dalton was the one "yelling and screaming,'' in Whitworth's words, at his teammates, imploring them to stay in the game, even as the Broncos took a 17-3 lead in the third quarter.
"Did you tell him to shut up?'' I asked Whitworth after the game.
"No,'' said Whitworth. "Why?''
Because he's a rookie and rookies should shut up.
"This kid's no regular rookie,'' Whitworth said.
On Wednesday, Whitworth expounded:
"He set the mood for us. He's passionate, he's got fire. Nobody gets in his head. There's no fear there.
"Every player's confident. They don't know if it's false confidence, or if they can actually play the game. He has hit a point where he knows he can actually play.''
It wasn't that way right away. Whitworth recalled July, when Dalton didn't say much: "First four weeks of training camp, we were trying to see if we could actually hear him speak. He walked into a huge-ass huddle and all these guys are looking at him, saying, 'You're the guy.' He was trying to prove to himself he belonged.''
The Bengals trailed the Broncos 24-15 early in the fourth quarter when Dalton faced 2nd-and-23 from his 7-yard line, and 70,000 orange crazies screaming at him emphatically. If the kid's gonna crack, now's the time.
Dalton dropped five steps and delivered a 30-yard laser down the middle to Jerome Simpson. The catch-and-run covered 84 yards. "That was b---s right there,'' noted center Kyle Cook afterward.
Two plays later, Dalton found Green on a back-shoulder fade pattern, for a four-yard touchdown. A play like that is all timing and trust. Somehow, the two rookies made it look easy.
As for Adriel Jeremiah Green: When the Bengals used the fourth overall pick on him, we heard how great he was. And we wondered what difference it would make, now that Carson Palmer was in Del Mar, Calif., watching bodacious waves. We got an answer.
In two games, Green has 11 catches for a 15-yard average, and two TDs. In the opener at Cleveland, he caught the game-winning TD pass, when the Bengals caught the Browns flat-footed and still breaking their defensive huddle.
Green speaks softly, almost a whisper. He actually uses words such as "we'' and "us'' in his conversations. Green did slip up after the 24-22 loss in Denver, saying Cincinnati's 19-point second half represented a "coming-out party'' for the offense, an offense he remedied Wednesday with the obligatory "we've got a long way to go.''
Still, he could have a point. The progress he and Dalton have made is remarkable, given the offseason each had. Beyond a few impromptu, player-organized workouts, the two didn't get on the field together until training camp.
"He's an easy guy to throw to. He does all the right things,'' Dalton said. "You can put the ball anywhere and he's going to catch it, or at least have that opportunity.'' Dalton called Green's route-running "quarterback friendly. He gets his head around and finds the ball. We can put the ball in a spot where we know he's the only one that can get it.''
Green says Dalton already knows he likes the ball high. "We've just put in a lot of time together,'' he said. "No magic.''
Not yet. Two weeks define nothing. They define even less when the subjects are first-year players. Though Green's athletic ability and Dalton's poise aren't going anywhere. And maybe, all that extra work in the spring just isn't that important. "The only difference between this year and last year is we aren't tired already, from the OTAs,'' Whitworth said.
Or, as Dalton put it, "Football is football. We're still throwing routes to the same depth. Timing is just getting used to each other. And the offense is new to everybody. We didn't have to catch up. We all learned together. We've been getting used to each other on the fly.''
Said Cook, "They didn't have OTAs or minicamps. Maybe they are behind a little bit. Maybe this is behind for them. Can you imagine what will happen when they really hit their stride?''
The Bengals have a Dunkin' Donuts schedule. They don't see Troy Polamalu and James Harrison until Week 10, Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs until a week later. Maybe by then, Dalton will resemble a rookie, throwing picks and running like he's being chased by the ghost of Lyle Alzado. Green will start seeing double-teams.
It could happen. Right now, there's no sign of it. Dalton is 23 going on 35, with good knees. And Green catches everything thrown to him.
Said Whitworth, "You worry sometimes about guys who've been around so much that they think negative. These guys don't have a negative thought in their heads.''
Whitworth likened Dalton and Green to Houston's Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson: "It used to be, Schaub would throw it up and Johnson would get it. That's how it grew with them.''
Heady comparison for two players two weeks into their paid careers. So far, so special.