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Dalton back at the line full circle

Andy Dalton

The one thing Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton doesn't want to hear about at the start of training camp on Friday is the inexperience of his wide receivers not named A.J. Green.

And why not?

After all, Dalton and Green did last year what no rookie QB-receiver duo had ever done. Not only did they go to the playoffs while throwing 20 touchdowns and catching 1,000 yards, but they went to the Pro Bowl.

"I think we both had the same mindset," Dalton said Monday as he prepped for Thursday's return. "We may be rookies, but we're going to be playing, so we better play well. I think what we were able to do last year shows these rookies (and young veterans), 'I don't have to wait for my turn. I can go ahead and do this now.' "

Word is that Dalton was back in town Monday checking out the lay of the land before everybody is due at Paul Brown Stadium on Thursday for physicals and conditioning tests in the run-up to Friday's 3 p.m. workout on the PBS practice field.

Here's what he'll get in that first drill:

Brandon Tate, who figures to start opposite Green in the first practice, hasn't caught a ball as a Bengal and has 24 career catches. Armon Binns, who figures to work a close second behind Tate, has never taken an NFL snap. Neither has third-round pick Mohamed Sanu as he jockeys between No. 2 and the slot. With slot receiver Jordan Shipley being brought back slowly from his ACL, Andrew Hawkins's 23 catches from last year are the most NFL receptions inside.

"And I didn't come in with any NFL starts," Dalton said. "I didn't have any NFL throws. Same with A.J. We may not have all the catches or experience, but we're all young. We don't feel we need all that to come in and play."

This is as refreshed as we've ever heard Dalton because, it will be recalled, thanks to the lockout he didn't come into our lives for good until a year ago.

In rapid succession starting 54 weeks ago he was married, had the playbook taught to him while training camp raged, made his NFL debut, and led the Bengals to wins in six of the first eight games. He helped secure a Wild Card berth, had the Bengals in the hunt to win their first road playoff game until a bizarre interception, made an appearance on the red carpet at the first NFL postseason awards show, and threw two touchdown passes in the Pro Bowl. Then he was back for his first offseason workout sessions and on-field spring practices before leaving last month for the six-week break.

While it came full circle with a trip to Napa Valley to celebrate his one-year anniversary, football wasn't far away. He gave the movie theater in his new home in Dallas a workout when he watched every snap of the OTAs and mandatory minicamp from May and June.

"It doesn't take me too long to be away from football to get back into it," he said. "Whether it's watching games on NFL Network or watching clips in the theater."

If it's possible, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is even more excited about Dalton than the day he drafted him. Yes, there are things Dalton has to work on. In fact, everything, Gruden says, with the No. 1 priority his deep ball accuracy. But Gruden insists that he doesn't see "a lot of negatives" in Dalton's game.

"He has to get better year after year to be mentioned as one of the great NFL quarterbacks," Gruden said. "Obviously you can't say that yet, but we have high hopes he will be eventually. What he does on and off the field speaks for itself. He's earned the respect of a lot of people around the league. The next step is to do that consistently year in and year out to make yourself better. Part of the attraction of getting him was I knew that would never be an issue with him. He was always going to try and make himself better on and the field. He's everything we thought he'd be as a player, and the big thing is his character."

Gruden is going to hear about these theater sessions of the last month via notes Dalton made. Dalton has continued to look at the league's offensive juggernauts in New Orleans and Green Bay and jotted down details about routes and pass protections.

But the thing that jumped off the screen? Those young receivers.

"It's nice to see the competition," Dalton said. "You look at the tape and see Brandon Tate making plays, Armon Binns making plays, see Sanu making plays. And A.J. Everybody knows what A.J. can do, but there are guys people don't know about.

"Hawk making plays. Ryan Whalen. When he's out there, he's always doing the right things. We've got a lot of competition. I'm excited to see what everybody does in camp. This is where they make their mark."

Gruden has offered equal opportunity criticism of his unit during the offseason. He says Dalton has to progress with quicker throws and decisions and adjust as the defenses around the league adjust to him. But he also says, "We need to get better around him in every phase." Gruden points to Dalton's three picks in the Wild Card loss to the Texans. One was a freak of athletic nature in defensive end J.J. Watt's jump-and-run interception TD return and one was "a fourth-and-eight he just threw up there," Gruden said.

Gruden believes games like that one make such assignments as this year's season opener on Monday night in the purple haze of Baltimore easier to digest.

"The elements were very difficult," Gruden said of the season's last game in Houston. "That's as loud a place you'll ever be in. The experiences we had all through last season should benefit us this year. Last year generally was a great experience for all of us. I don't see any reason why he won't get better. We weren't good enough at any one position to advance last year. That's all we're trying to do: Get better at every position. All he needs to do is play and just see more defenses."

Dalton isn't refreshed just because of the six-week break. To walk back into a season where he knows the playbook inside and out is as refreshing as a Napa Valley breeze. And he thinks it is blowing through the rest of the offense.

"I like the consistency we had," he said of the spring camps. "It's nice going into the second season of the offense for most of these guys. If you change the play, it takes no time at all. Everybody is on the same page. Everybody understands, whether it be a hand signal, whether it be a change from run to pass, or a run to run, it's second nature to everybody now."

Because his receivers were spread all over the place the last six weeks working out at various places (Green was in Atlanta and Minnesota, Tate and Binns were in Cincinnati, Shipley split time between Texas and Cincy), Dalton threw with the TCU receivers and QBs. He doesn't think it's going to take very long to get the spring chemistry back and, besides, they don't have to learn the playbook.

"It didn't take us very long to get together a few months ago after not throwing all winter, if at all," Dalton said. "There's not the confusion of how are we going to handle this, or how are we going to to handle that. What are you going to say when we get to this? We don't have to worry about that anymore. Everybody's got a good understanding.

"I liked the ease of everything going up to the line. Once you get there, that's where you have to make the decisions and things have to happen quickly."

Suddenly it is 54 weeks later and Dalton is at the line again. But he likes it a lot better full circle.

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