On Sunday, the blackboard became the greensward at Paul Brown Stadium as quarterback Andy Dalton and his offense posted the biggest numbers at home in its brief nine-game run during the 34-27 victory over the Browns in the sold-out home opener.
Everything from Pro Bowler A.J. Green's first touchdown of the season on a 10-yard throw to the concept that the Bengals are young, deep and talented on paper at wide receiver surfaced the way they drew it up.
The Bengals didn't go out and sign a veteran receiver during the offseason (hello Jacoby Jones) because they believe their young and inexperienced corps has an infinite upside, and on Sunday everyone instead of the practice community finally saw it as Dalton dished touchdowns to three of them and at least 56 yards to four of them while racking up a career-high passer rating of 124.2 and a PBS-high of 318 yards.
And an indication that the Bengals may really have something here is that those kinds of days haven't exactly happened once a month around here.
It was the first time since the Christmas night game of 1989 that four Bengals caught at least 56 yards, numbers from that devastatingly versatile offense of Sam Wyche and Boomer Esiason that finished third in NFL offense that season.
"Until they really did it, it's hard to keep saying that. But they finally did it," said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who runs the same kind of West Coast offense. "I think the confidence they have now in each other and in the quarterback is going to make us a better team across the board."
Working against a Browns secondary that didn't have its starting cornerbacks because of suspension and injury, it was the first time in 29 regular-season games that three different wide receivers caught TD passes for the Bengals, going back to Oct. 24, 2010 in Atlanta when Carson Palmer threw touchdown passes to Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco and Jordan Shipley.
And with a 50-yard strike to Andrew Hawkins for his first NFL touchdown and a 44-yarder to Brandon Tate for his first in 18 games as a Bengal, it's the first time since the pre-Ocho days of Nov. 19, 2006 when Chad Johnson caught TDs of 41 and 60 yards in New Orleans that the Bengals put up two TD passes of at least 40 yards in the same game.
Not only that, it's the first time since the highest scoring Battle of Ohio in 2004 that the Bengals have had TD passes of at least 40 yards to two different receivers when Johnson (46) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (53) stung the Browns in the 58-48 slugfest.
"I don't want to blow it up way out of proportion because there are 14 games left," said Andrew Hawkins, the mighty-mite slot receiver who is averaging 14.2 yards per his 10 catches. "But our coaches have done an incredible job making us accountable. That's something that makes our receivers as good as they can be. Guys don't want to let each other down. They come to practice and work hard every day on all parts of their game."
Hawkins, the 5-7 free agent making a huge impact in his second season, charmed the postgame media crowd with his story they might have missed the first time around. How he waited for an NFL shot after going undrafted out of Toledo in 2008 by caddying, working in a windmill factory, and helping coach the receivers at his alma mater while sleeping on a former teammate's couch.
But on Sunday the story officially went from Hawkins jousting at windmills to Gruden's scheme showing practical diversity.
Everything Gruden drew up Sunday worked except, of course, Hawkins's brilliant 50-yard play borne out of sheer resourcefulness by him and quarterback Andy Dalton. But even that had been called the night before when Gruden showed clips of scramble plays the week before throughout the NFL and he said the Bengals needed one.
They got it early in the fourth quarter while facing a third-and-six from the 50 and Dalton got flushed to the right sideline by the left end penetrating inside. Dalton then saw Hawkins making himself available in a zone in the middle of the field and whipped a bullet across his body. Hawkins, along with the spring block by running back Brian Leonard, did the rest.
"I showed them a couple of games from the week (before) that some teams won with some plays teams are scoring on scramble drills," Gruden said. "People staying alive. You call plays and you hope that you stand up to the protection, but sometimes they cover you or an end rushes up the field and it makes your quarterback scramble and it's up to those guys to do something on their own and luckily they did."
With Dalton in trouble, Hawkins didn't immediately go back to the ball because he felt he had good leverage on rookie cornerback Tevon Wade in the middle of the field.
"I wanted to find an open spot," Hawkins said. "When he scrambles, you want to get to a spot where he can see you. If you run where you get covered up, he can't find you."
Green and Gruden were left shaking their heads.
"You just can't tackle that guy," Green said.
But everything else was pretty much drawn up the way it was supposed to go. In Friday's practice during individuals, Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham were down in the end zone outside the Bengals locker room running plays from around the 10 and one of them was the play that Green beat cornerback Dimitri Patterson for that 10-yard touchdown that gave the Bengals a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Green, split wide right, stopped in front of Patterson, caught the quick throw from Dalton "and then I just made an inside move with my shoulder and got around him," Green said.
