Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan, one of Peyton Manning's last assistant coaches on the Denver staff that sent him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a Super Bowl title, texted him last Saturday when Manning's invite to the Canton shrine became official.
"I just said I'm appreciative of being a small part of your incredible career," Callahan reflected this week as he took a break from the offseason editing and adding of the playbook. "No matter how much it's expected, it's still pretty awesome."
But there is no such thing as small when it comes to building a championship offense and Callahan is banking on the Bengals expanding the minute into mastery as the third year dawns.
"Now these guys know the system. They know what to do, how to do it, where to be," Callahan said. "Now you're able to dig into it and get the miniscule details corrected and coached. That's a big thing for us. The more time you're in a system, the more things you get to learn and experience and get better at.
"It's a different focus when you come into year three in your system and the quarterback is in his second year. Your focus gets to broaden a little bit. It's the benefit of continuity."
But they hope to improve on the big and the little, from short yardage to the long ball.
One spot the Bengals clearly want to broaden is the efficiency of their running game, which began last month when head coach Zac Taylor appointed Frank Pollack the offensive line coach and gave him the title of run game coordinator. As quarterback Joe Burrow is downstairs from Callahan at Paul Brown Stadium rehabbing his left knee, the playbook is being reconstructed with a veteran quarterback and not the rookie that needed to be force fed last season without spring football or any preseason games.
The passing game had to get the attention to get the rookie quarterback ready. But now, even if they're looking at another truncated offseason, the running game has more time to breathe after a season it had fits and starts even before Mixon missed the last ten games with a foot injury.
"The process of the offseason, as different as it was last year, probably lent itself a little bit more to the pass game just because you had to get a young quarterback ready to play," Callahan said. "I think we'll be able to spend more time on the details of everything."
The details of the running game could look a little like what Pollack had here in his one season in 2018 when running back Joe Mixon hit career-highs with 4.9 yards per carry and 1,168 yards while Pollack established a wide zone concept under the previous coaching regime. How much different the run game is going to be from what Taylor and Callahan have run the past two seasons still has to play out.
"That remains to be seen," Callahan said. "Frank is obviously well versed in the wide zone scheme. It's a scheme we're familiar with. It's a scheme we haven't had as much success with as we would probably like.
"There are only so many things you can do in the running game," he said. "A lot of it is just getting better at the fundamentals of playing football … Frank will have some thoughts and ideas on his experiences that he'll bring to things that we change or improve on what we've already done. That's the bonus of having a guy like Frank who has been doing run games for a long time."
It can't be all that different. Callahan says when he was with Denver, the Broncos ran a lot of wide zone with Gary Kubiak in that Super Bowl season. When Taylor was in Los Angeles the Rams were wide zone heavy. Callahan says last season the Bengals were among the league leaders when it when it came to tight zone attempts, but there's no question that Mixon fits the wide zone style, just like he did two years ago.
"A lot of it is the back setting the angle and seeing the stretch. A lot of it is a vertical one cut game," Callahan said. "As backs are staying face with the front and pressing the line of scrimmage, it's that one vertical cut philosophy that gets you to the second level … It's a true zone concept run. That ball could hit a number of different places depending how the defense reacts.
"(Mixon) is fully capable of being an excellent wide zone runner. There's no doubt about that. And he's done it. He's done a good job on those wide zones he's run. You have to get a feel for it. The guys up front have to feel it. There are a lot of things that work together in that wide zone that are important. It's a scheme I personally love and Zac loves and it's one of the things we have to get better at it."
Which all gets back to having consistent personnel on the offensive line and that's another element that has to play out in free agency and the draft. At the moment, there doesn't look like there is going to be dramatic shuffling of positions. For instance, it sounds like 2019 first-round pick Jonah Williams is staying at tackle and not moving inside.
"Jonah played only a handful of games at left tackle and played well," Callahan said. "I see Jonah as a young, ascending tackle and to move him at this point off the tackle spot would probably be a disservice to him. That's not to say that's not possible or could never happen, but I just think he's done some really good things as a tackle so far. To move him off of that in this point in his career would be a disservice to him."
Williams is part of that core from the recent drafts that they think can buttress Burrow. And when it comes to Burrow, Callahan says there's not much more he could have done to establish himself during those first ten games that put him on pace to break a slew of rookie records before he got hurt.
The one thing Burrow talks about improving is the deep ball after a season they hovered at the bottom of the league when it came to converting the long pass. There are a lot of reasons for it, starting with he never had a chance to throw to his receivers until basically August.
But even though it looks like there won't be any spring ball again and it's unclear when Burrow returns to practice, Callahan is confident they'll make improvements on the long pass.
"Ultimately, I don't think it concerns me," Callahan said. "Obviously if we started the season off and we're still missing at the same rate, that would be concerning. But I think we'll be able to rectify those issues. We'll watch them all through the offseason, see what we could have done better, see what we could have done differently at both the skill and quarterback position. I think it will be a thing we can get corrected pretty quickly. Joe has thrown to these guys for a year and I think he has a good understanding of how they play football."
And, really, in the end, that's what is driving the offensive playbook this season. More familiarity with how they play the game.
"What do our guys do best? We'll always try to get that done," Callahan said. "They're not learning from scratch anymore."