This doesn’t happen every day.
When offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin huddled with the press at Tuesday’s training camp media luncheon, this hadn’t happened to the Bengals since 1980. It officially marked the Bengals moving into training camp with a new look for both offense and defense for the first time since Forrest Gregg became head coach 38 years ago, so long ago that the Bengals had yet to adopt the title of “offensive coordinator,” and referred to Lindy Infante as simply “receivers/quarterbacks coach.”
“Usually, that is associated with hiring a new coach,” said Bengals president Mike Brown of the staff sea change. “We did it a little bit differently. We brought in new coordinators and let them have their chance at it. This will make us look different. It will be a challenge to digest for our players. It usually takes a little time. I will be holding my breath some as we start out with it. There will certainly be a few ups and downs with it. It should produce real change with the football team and we are trying to have change. We are trying to see if something a little different won’t be better.”
So Tuesday was really a guessing game for the first time in nearly 40 years. These guys aren’t going to detail the changes for you. Tuesday isn’t a day to find out how things are going to be different. You really won’t know until the Sept. 9 opener in Indianapolis. That’s what coordinators do. Lazor summed that up when he closed his vest when asked if he knew what was wrong last season with a punch-less deep passing game that head coach Marvin Lewis has identified as a priority to revive.
“Yeah, but I won't (say),” Lazor said. “Statistically, it looks just like it felt. You were there.”
What is clear is the moves to Lazor and Austin made sense for Lewis. Although Lazor had done the job after Lewis fired Ken Zampese two games into last season, the team needed a brand new playbook after finishing dead last in NFL offense with the worst running game in franchise history and yet Lazor already had a good relationship with quarterback Andy Dalton. When defensive coordinator Paul Guenther followed Jon Gruden to Oakland, Lewis simply grabbed the best on the market when Austin was cut loose after the Lions fired Jim Caldwell.
But this is why Mike Brown doesn’t covet change. A transformation takes time and Brown knows time isn’t exactly on one’s side in the NFL’s fast-paced world. When push comes to shove it’s why he’ll almost always defer to consistency.
“It’s not completely new. There’s some changes. I wouldn’t say we’re reinventing the wheel,” Austin cautioned. “You got Cover-3, you got Cover-2, you got quarters, you got man. There’s only so many ways you can do stuff. But I think more importantly its how you teach it, the techniques you teach, what are you looking at, what are some of the things you’re doing and how you do it that’s maybe just a little bit different than maybe what we’ve done it in the past.”
Considering the only system his defenders have ever know is the scheme of Guenther and Mike Zimmer, style means as much as scheme.
“There's been a lot of continuity here for a lot of years so there are things that we're going to do a little bit different and it will take a little bit of time,” Austin said. “I don't look at it as a big negative in terms of, 'We have to get that out of them.' I just know they were taught a different way and we have to explain to them why we think the way we're doing it will help them a little bit more.”
Everyone just assumes Austin is going to bring more pressure than Bengals fans have seen the last ten seasons, when Zimmer and Guenther were two guys that were usually at the bottom of the league for blitzing. But then, remember, Austin lined up against the Bengals in Week 16 last year with Akeem Spence at tackle and Anthony Zettel at left end. Not Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap, so maybe he had to blitz more than Guenther to get pressure.
“I’m not going to call plays like everybody else did. I mean, because we’re all unique individuals. There may be certain situations I may be a little bit more; I may gamble a little more,” Austin said. “I may be a little more conservative. What’s been done in the past I’m not exactly sure of that. I just know how I like to call a game and how I see situations.”
On Tuesday both coordinators broadly outlined what they want. Lazor has focused on Dalton’s strengths of quick mind and release at the line while Austin is emphasizing what the defense didn’t do well last year: stopping the run and costly penalties, better tackling and turning it over more. Before he became a coordinator, Austin coached secondaries in Seattle, Arizona and Baltimore to Super Bowls, and the one thread from those defenses is aggressiveness. So that’s been a constant theme for him. One scribe noted Tuesday how his DBs seemed at home jumping routes during spring drills.
“I think that they are calculated risks based on formations and things that you see,” Austin said. “I do want our guys to be aggressive. I don't ever want our guys to be afraid to make a play, because if you're afraid to make a play then you'll never make a play. You will be so cautious that you'll never get beat, but you'll never make a play.
“I want our defense to be known as a really solid tackling team as well. I think that’s an art that maybe we just don’t see very often. You see a lot of teams that aren’t very good tacklers. Defensively we want to be a good tackling team. I don’t want a guy who comes, well, I’m just a cover corner. No, you’re a football player. Football players get off blocks and we tackle. I’d like to us to be known as an aggressive team, a really good tackling team and a smart team, too, that doesn’t beat itself.”
Austin has a veteran group while Lazor is challenged by an offensive line in transition. Given that the Bengals have their first new offensive line coach in 23 years and Lazor’s hand-in-glove approach with hand-picked line coach Frank Pollack indicates a new approach in technique and philosophy up front. It’s believed that Lazor has installed some of the elements of Chip Kelly’s fast-break offense, but Pollack, coming from directing the NFL’s No. 2 rushing game twice in the past three seasons, is also a bow to tradition.
Lazor loves those run-pass options the Eagles used so well last season and it should be noted that Dalton’s style and strengths are similar to Nick Foles, the reigning Super Bowl MVP that had a career year under Lazor in Philadelphia five years ago. But Lazor is also trying to beef up the running game.
“You always have to look at football as being a physical game, and I don't think you can win without winning the line of scrimmage,” Lazor said. “There are very few teams that can only do it one way, only run the ball or only throw the ball. You have to be dominant to do that, and I think you have to be able to do both. One of the great things to do is to have all the options. You talk about the pendulum swinging toward the passing game, but to make it so that maybe the defense thinks you're doing it one way but that you can still be a physical football team. I think the basics of the game aren't going to change. Rule changes might affect the numbers and frequency but the basics will remain the same.”
So all we’re left with heading into camp is guesswork. The only guy offering specifics Tuesday, strangely, was Lewis as he focused on the deep ball. In five of Dalton’s seven seasons, the Bengals finished in the NFL top eight for 40-yard passes with the high water mark of second most in 2012 and 2013. In 2015 and 2016, they were in the top five, but last year they had just a total of nine, their fewest since that 2014 season they didn’t have Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert and injuries limited A.J. Green to no catches in five games.
“This group's been one of the best groups in the National Football League since Andy came to the league on vertical passes. And we weren't very good,” Lewis said. “That alone is the first thing. The thing Andy does, he doesn't put the ball in jeopardy. That's No. 1. He's done that since he was a young player. And he understands that. And the coaches have to continue to control the aspects of that as well.
“The field gets really long when you can't (go vertical). We've got opportunity, whether it be with vertical throws or our guys in the backfield, with our tight ends to be able to make more of those kinds of plays and give us an opportunity to get ourselves in the scoring zone with touchdown opportunities by doing those things.”
But for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Bengals playbooks are a blank slate.