Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is the same guy. The same coach that sired the game's first Pro Bowl quarterback-receiver combo in history last season.
Heck, he's the same guy, the same coach that 22 days ago got off the plane from Jacksonville with Cincinnati's first top 10 offense in five years, a top five-rated quarterback in Andy Dalton, four wide receivers averaging at least 13 yards per catch, and more gadgets than Edison.
"What a difference a week makes, a month makes, a season makes in careers and lives in this business," Gruden said on a Monday that felt like a Monday. "You just have to keep doing what you're doing, just got to do a better job of getting players in the right spots and coaching better. We've got to take players who are not quite ready and make them ready. We've got to take the great players and utilize them the best way we can."
Gruden may be the same guy, the same coach, but he's examining the remains of a three-game losing streak in which the offense has melted down on third down (12-for-41) and A.J. Green is the only receiver averaging double-digit yards per catch. Cincinnati's 185 total yards, Dalton's 105 passing yards and Green's eight yards from Sunday night's loss to the Steelers are the lowest of Gruden's 24 games as caretaker of the Green-Dalton era and punctuates the three-game funk.
And so for Gruden, a tape junkie, that means back to the board for the bye. In Green and Dalton the Bengals have a solid foundation. The search for their assets continues.
"We've all had a setback. I've had a setback. We all have to get better together," Gruden said. "(Dalton is) the one that has the spotlight on him. I've got to do a good job of making plays more comfortable for him. Get balls out, whatever he needs to make it better. We will sit down this week and reevaluate what we are doing and how we are doing them and evaluate the people that we have and try to figure out better ways to use them, but to lose three games in a row like we've lost them, games that we felt very good about going in … ."
Gruden's No. 2 receiver has yet to step up and his quarterback is trying to take the next step and yet he remains the same stand-up guy. No less than eight media members, the entire corps that covers the Bengals daily, wedged into his office Monday looking for answers.
And he tried for 22 polite minutes as he called Sunday night's outing "an embarrassment."
"What matters is us moving forward and getting our guys in the right frame of mind. I think we have a very talented group offensively," Gruden said. "We've got some guys who have to step up to another level; we've got to coach 'em better. But we're not going to give up on any of 'em. We've just got to do a better job coaching them. I do."
Dalton has had a sudden swerve the last three weeks. When the Bengals opened at 3-1, he was completing 67.5 percent of his passes, averaging eight yards per throw, and had twice as many touchdowns (eight) than interceptions (four). In the last three game he has seen what Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham calls "The Kevin Coyle Blueprint."
Named after the Dolphins defensive coordinator and former long-time Bengals secondary coach, it dares Dalton to find other weapons besides Green in a tilted maze of man and zone underneath and over the top.
In the last three games he's completed 60. 6 percent for just 6.2 yards per throw and has thrown one more interception (six) than touchdowns (five).
And so Gruden was asked about "The Book," the second time around the NFL and if the second year can be tougher than the first.
"Maybe. But each game is difficult in the NFL. Tom Brady said it the other day: winning is very hard," Gruden said. "People were getting on him. They had a couple three-and-outs there at the end and the Jets came back and people are booing the Patriots, for God's sake. It's not easy to win against anybody. Each game presents a different challenge.
"The Steelers defense is night-and-day different than Cleveland last week, totally different, so you have a different game plan and a different mentality going in with protections and everything else. And Miami before that, totally different. And Denver next week is a totally different animal. So the challenge for a young quarterback is each week you're going to see something different and how he reacts to the new things we're doing and how to attack certain styles of defenses and how successful he's going to be."
Gruden remains Dalton's biggest supporter. A smart, beautiful rhythmic passer when he gets it going. But Gruden acknowledges Dalton's desire to get the ball out so quickly can cause problems on this level.
Sunday night's killer interception that popped out of Dalton's hands was partly a result of that because he pulled the ball back when he saw the route jumped. Gruden says Dalton is going to learn to wait for other options to unfold.
"Sometimes he is (too quick)," Gruden said. "We are not asking Andy to be Ben (Roethlisberger), but we do need to ask him to take third down very seriously and if something is not there initially to run, make something happen with your legs, sometimes he couldn't," Gruden said of Sunday. "Sometimes the pressure was there and he scrambled out and they were right on him just like that and he had to throw it away.
