New father Andy Dalton had the touch on Family Day at Paul Brown Stadium.
When Hue Jackson became the Bengals offensive coordinator in the fallout of another post-season loss back in January, he didn't think he had to fix Andy Dalton. He thought he just had to adjust some of his settings.
Widen the pocket. Make his drop in the pocket more urgent and quicker. Guide him to better, air-tight decisive decisions.
Right now, the meter is pointing up after Dalton and his first-team offense ended the first-phase of training camp Saturday with the smoothest outing this early in the preseason during the Green-Dalton Era.
How far up? His guys are mad at him. They want Jackson to crank up the pace even more.
"We look sharp. We looked real sharp today," said wide receiver A.J. Green. "If we keep (Dalton) clean, we'll be good, man. Keep him clean."
They had no choice in front of a Family Day crowd of 7,850 at Paul Brown Stadium as head coach Marvin Lewis pulled out a version of his old Mock Game from the Georgetown College attic. In what amounted to touch football in shoulder pads for the skill players and trench warfare everywhere else, Dalton lit the backups, hitting 17 of his first 19 passes for about 200 yards.
That came on the heels of a Thursday practice when he was 16 of 19.
For a guy who is supposed to be burdened in training camp with the crushing pressure of a 0-3 playoff record as well as negotiations for a mega contract extension, Dalton is throwing free and easy.
"I've been impressed with him since I've gotten to be the coordinator, but I've been really impressed with him over the last couple of days," Jackson said. "I think he's really starting to buy into the urgency, getting the ball out of his hands and making great decisions."
Jackson prefers to call plays from the sidelines because he likes to look into the eyes of his players during the ebb and flow of a game while also being close enough to read the body language of the defense. On Saturday, he liked how Dalton looked back at him.
"Very calm, very assured of what he's doing and how he's doing it," Jackson said. "There's good communication when he comes off (the field). Even when things don't go right he can tell me why, what he felt. That's what you look for. A quarterback has to be poised. He's been very in control when things have gone really good and when things have gone really bad. That's a good sign."
Dalton may not be one of those tall, burly cardboard cutout drop-back pure passers that get drafted No. 1.
But he's a seasoned, savvy point guard straight out of the NBA's Atlantic Division that can find the open man in a covey of talented ones and on Saturday he had all kinds of targets. He threw bombs to Green, screen passes to running back Giovani Bernard, arrow routes to wide receiver Mohamed Sanu.
And all kinds of routes to second-year tight end Tyler Eifert, his favorite target on Saturday with five catches, and three could have gone for touchdowns. After catching balls Saturday out of three different positions (outside, the slot, in-line), the 6-6, 250-pound Eifert is emblematic of how diverse this offense can be with a Jacksonian point guard making the quick and right decisions.
"That's the key. We have some very dynamic playmakers," Jackson said. "We have runners, we have pass catchers, we have all-pro pass catchers like A.J. but he's able to get the ball to different people and that's kind of who we are."
During his buffet binge on Thursday night, Dalton hit Eifert four times on long passes down the seam. On Saturday he hit him with a deep corner route that could have been a touchdown (think Eifert's 32-yard TD pass in Detroit last year) that was blown dead at the 1 and a 53-yarder for a touchdown when he blew by cornerback Onterio McCalebb on a go route.
"We feel like we get looks and matchups with him, and he makes big plays. That's what he did in college. It's what we expect of him now. He's been in the right spots and we're getting the looks that we want and we're hitting them," Dalton said. "He's in the right spot. He's so talented with the ball in the air. He's got great ball skills, runs really good routes. That's why he's been able to get open and make big plays."
And Jermaine Gresham, their two-time Pro Bowl tight end who has caught an average of 55 balls in the Green-Dalton Era, has yet to get on the field with back issues. Eifert says they're not using him any differently, but that he is more comfortable in the system.
"Just another year in the pros, another year of seeing defense, another year of understanding our offense, how it works," Eifert said. "Just knowing the offense. Not just what routes are run but the nuances that go with it. How to get open and the little things that go with the route."
If you think Eifert is surer of himself, take a look at Dalton. On and off the field. A few days ago, he had his wallet and car keys in hand during lunch, but he stopped when the media approached. A few years ago that might have got an eye roll or some one-word answers, or both. But not only did he stay and talk, halfway through when he got a thoughtful question he put down his stuff, folded his arms, and kept talking.
"I think we're all playing with a lot of confidence. We know where we're going to be. We know what we're doing," Dalton said. "I think it makes it fun. We're having a lot of fun while we're doing it. I think the biggest thing is the confidence level of everybody. Not just certain guys. It's everybody. "
Jackson is keeping everybody guessing. A lot of camp has had Dalton working out of a no huddle, but on Saturday they were breaking out of a huddle and it wasn't always breakneck.
"Today wasn't about the pace, today was about the guys had a rough, tough day yesterday, we came back and today and did some real good things executing," said Jackson of Friday's physical but sloppy full padded session. "I wasn't really concerned about the pace. I'll get that thing where I need it as we continue to move forward. They're mad at me, because they want me to go faster. At the end of the day I think I got my message across and when it's time we'll get done what we need to get done."
Dalton was sharp at every level of his throws, floating go-ball strikes to Green and Eifert, as well as muscling a throw over the middle that Sanu was able to corral with one of his one-handed specialties. He also opened the festivities zipping a 25-yard play-action ball that led Green into an inside cut. For the first time in his career back in March he worked with a quarterback guru and the extra work under the hood with Dr. Tom House has helped mechanically, particularly with his legs and lower body.
"I think it's part of it,' Dalton said. "I took the time in the offseason to try to get better, and I feel like I'm throwing the ball really well right now."
Jackson won't discount that week with the former big-league pitcher. But he thinks he's watching the natural development of a four-year veteran making his 49th start in Baltimore Sept. 7.
"I still think it's a combination of everything, but I think he's improved in all those areas," Jackson said. "It's year four for him and he should be. He's taken real command of the offensive football team and he's really taken a responsibility for what he needs to do and how he needs to do it and he's doing it very well."
Not fixes. Just settings.