QUIET. THAT'S the best word to describe the Bengals' summer, a radical change for coach Marvin Lewis and his staff, given their past training camp experiences with reality-show cameras, police blotters and soap operas involving diva receivers. Last year Cincinnati faced the dramatic challenge of breaking in a rookie quarterback, Andy Dalton, and introducing coordinator Jay Gruden's complex West Coast offense to an inexperienced unit, all in a shortened off-season. The biggest drama at camp this year: Lewis banned his players from Twitter.
A once-dysfunctional franchise suddenly looks competent and well-run. Coming off a surprise playoff appearance, and with a talented young core in place, the Bengals have raised expectations in the city (ticket sales are up) and in the locker room (where players sport T-shirts boasting dno, as in destination: new orleans). Now comes the hard part.
Cincinnati hasn't made back-to-back playoff appearances in 30 years and hasn't won a postseason game since 1991, the longest current drought in the NFL. "For all the younger players, [making] the playoffs was an accomplishment," says Lewis, whose team was throttled by the Texans 31--10 in the wild-card round. "But we all remember how quiet it was on that flight back from Houston."
A substantial part of Cincinnati's plan to overtake the Steelers and the Ravens in the division and return to the postseason is contained within Gruden's playbook, expanded in Year 2 for Dalton and wideout A.J. Green. In 2011, that duo became the first rookie quarterback-receiver pair to make the Pro Bowl, reward for the first 3,000-yard-passing and 1,000-yard-receiving season by first-year teammates. Now it's up to Gruden, a former Arena and United Football League coach who made his NFL coordinator debut last year in Cincinnati, to turn the pair loose.
This off-season Gruden and Dalton huddled for film sessions, breaking down video of the quarterback's misfires and squandered opportunities on deep balls. There they learned that critics who had questioned Dalton's arm strength had a point: He appeared hesitant to throw downfield, and he completed just 50.4% of his attempts to the sidelines.
Gruden's message: Let 'er rip. "Andy trusted A.J. last year," Gruden says. "This year he has to trust him even more. Not Hail Marys every play, but we're going to take more shots. Even if it's underthrown a little bit but kept in play, it won't be an interception—A.J.'s going to get it."
The Bengals aren't looking for a rerun of the Andy & A.J. show, but it will take creative casting to avoid that. There's no clear No. 2 receiver who will lure defenders away from Green; the most enticing options are Brandon Tate, who didn't catch a ball last year; Mohamed Sanu, a third-round pick out of Rutgers; and Armon Binns, a converted practice squad player.
Further, they waved goodbye to running back Cedric Benson. But they believe they'll be better off with a time-share, rotating newcomer BenJarvus Green-Ellis with backup Bernard Scott. While he's never been a full-load back, Green-Ellis, a between-the-tackles bruiser who had 24 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons, will at least be a difference maker in the red zone, where Cincinnati tied for 24th in converting goal-to-go situations into touchdowns (14 of 26). In 2011, Benson carried 54 times in the red zone and scored five times. With the Patriots, Green-Ellis more than doubled that, on 15 fewer touches.
The no-name defense lost only two regular starters from a unit that ranked seventh in the league last year. Without any major signings, it's hard to imagine significant improvement on that side of the ball, but a repeat of 2011 will work if Dalton, Green and the rest of the young offense take a big step forward.
"We hit a couple of home runs," says Lewis of Dalton and Green, "but we expect them to get a lot better this year. And so far the signs point to their doing so."
WITH 2011 STATS
OFFENSE 2011 RANK: 20
(N) New acquisition
(R) Rookie—College stats
TTD Total touchdowns
SACKS Sacks allowed
HOLD Holding penalties
FALSE False starts
2011 Record: 9--7
10 at Baltimore (Mon)
23 at Washington
30 at Jacksonville
14 at Cleveland
11 New York Giants
18 at Kansas City
2 at San Diego
13 at Philadelphia (Thu)
23 at Pittsburgh
The Bengals didn't make any impact additions to the defense, but the return of Hall, who was shelved last season after tearing his left Achilles on Nov. 13, is a big reason Cincy fans are optimistic that a unit that ranked ninth in points allowed will be even stronger in 2012. Just how important is the former first-round draft pick? Over the first eight games of '11, with Hall fully healthy, the Bengals surrendered just eight touchdown passes and ranked fourth in the NFL in total defense (301.3 ypg). After Hall's injury the D ceded 12 touchdown passes in its last seven games, four of them losses. The Bengals were shredded for 31 points by the T.J. Yates--led Texans in the wild-card game, including a 40-yard score to Andre Johnson, who embarrassed cornerback Adam Jones on the play.
Hall's progress has been promising. "My movement is good; the technique has been rusty," he says. But the Bengals need a full recovery, especially given the questionable status of fellow corner Dre Kirkpatrick, a first-round pick out of Alabama, after a precamp knee injury.
"This has become a passing league," says coach Marvin Lewis. "We really need the Leon of old back in there."
Passes by quarterback Andy Dalton that were batted at the line of scrimmage in 2011. Only the Jets' Mark Sanchez had as many.
League-low yards per carry off end by Bengals running backs, a significant weakness compared with an NFL average of 4.5 yards.
Yards per carry in the same situation by new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Where is the explosive off-end play going to come from in 2012?
JOHN SOMMERS II/REUTERS (GREEN)
Green had three catches of more than 50 yards from Dalton in 2011—but Gruden wants more.
MSA/ICON SMI (HALL)