While their offense worked against a defense for the first time this spring without them Wednesday, the Bengals coaches spent another day grinding through tape and their new playbook.
Because no matter when they get the players—and we are beginning to see all kinds of speculative dates—they are bracing for a whirlwind with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden having no plans to cut back on what he's going to give the players to learn.
"I'd rather have a lot of plays to choose from on game day than not enough," Gruden said. "We'll see how they respond. We'll pull back if we need to pull back. We'll keep firing if we can keep firing. But I'm not a pull-back kind of guy. It's my last resort. If we don't look very good and if guys are struggling, you have to pull it back. But they're going to get as much as we can. We need to have variations of what we do."
As media reports chronicled the Bengals' 75-minute workout at the University of Cincinnati that had about 42 players, the players and owners continued to talk in an effort to reach a collective bargaining agreement that would end the lockout. The same optimistic vibe that reportedly surged through Wednesday's workout and has permeated Gruden's rehab project is also there in a pundit world that seems to be hinting at a labor resolution in the July 15 range.
The uncertainty hasn't stopped Gruden and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese from looking at the bright spots of the new era that opened gingerly at UC while they reshape the offense. It has to be the NFL assistant's worst scenario. New playbook. A rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton with no experienced guy in sight. No practice.
"The worst case would have been getting someone we didn't really want to get," Zampese said. "The next worst thing is way down the list. You can have ice cream or a cup of dirt. Well, we got ice cream. What flavor it is, we don't really know, but it is ice cream. It's tough not being around, but it's a level playing field for everyone. There are tough situations for a lot of people. We just have to make sure we coach our guys better than everyone coaches theirs."
The Bengals got their hot fudge sundae in Dalton, the guy they coveted all along in the draft, and if on Wednesday quarterback Jordan Palmer called brother Carson a "former teammate," it certainly sounded like the coaches were preparing for a different dish.
Although both were in the dark about what took place at Nippert Stadium, Gruden and Zampese liked the sounds of the media reports.
Zampese chalked it up as a good sign even if the players weren't wearing helmets because of the timing the quarterbacks can get with their receivers.
"When this agreement comes out, we might not be wearing helmets," Zampese joked. "But it's good for them to get used to a guy's body language. How fast does he run? Where do you have to throw it? What kind of range does the guy have? Does the receiver have an extra gear? You get a sense for those kinds of things."
During the one day the lockout was lifted, Gruden had his first chance to chat with some players and he's been heavily impressed by how smart left tackle Andrew Whitworth and center Kyle Cook play on tape and what the other coaches say about them.
"We've got a good foundation of talent here; it's exciting," Gruden said. "Whitworth is probably smarter than me and Cook sounds like the kind of guy that can find mistakes in a playbook. The one thing that impressed me with the guys that I was able to talk to is that they're ready to move forward. They're ready to put the past in the past and that's what you have to do. You can't dwell on the fact we were 4-12 last year. You can't dwell on the fact we won the division two years ago. We've got to move forward. Tomorrow's a new day and work to get better."
Zampese has been here for all of head coach Marvin Lewis' nine seasons. He senses the new day, too, unfolding. Particularly since the man who has quarterbacked the Bengals for so long is no longer conducting them.
"It forces people to do things they wouldn't have to do otherwise and that's good," Zampese said. "It pushes guys out of their comfort zone and it's wide open. You find out what people's abilities are and what's really in there. I like that. I think there are benefits to that."
The No. 1 thing coaches want to do is coach their players. The next best thing is having self-motivated players. Which is why Zampese loves what happened up at UC.
"Guys taking initiative. Self rule. You've got to have it," Zampese said. We're not out there playing on Sunday. They're getting used to, 'OK, who's running this drill? What's the tempo of this drill?' "
Zampese thinks the workouts are going to take the anxiety off for Dalton once the players report.
"Building relationships is the big thing," Zampese said. "But even the little things. Opening a bank account. Getting a place to live. Figuring out the commute. It's all going to help."
But Zampese and Gruden both know they really don't know what is waiting.
"We don't have an identity yet and we won't until we get to know these guys," Gruden said. "It could be throw it one day 65 times and run it the next 65 times. Whatever works. We have to be multiple, I know that. But we have to see what they do best."
Until then, coaches coach and players play. But on different fields.
"I know this," said Gruden of the workouts. "It can't hurt."