It was one of the only few times the Pro Bowler Green got loose as the Browns did an excellent job swallowing him up in zones and double teams in holding him to just 58 yards on seven catches.
"We're really almost going to have to put (Green) on the sideline some and go to work," head coach Marvin Lewis said. "I think for the first time everybody realized that. On Fridays I usually stick him right by me and let everybody else go to work. People don't like to see 18 beating them on SportsCenter. He had some great plays today, he's a very good player and we'll continue finding things to shake him clean."
So the Bengals went elsewhere. Although Armon Binns (five catches for 66 yards in his second NFL game) has been named the starter on the depth chart, Tate was on the field on a third-and-six from the 44 on the first drive of the second half. Tate was on the field even though Binns was healthy after being shaken up on a shot to the chin in the second quarter.
"We do it by committee," Hawkins said. "You take a guy like Brandon Tate and even though he doesn't get many reps, he steps up when he's put in and knows exactly what to do."
Gruden called a go route for the speedy Tate and got exactly what he wanted. The Browns blitzed, Tate was left on the outside against a safety, and Dalton dropped it perfectly to him down the sideline as Tate eased into the open for the touchdown that made it 24-10.
"One of the good ones," Gruden said of the call with a smile.
But the Bengals started out slowly. Browns defensive coordinator Dick Jauron confounded Dalton with his coverages and that was a big reason he was sacked a career-high six times. Early in the second quarter, with Green yet to have a catch, Dalton held the ball on first down and got sacked. Facing second-and-11, Dalton saw Binns working down the sideline one-on-one on backup corner Buster Skrine for a 20-yard play that set up Green's first two catches that included the touchdown.
Then Binns came back on the next series and outfought Patterson for a ball over the middle that turned into an 18-yard catch instead of an interception at the Bengals 41 just after the Browns had cut the lead to 14-10.
Dalton noticed in the second half the coverages weren't as confusing. Maybe because there were suddenly too many guys to cover.
"Armon got us going," Hawkins said.
So did rookie receiver Marvin Jones, The Man Who Would Be The No. 2 WR at some point. Gruden says it's hard to get him in there with how Binns and Tate are playing, just like it's hard to get fellow rookie Mohamed Sanu in there with Hawkins playing so well. But Jones was in there on a first and 10 from the Browns 49 midway through the second quarter and the Bengals were rewarded with a 31-yard pass-interference call on Skrine when he couldn't keep up with Jones on his deep route. That turned into Mike Nugent's 39-yard field goal that made it 17-10.
"Marvin's going to be a great receiver in this league," said Hawkins, but the gutty Binns isn't going to go easy into the night.
Just a few snaps after he won the wrestling match, Binns took a hellacious hit from Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson across the middle. It left him woozy and there was no flag for a hit to the head, but he checked out OK and didn't check out and came back into the game.
"If I was Armon, I'd be more upset at Andy than the referees," Gruden said. "We know how dangerous those hits are and hopefully if it's warranted he'll be fined. If it was a clean hit, it was a clean hit. We just can't float the ball across the middle if the linebacker is standing there."
It was one of Dalton's few bad throws. He overthrew Green and Hawkins on consecutive plays in the end zone in the second half, but his 24 of 31 was solid.
While Dalton shared it among his wideouts from Tate's 71 to Binns's 66 to Green's 58 to Hawkins's 56, in that Christmas night game of 1989, Esiason got 109 from wide receiver Eddie Brown, 84 from tight end Rodney Holman, 66 from running back James Brooks, and 56 from wide receiver Tim McGee.
"I've been saying all along that we've got a lot of talented receivers," Dalton said. "It's great to get in the game and great for these guys to make the plays that they did.
"Hawk is so talented when he's got the ball in his hands and when he's got some space. For him, it's just getting him the ball — find ways to get him in that space. That shows what kind of plays he can make and shows what kind of runs he can make after the catch. I saw the whole thing happen. Once he turned up to the sideline, I thought he was going to get a couple more (yards) and then maybe get out of bounds or get tackled, but then he cut back across the field and made a couple guys miss. It's huge. It's fun to watch, and it's a big play for us. We needed it."
How sweet was this opener?
"I feel like a kid in a candy store," Hawkins said.
For Dalton, it's looking like an assortment.