"Other times I think he could have bought a little bit more time. You don't have to be Michael Vick or Robert Griffin III. But Drew Brees and a lot of these great quarterbacks buy time in the pocket. He's just got to do a better job of that. Comes with time. He's still in his second year. He's programmed in to being such a great rhythm, timing quarterback, but sometimes defenses here they can take away initial reads. He's going to have to wait for somebody else."
Which brings up Gruden's next challenge. Who is that somebody else opposite Green? It very well could be rookie Marvin Jones and Sunday night was supposed to be his coming-out party after a week he was given the bulk of the snaps in practice opposite Green. How about this for shortcircuiting the iPad? Jones sprained his MCL blocking for a kick return before he ever took an offensive snap and while head coach Marvin Lewis says he's got a shot to play in two weeks it doesn't give Gruden any immediate answers.
So with Jones rehabbing Gruden will go back to the board. With two-deep zone defenses taking away Green the past three weeks, the other guys haven't been able to take advantage. In the last three games, Sunday's No. 2 starter, Brandon Tate, has two catches for 14 yards. Armon Binns, who had started five of the previous six games before being inactive for the Steelers, averaged 8.8 yards per his six catches in the last three. Rookie Mohamed Sanu and second-year man Ryan Whalen alternated outside and in the slot against the Steelers in making their first seven catches of the season combining for barely eight yards per catch.
Even fleet slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who had a 50-yarder, 57-yarder, and 31-yarder in the 3-1 start, has averaged just 8.3 yards on 12 catches in the last three games.
"It's been an issue. Whalen had some good plays, Tate only played eight or nine snaps but we only had 50 plays," Gruden said. "(Green) dropped a slant, (Green-Ellis) dropped a checkdown, Jermaine (Gresham) dropped a pass, four drops. We have to get more production from everyone else. Mohamed Sanu was a welcome addition, he had a nice run and three catches. Happy with the way Mo played. Right now we have some guys who can play but haven't taken a major step into that role.
"Through training camp and last season at the very end once we lost Jerome (Simpson) we thought Binns had the best camp and Tate had a good camp. We thought Whalen played well the past couple weeks and has progressed nicely and deserved some reps. Matter of the guys when they get them the guys can't drop it. We have to get more production and Andy has to have more faith to get it to them. Tight ends and backs out of the backfield have to be more productive."
Exhibit A: Whalen didn't hear Dalton check to a skinny post and he ran an out route. But then, Green, all of a 15-game veteran, came into the season with his 65 NFL catches leading all seven receivers. On Sunday, Whalen doubled his NFL output with four catches. Tate's lone catch gave him 30 for his career.
Asked if the inexperience has caught up Gruden says, "a little bit," but "they've made some plays, too."
It has been quite a roller coaster on offense. Not only are the receivers young, but look on the offensive line in the second half against the grizzled Steelers front three. Rookie Trevor Robinson had to play center when Jeff Faine went down with a hamstring problem right away in the second half. He was playing next to rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling, a second-year guy playing his first season at left guard.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton tossed around the promising but small and still developing Robinson while Boling had some uncharacteristic problems with the bull rush. Boling, who came into the game as the highest rated pass-blocking guard by Web site profootballfocus.com, got pushed back a few times along with Zeitler. Both project to be excellent NFL guards. But on Sunday, Gruden noted Dalton was unable to step up in the pocket often in the second half.
"It's just a little bit of everything. The whole second half we're playing with our third center, we're playing with a left guard who hardly ever played left guard and he's a little banged up, and we're playing a rookie right guard," Gruden said.
"They still battled; they still did some good things. But over the course of the game you look at well, Boling here, he screwed up these three plays, and Trevor, he screwed up these three. That's six out of 50. We had four drops, that's 10 out of 50. Andy threw four bad balls, that's 14 out of 50. You know, we have talented players but if each talented player screws up three times a game, that's 33, 35, whatever the number is, and we only have 50 plays."
But Gruden likes what he has. He thinks these seven receivers deserve to be here and that there's no one on the street that can help right now. Monday's workout of former Browns second-rounder Brian Robiske is simply due diligence.
On this day after, Gruden's point is clear: Dalton needs everyone around him to be a factor if he's going to be a factor.
"We like the guys. They're not playing terribly, it's just they're not being noticed," Gruden said of the receivers. "They need to get themselves noticed and we need to give them some shots.
"They all have their qualities that are good. And they all have a quality or two that you question. Someone will step up. It would surprise me if they don't get the message. Step up somebody."