Here's a cinematic look at how the Bengals shape up when they gather Wednesday night at training camp.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
MARVIN LEWIS:Veteran head coach with chip on his shoulder
As the longest-tenured head coach in Bengals history, Lewis has made the franchise a force to be reckoned with in the AFC North while becoming one of the most dynamic forces in the Greater Cincinnati community.
But he won't kid you. It galls him that his teams have yet to win a postseason game. When the Bengals play in Pittsburgh the night of Dec. 15, he'll have coached the second-most regular-season games (174) in NFL history without a playoff win. He's built his career on knocking down the bad lists, from winning on the road, winning out West, and winning in the division. This is next.
And don't remind him.
ANDY DALTON:Emerging young quarterback with a chip on his shoulder.
No one in NFL history has done what he's done in his first two seasons with 47 TD passes, 19 wins, and two playoff appearances. And some are saying this is his make-or-break year because he doesn't have that postseason victory. He came back this spring confident he is more at ease as a leader and with his receivers as he strives to become an elite quarterback.
ANDRE SMITH:International Man of Mystery.
Here's a guy that didn't show up for the spring camps despite signing a deal that no other team in the NFL was willing to give him, a three-year contract that maxes to $18 million if he can stay healthy. Lewis would only say Smith has had to deal with personal issues.
Smith is coming off his best season as a pro and is a ferocious run blocker getting better in the passing game. He has a penchant to get heavy and commit penalties and there's concern about how much he weighs in this silent summer. But he also has a history of meeting challenges when people have written him off (Re: 2011). And no doubt has his own chip. Between his holdout and a rookie show that poked fun at him, the 2009 Hard Knocks can't sit well with Smith.
Word out of Birmingham, Ala., is that he's been working hard and, specifically, is tearing it up in the weight room.
MIKE AND ADAM ZIMMER:Father and son coaching tandem finally reunited.
Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is at the top of his profession. Cincinnati's run of three playoff appearances in the past four years has been fueled by his rugged units that have posted back-to-back top 10 finishes.
But it's been a bittersweet stint. The last time Hard Knocks visited the Bengals in '09, wife Vikki Zimmer's baked goods for his players got a call and less than two months later she died suddenly at just 50 years of age.
Now the Zimmers' oldest child, 29-year-old Adam, has joined his father's staff as the assistant secondary coach and he's not exactly a rookie. When he was 12 years old Adam was holding the wires of his father's headsets as the Cowboys won the Super Bowl and he's going into his eighth season and third team as an NFL assistant.
GENO ATKINS:The NFL's best defensive tackle.
Now that left end Carlos Dunlap has been locked up in a five-year extension, all eyes are on Atkins as the Bengals try to keep him off the free-agency market next March. They could put the franchise tag on him, but the Bengals have been talking to his agent and they have a history of wrapping up their biggest players in the last days of preseason. The club is saving a bunch for Dalton and A.J. Green next year, but may have to take some from the nest egg to finish off this deal. Whatever happens, agent Pat Dye and Bengals executive vice president Katie Blackburn may get some camera time here with the potential for some Wall Street to break out on Hard Knocks.
HUE JACKSON:Former NFL head coach on the rebound.
For some strange reason after the 2011 season, Jackson got fired for leading the 8-8 Raiders to within a quarter of their first playoff berth in a decade. Even stranger, no one hired him as an offensive coordinator the past two offseasons.
But after serving a one-year stint on the defensive side of the ball for the Bengals, he's back where he belongs on offense as the successor to running backs coach Jim Anderson in the wake of the retirement of the NFL's 29-year dean of assistant coaches.
Jackson has not only put up numbers everywhere he's been, he's done it with some volatile personalities and challenging scenarios. After steering Chad Johnson to three Pro Bowls from 2004 to 2006 as the Bengals receivers coach in a stretch that saw Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh become the franchise's first 1,000-yard receiving tandem, Jackson coached Joe Flacco to back-to-back playoff berths in his first two seasons as the Ravens quarterbacks coach. After Flacco went from 14 to 21 TD passes, jumped nearly 10 points in passer rating, and the Ravens passing game went from 28th to 18th, Jackson became the Raiders offensive coordinator, in part, because of Bengals president Mike Brown's recommendation to the late Al Davis. Jackson promptly took an offense that had finished 31st the year before to 10th before becoming the boss.
LINEBACKERS INC:Red-carpet room.
