GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The start-from-scratch connection that has pumped life back into Bengaldom came through loud and clear Saturday in what used to be the Mock Game.
The play-call from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden cackled in quarterback Andy Dalton's helmet from the sidelines with the tip, "Make sure Cover 2 is friendly." And then Dalton did what he's done all training camp. He took a three-step drop, swiveled the red head quickly, and fired a short completion that moved the ball.
It's the kind of play that won't bring fans out of the seats on a sultry Saturday afternoon at Georgetown College. But it's the kind of repetitive snap that has coaches and players looking at each other with growing confidence. As one long-time observer who should know said before Dalton's seventh NFL practice, he already understands the offense better than David Klingler and Akili Smith did the entire time they were here.
And the defensive coaches have noticed. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, a Bill Parcells disciple, remembers the offensive philosophy of his guru. Runs and completions. Completions no matter how long.
"I've really been excited about what I'm seeing from the offense," said secondary coach Kevin Coyle. "They throw the ball quickly, they've got a bunch of different runs that are effective. They give you a lot of formations, the tempo is good. And they've got a lot of talent. At receiver. At tight end. At running back. At quarterback. I think we're going to surprise some people. I've been very impressed with (Dalton)."
But as everybody is quick remind, Saturday marked only the seventh day of OTAs. Usually the Mock Game is a high-flying offensive affair with an old ABA scoring system and touch football rules in shoulder pads. But with spring locked out, work needed to be done, particularly in the hurry-up offense and run game, and the only thing that was reminiscent of the Mocker was Gruden getting used to the QB mike.
There have been some offensive shows through the years on Mock Saturdays. There were no Rozzi tracers this year. Dalton may not have thrown a ball more than 25 yards this Saturday.
But there was some smoke.
Befitting what has been a Boot Camp rather than Camp HBO, the most pleasing part of Saturday came when veteran Mike Nugent and rookie Thomas Weber were kicking field goals. At the other end of the field Dalton and the other three quarterbacks were engaged in that age-old contest of skill. From the middle of the field at the three-yard line, they took dead aim at a net on top of a barrel in the corner of the end zone, say about 25 to 30 yards away.
Dalton missed his first two and then thrilled the fans hitting five of his last six to win easily.
"That's going to be A.J. Green down there," Dalton said. "So just get it anywhere near there and he'll make the play."
For the first time this camp, Green, the rookie wide receiver that plays nothing like one, looked close to human on Saturday. No wow moments because there were no wow plays scripted, but when he couldn't get to two passes that opened the hurry-up drill, it showed how inaccurately Dalton started the day before he heated up and had Gruden pleased with his progress again.
"It was our first time in the hurry-up and he missed some throws early. Bruce had a real good one minute," said Gruden of the man becoming Dalton's backup, Bruce Gradkowski. "(Dalton) makes mistakes, he misses some throws. Then when you go back and look at the practice in general, he's had a pretty good day."
There has been no problem with the vision thing. The goal is clear. Dalton doesn't have a big-stand-in-the-pocket howitzer, but he's smart, mobile, quick, and Gruden plans to use his accuracy to first-down-you-to-death with tight ends, formations, and the running game before cutting you deep with Green, Jerome Simpson or tight end Jermaine Gresham. The backs and tight ends are getting more passes now and there is a buffet line mentality for whom might get the ball next. Even if it's a three-yard flip.
"I like this offense," said Simpson, whose last two games were so good he's had a sandwich (Jerome Simpson 89 Special) named for him. "I like it because it fits us."
Dalton has won raves for his poise and how quickly he's grasped what Gruden wants. Yes, he said with a laugh, he did catch Gruden again Saturday when he corrected him on a formation.
"We're going to be doing a lot of different things," Dalton said. "We're going to formation people, we've got the quick game, we're going downfield, run the ball, and as long as we get all that going, we should be pretty good. We've got a lot of talent on the outside it makes my job a lot easier. The nature of the offense and the nature of the guys we've got, (we) get the ball out of our hands quick because we've got a lot of guys that are playmakers."
The only time Dalton has really looked befuddled is when he first went against blitzes earlier in the week. But Gruden coveted Dalton during the spring because his skill set and what he did at TCU is pretty much what Gruden has in mind for his scheme.
"I just try to be the same no matter what's going on," Dalton said. I've got to go out and forget what just happened and go out and make the next play. We had similarities with what I did at TCU. We're calling things the same way, it's just different terminology. I think that's made the transition easier for me and made me understand things quicker."
At some point Dalton figures there will be bets riding on the line when the QBs throw to the net. Since a Palmer is involved, there will be, but it won't be for money. "I don't think the winner gets anything, it's who loses," Dalton said, and he's right again. The loser may have to dress like Paul McCartney on the trip to Detroit in five days.
Gruden sounds like he wouldn't mind placing a hunch.
"With Cedric (Benson) back, we're starting to get him a little more involved and he's working on footwork and the terminology. I'll keep him a happy camper," Gruden said. "I think with Cedric, the receivers we have, and the tight end that we have, what the heck. Let's make a run."