GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The Bengals offense has a long way to go. But they're having fun taking a different road to get there.
"We're not robots anymore," said one receiver this week of the route the Bengals are running at Georgetown College this training camp.
Or, as wide receiver Andre Caldwell says, "Instead of us calling the play based on the defense, we're putting the pressure on them. We can just go make plays and be ourselves. It used to be it was precise route-running, running like it was drawn up on paper. Now it's more like, 'This is football.' Sometimes you have to improvise. Get in an area, make a play, do what you've got to do."
While Chad Ochocinco is intimating that he has left hell while calling New England "heaven," his former mates and coaches are finding it more like Main Street and relishing the emergence of a no-frills offense and style.
"It's been different," says Ken Zampese, in his ninth camp as the quarterbacks coach. "I'm having the time of my life. Of course, the blitzes haven't come yet, but I'm enjoying the energy and the atmosphere and those things are going to carry us through the year."
No one is taking shots at Bob Bratkowski, the much-maligned offensive coordinator whose run ended this past January after 10 seasons. He had a run of top 10 finishes that hadn't been seen around these parts in 15 years, but not lately. The maze of Death Eaters that sucked the life out of this offense the past few years with penalties, miscommunication, too many men, not enough time, and diva blocking, seem to have fled campus for the time being.
While no one knows what to expect as new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden builds his West Coast offense and puts it in the hands of the rawest of rookie quarterbacks, the anticipation of the unknown has replaced the angst of perpetual underachievement.
The change in Xs and Os has mirrored the change in Ps and Qs. When Marvin Lewis jumped on Caldwell for the Ocho stunt of wearing orange shorts at the first practice, the head coach himself said triumphantly, "Close the chapter."
"I just like orange shorts. I just like to look different sometimes. That's a little too different," Caldwell said. "That's (Ochocinco's) thing. That's what he does. It made him a lot of money. I've got my own personality. I'm my own man. It's a team. You want everyone to be alike, so I buy into that. That leads on to bigger problems down the road. I just want to play football. Things are a lot different. I think we're more team-oriented. Closer-knit group. We're just all trying to make a name and we haven't done that so far."
But don't get him wrong. Caldwell loves The Ocho and is always grateful for what he taught him in the NFL. It's just different in the receivers room now. Less entertainment, Caldwell says. In his receiver-high fourth season with a team-high 87 pro catches, Caldwell not only finds himself a leader but also a grinder for a roster spot.
"I like being a leader," he says. "I like fighting. I know I can make plays. I have in the past and I think this offense is good for me."
Every time Caldwell gets a shot, something good happens. In '09 he beat the Steelers and the Ravens in the slot in the last minute. When he got the chance to play on the outside in the last two games of last season, the Chargers and Ravens still haven't covered him. The Bengals responded by signing two big-time free agents in Antonio Bryant and Terrell Owens and drafting Jordan Shipley and A.J. Green.
"I just go out and do my job," he says.
He says he loves doing it in Gruden's system.
"The whole concept of the route doesn't change (on a blitz). There's more relying on instinct," Caldwell says.
Plus, instead of guys like The Ocho and Jerome Simpson lining up in just one spot, one of the fundamentals of the West Coast is having every receiver eventually being able to line up in three spots of X, Z and Y.
"You can't learn just one position, but we can run the same play out of all three positions," Caldwell said. "It looks different to the defense, but it's the same to us. The different formations confuse the defense, but if you learn the whole concept of the play, you know everything."
Even though it has been a truncated learning experience for Green, Gruden envisions trying to move him around in the first few weeks of the season. Right now, he's got Green at Z, the flanker spot, where he has had the most impressive first week by a Bengals rookie in recent memory.
"Just so he's not going out there and worrying about what spot he's playing," Gruden said. "That's the idea of the West Coast: moving people around in different formations and different sets. With the lack of time we've had, we've got to make sure we're working on protections and route combinations. As he gets more familiar, we may be able to start moving (Green) around in weeks three, four, five, something like that."
For the first time in 20 years, the Bengals receiver room isn't overwhelmed by personalities. There isn't the toxic Carl Pickens or the distracted Ocho. The best player, Green, has charmed everyone with his down-home personality and out-of-this-world athleticism.
"He's a really good football player and the best part of him is he wants it; he's got a great attitude," Zampese says. "He goes hard all the time, he's really coachable and that's more than half the battle right there."
Zampese has his own rookie to deal with in quarterback Andy Dalton, nothing like the two guys he had before. Savvy Jon Kitna had 59 NFL starts when Zampese got him. Then there was Carson Palmer, the quintessential can't-miss strong-armed overall No. 1 pick. Now here's Dalton, a welterweight that likes to work the ropes and the body. He doesn't have a flamethrower for an arm, but he seems to have a microchip somewhere.
"He has control and that's what our team needs right now," Zampese says. "He has the huddle and he fixes things when they're not right. Whatever didn't happen, he always wants to make it right the next time. I'd be upset if he had the same mistake over and over again. Then we'd have something to talk about. But it doesn't happen like that for him. Every day I feel better because I see him get a little more and a little more. You get more and more comfortable ... 'hey's he's getting it, he's getting it.' "
What they're getting is change. Whether it works is anyone's guess. But when Green goes up in the air to grab one, everyone looks around and smiles.
"I would have done a back flip if I could," says Zampese when asked what he thought of one of Green's gymnastic jump catches. "Haven't seen that in awhile."