Sensing the season opener is just three weeks away, Bengaldom saluted the last public practice of training camp Sunday with an enthusiastic buzz during a light late afternoon workout in Paul Brown Stadium.
While watching some of the fans come straight from the Reds ninth-inning victory over the Cubs, Bengals officials were ready to set off their own fireworks after wrapping up the club's first home training camp in front of an estimated crowd of a little more than 2,000.
"We're real happy," said Bob Bedinghaus, the Bengals director of business development. "For those of us who are involved in the planning behind the scenes, the neatest thing of today's practice is we pulled off 14 or 15 practices on the practice fields and five or six in here (PBS) without any real problems."
From player comfort to autograph intimacy to the demands of hard-charging head coach Marvin Lewis, team officials called it an operational and aesthetic success. Although they hope to improve the estimated total attendance of about 25,000 next year, the Bengals believe they've struck a chord with the fans at the heart of their base and hope to build on it.
It was reflected in Pro Shop sales, where they beat every training camp since '09, except for the 2010 T.O. Fest.
"I love it being in Cincinnati," said defensive tackle Domata Peko. "And the fans really seemed to respond to it."
Ever since camp opened July 26 with player check-in, Bedinghaus kept going back to the first event at the pep rally for the season ticket holders at the stadium.
Despite a few storms, which turned out to be the only rain of camp, most of the crowd of about 3,000 stayed to hear music, watch player introductions, mingle with Bengals of the past, and ended the night watching fireworks. As he roamed the stands, Bedinghaus was approached.
"Mr. Bedinghaus, you don't know who I am. There's no reason for you to know who I am," the fan told him. "But I just want you to know I've been a season ticket holder for 30 years and I feel appreciated tonight."
"It's that kind of response, that kind of atmosphere that we're driving for," Bedinghaus said.
As the stadium gets cleared out in preparation for Thursday's third preseason game against the Packers at 7 p.m. (11:35 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12), the staff plans to sit down this week and go over possible changes for next year.
One of the items is possibly opening up the pep rally to the public while also doing something special for the season ticket holders. With the Macy's Music Festival remaining on the schedule the same weekend as the start of camp, one potential scenario is seating the season ticket holders on the field and putting the rest of the fans in the stands.
Bedinghaus said the organization will also look at ways to build up attendance, and while he feels the doubleheader promotion with the Reds that featured five practices before or after baseball games was a success, he said the club is going to look at condensing the time between the games and workouts. They'd like it to be more like Sunday, when the Great American Ball Park fireworks celebrating Ryan Hanigan's winning hit exploded about the time the Bengals ended stretching and started practice.
"I think the timing was a little off. It was a great PR push for the Reds and for us, the idea of a doubleheader," Bedinghaus said. "But some of the games were so separated in time. Are you really going to come down here and spend a couple of hours in the sun and then wait an hour and a half or two hours to then go over to a Reds game for three hours? We might try to condense them closer together. ... If we're going to practice in here, we might try to do it in the evening as much as possible. Practicing at this time of day (4 p.m.) is a little hot."
One of the primary reasons for the successful first home edition is that the age-old training camp intimacy seemed to be retained in the city. Business manager Bill Connelly, who ran Bengals camps at Wilmington College and Georgetown College, said the fans got up close as much as they ever did on the small-town campuses.
"It sure was," Connelly said. "The fans got a tremendous amount of autographs. I told Marvin about halfway through camp, 'Our players have been tremendous when they sign. No one gripes. Whenever their position group was told to sign, they do it. No matter if it's the heat of the day.' "
The winner, and still champion, remains middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.
"Just watching the kids as they've done the autographs along the wall here; our guys have been great," Bedinghaus said Sunday of the seven-foot wall separating the lower bowl from the field. "You know, 15-20 minutes. Rey Maualuga, we have to drag him off with a hook sometimes to get him to stop signing autographs. So that's worked really well. There were hundreds and hundreds of different things we had to look at, and I can't think of one glaring thing that we would do different at this point."
During the first year the Bengals wanted to drive home the point that there was limited seating at the practice fields and plenty in the stadium. They were near the capacity of 1,600 each day that first week and while attendance didn't get back to that level on the grass fields as camp went on, the organization is going to look into practice times for next year. But the Bengals are happy they didn't have people upset about not being able to get in.
"That's why we drove that message very hard at the beginning about come to the inside-the-stadium practices," Bedinghaus said. "The one thing that worked very well was the ticket distribution. The idea that, 'Come down here if you want to guarantee yourself a spot to get into the practice, show up here between 10 and 12.' A lot of people did that, especially early on. When it became obvious that maybe the attendance wasn't going to require that you do that, we still had people showing up here just to make sure they had a guaranteed spot."
Connelly couldn't find much wrong behind the scenes, either. Because the players only had to go 200 yards in any direction at Georgetown to eat, sleep, meet and practice, his biggest concern was player movement. They had to walk to an elevator from the locker room to get to the East Club lounge for meals and get in a shuttle for the two-block ride to the Millennium Hotel.
"Not far, but different, and it went smoothly," Connelly said. "The thing that Marvin was worried about was guys getting their rest between the morning walkthrough or meeting and practice in the afternoon. A lot of the guys did go back to the hotel for an hour-and-a-half or two hours and a lot of them liked it.
"In Georgetown everyone was in a quad, so if there were guys in the living room it might be hard to rest in your bedroom. But a lot of the guys had their own rooms at the hotel and nobody had more than one roommate, so a lot of the guys told me how much they liked it."
And if you were A.J. Green and you live near GABP, you can go home and nap during the day before checking back into the hotel at night.
"I think a lot of players live around here, so it gives you a chance to go home and get your mind off camp a little bit," Green said. "Just go home and chill out."
Peko didn't get a chance to get back to Northern Kentucky, but his wife could bring Domata Jr., and Joseph to watch practice and spend some time after the workout, or they could head over to Johnny Rockets after the morning stuff.
"Training camp is still training camp; it's the toughest part of the NFL," Peko said.
Lewis has a reputation among players for being a grinder who doesn't mind cracking down, but he's had to adjust to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that outlaws two-a-days, legislates more days off, and limits the length of days during camp.
Still, Peko says it hasn't been easy.
"He's the same Marv, but he takes care of us a lot more it seems now," Peko said. "Everyone knows when you come to the Bengals and Marvin, we practice hard, we go hard here. Other guys that come from other teams tell me, 'Man, y'all go hard here.' This has been a little different because it's here, but it's still competing every day, trying to get better and it's a grind."
Sometimes, Lewis sounds like he has cut it back.
"Maybe you don't need training camp mentality," he said. "Maybe you need rest and relaxation and study time and everything that way, which is good."
And other times, he hasn't.
"I think it's been very similar to what it was a year ago," Lewis said of the 2011 camp that yielded a 6-2 start. "It seemed to get our guys out of the blocks fresh and healthy and that's what's important."
But one thing that was clear Sunday is that the fans know the season is coming. While Green was signing autographs after practice, the fans in the city end zone called for him and as he approached there were a couple of footballs thrown on the field.
"I guess just to get me to sign them faster," Green said. "The little kids out there were going crazy. But it's good to have the fans back here."
Lewis likes his camp. But he and the fans know it's just about over and the real stuff is here.
"They're excited. Another home game Thursday night is good," Lewis said. "And being on the national game last was good for our guys to go out and play well."