One of the attractive things about the Bengals is that they win a lot of games without glamour guys. The closest thing to it may be their well-known starting linebackers, beginning with former Super Bowl hero James Harrison.
If there is one figure symbolic of what Bengals fans hope is the final push in the balance of power in the AFC North, it is Harrison, the former Steeler who was the face of the NFL's best defense for a decade. Now he's switching positions (to SAM) and allegiances, bringing his special brand of leadership to a locker room looking for the one intangible or two to put it over the top.
No doubt the cameras are going to capture the position of Harrison's locker, at the end of a row and next to Vontaze Burfict, off a sensational rookie season in which he was one of the NFL leaders with 174 tackles despite just 14 starts at WILL. Like Harrison, Burfict was undrafted. Like Harrison, the passionate, emotional Burfict was supposedly difficult to coach. But, like Harrison, Burfict has been a model pro possessing toughness and desire to go along with talent. Harrison is 12 years older than Burfict and has seen so much more. The last week of workouts, Burfict talked about how he's already taking notes from his locker neighbor.
KYLE COOK-TREVOR ROBINSON:The Vet and The Kid square off.
Knocks doesn't even have to go to central casting for this, one of those age-old training camp battles. Cook has been a key figure up front for four seasons, a brainy and tough guy who provided some glue when the Bengals really needed it during trying times. When he missed the first three months of last season with an ankle injury, Robinson, an undrafted guard from Notre Dame, filled in brilliantly and oversaw some big wins and even bigger running games.
Robinson played well enough that one of the biggest Hot Stove second-guesses became why did the Bengals hurry back Cook into a December rotation with Robinson and was it a reason why the offense dipped late in the year.
But now Cook is fully healthy and while Robinson has a year under his belt at center, he didn't practice at all during the spring with a shoulder problem but is expected to be on the field for the first workout. The thinking is the guy that doesn't start is the first guard-center off the bench. If that guy is Cook, who signed a contract extension before the '11 season, the Bengals have to figure out if that's backup money but it would seem well worth it to make sure the middle is covered.
Mirroring that battle is the one between long-time right tackle backup Dennis Roland and seventh-rounder Reid Fragel. Both are huge, smart guys that take up a lot of space.
DARRIN SIMMONS:Best coach you don't know.
Simmons, the special teams coordinator, doesn't have a camera in his office like the other two coordinators. But his units have been a big reason the Bengals have made the playoffs three of the last four years with offenses ranked in the 20s. Last year the Bengals had the highest rank in the league in the special teams' 10 major categories while getting a franchise-best season out of punter Kevin Huber and an AFC Special Teams Player of the Month December from street kicker Josh Brown.
Brown didn't return, but the injured Mike Nugent and his 84 field-goal percentage as a Bengal did. Huber and long snapper Clark Harris also re-signed in free agency giving Simmons his base. He does have to replace his captain after linebacker Dan Skuta signed with the 49ers in free agency, but he's got some talented kids from the last two drafts looking to get shots.
With no starting positions really up in the air but center and the safety opposite Reggie Nelson, Simmons's room is a good place to watch this club cut as it tries to find the last wide receiver, the last linebacker, the last two running backs, and the last two cornerbacks.
DRE KIRKPATRICK:The Forgotten Man
Has there ever been a guy that played for a national champion (Alabama), got drafted in the first round (17th) and was never heard from for an entire year? Injuries obliterated Kirkpatrick's rookie season right from the start last year and the Bengals are hoping that sitting him out all spring is going to be all he needs to get back.
He's scheduled to be back at that first practice, but he's got some road to go to get playing time with Leon Hall, Terence Newman and Adam Jones entrenched as the first three cornerbacks. Kirkpatrick has missed a lot of practice, but he's confident he can adapt his bump-and-run skills to Mike Zimmer's system.
Also expected back on the field that first day after missing all of spring are Robinson, left tackle Andrew Whitworth and left guard Travelle Wharton. Signed as a starter but now a backup, Wharton is a vet battling younger and cheaper rookies.
Players expected to still be rehabbing when camp opens are fullback Chris Pressley, running back Cedric Peerman, and quarterback Zac Robinson. Robinson missed the last couple of weeks resting his throwing elbow. It's unclear where running back Bernard Scott is after nine months out of ACL surgery. There's already a jam-packed backfield, but he could stick if he doesn't practice during training camp and starts the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).