GEORGETOWN, Ky. — If there's one guy that has an idea what we might see Friday night in Detroit (7:30, Cincinnati's Channel 12) when the Bengals officially become "The Big Red And Green Machine," it is a rookie wide receiver named Bart Johnson.
Johnson caught balls from Andy Dalton for three-and-a-half years at Texas Christian before he joined his old quarterback here with considerably less fanfare as an undrafted free agent.
"It seems like he's been in the league for five years. It's pretty crazy, how he handles himself," Johnson said before Wednesday's practice at Georgetown College. "I come into training camp and I feel like it's my true freshman year of college again. Little fish in a big pond. Trying to get used to NFL speed, NFL defenses, and he comes in just like he does. Takes it in full stride."
With the most unknown of NFL preseasons about to ignite, the Bengals own mystery roster led by Dalton, the second-rounder, and first-round flanker A.J. Green, takes its first bow against the Lions with five offensive starters that weren't in the lineup for last year's preseason opener in Canton.
Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden hopes Dalton and that first group plays a quarter or a quarter and a half, but he and head coach Marvin Lewis have yet to hammer it down. Gruden does know what he wants to see from the group.
"We just want to set a standard for ourselves and what kind of team we're going to be," Gruden said. "It starts in the preseason. How we're going to come off the ball. How we're going to break the huddle. The little things we're going to do, what kind of detail are we going to have in our assignments. And what our physicality is going to be. Are we going to be soft or are we going to be physical? We want to be a physical team and it starts on Friday."
All eyes are, of course, on Dalton. His eyes, as always, are straight ahead. His very demeanor seems to have calmed the fears of coaches and players worried about handing it over to the black hole of a rookie quarterback. It may not look pretty. But it won't look unkempt and nasty, either, the Bengals believe.
"That's who he is," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "He's pretty steady. But this is a new deal. Let's see how it goes. He's a guy that learns quickly."
But Dalton lets it be known he's not immune to emotion. He knows what Friday night means. Not only in his life, but in the life of a franchise that has had just three franchise quarterbacks.
"Those guys were here a long time. I hope to be here just as long," Dalton said of the trinity of Anderson, Esiason and Palmer.
He's not going to make it like the Rose Bowl, his last game before Friday. Dalton says he's going to go out there like it's been one of these practices.
"I've wanted to play in the NFL since I started playing in the sixth grade and here I get the chance as a rookie to start my first preseason game," he said. "There's a lot of excitement going into it. Regardless of the situation, I always want to stay the same. A good throw, bad throw. My thing is to keep the offense moving, executing well. And set the tempo of the game early. Take what they give me and not force anything."
Which isn't what he did Monday night in what very well may have been his worst outing of what has been an impressive camp. Dalton was inaccurate and indecisive, and his receivers didn't help him much when they fouled up what Gruden estimated to be four routes.
Tuesday is why the Bengals coaches like Dalton. He rebounded to do what he does: Throw a bunch of short to intermediate routes, spiced with some well-thrown, well-timed deep balls, and get everyone lined up.
"It didn't sit well with me; I'm a perfectionist," Dalton said of that Monday night. "I want to do everything right. We watched it (Tuesday) morning. I saw the things I need to get better. Make better decisions and I feel like I did that. I eased my mind a little bit. Take what I did yesterday and get better from it. Sometimes my drop is too deep. Sometimes it's learning how to put the ball on one side or the other. Little things like that are easy corrections I can make."
Zampese said Tuesday morning wasn't a longer film session than usual. The offense reviewed quick, good decisions in which the ball must get out of the hand quickly.
"Guys came out fast and focused and we played at a great clip," Zampese said. "It's always good to refocus and play like that when you have a day things don't go your way. That's what he does."
What Dalton is also doing is getting along pretty easily with his teammates. He saw the receivers bust and he didn't take it out of context. He gave them some encouragement.
"We're in the part of camp where it's starting to be a little bit of a grind," he said. "Everybody just has to get through it. We've got a game coming up this week. I think for everybody to get through here these next couple of days, it's tough."
He has been thankful the Bengals have let him take a role. As he stood outside the locker room after a practice, he was asked if he had any sports posters on his bedroom wall growing up in the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas.
He couldn't think of any. If there had been, it might have been Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman. Just then an old Texas running back named Cedric Benson walked by and Dalton couldn't resist.
"I had a Ced Benson of Texas on my wall," Dalton said loudly and Benson didn't miss a beat with "Of which you worshipped."
Moving in for the kill, Dalton fired out, "I was still in high school when you were at Texas," and Benson just laughed.
"We were sitting around talking about that the other day. We were figuring out how old Bobbie was," Dalton said. "When he was a rookie, I was something like 13. That's been the nice thing about this team. No one has really treated me as a rookie. I've tried to step in and take a leadership role and I think guys are responding well. I'm not the only one out there that's pushing everybody. We've got a lot of other guys doing it. I'm just trying to do my part."
Cornerback Nate Clements has been around the horn a bit as he heads into his 11th season. After he jumped a route to pick off Dalton in Wednesday's practice, he was hesitant to give a scouting report after less than a week against him.
"But I know he's a competitor because in one-on-ones he throws the the ball in there tight, making the right reads," he said. "That's one thing you can say: He doesn't look nervous. He doesn't look like he's scared to make mistakes and he tries to make plays ... he's talented and he works at his craft."
Dalton is facing a Lions defense that ranked 21st in the NFL last season and is in a bit of a transition like his offense. A couple of new linebackers, a new safety, a new cornerback. All-World defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh doesn't have his tag team partner with first-round pick Nick Fairley sidelined by a broken foot.
It also pits two franchises that decided to start their rookie quarterbacks as soon as possible. Detroit did it with Matthew Stafford and at this point the Bengals seem to be doing it with Dalton. Earlier this week, head coach Marvin Lewis explained why he let Palmer sit in '03 and play Dalton in '11.
"The football team is not the same. The team I took over in 2003 couldn't afford to lose games because of the quarterback," Lewis said. "They had a guy (Jon Kitna) who a lot of the players felt very, very comfortable with. Jon had done some very good things, and it was a very different situation then. Now, this team is put together differently: they are tough, physical and they know how to go out there and compete. I didn't know those things coming in to 2003. I know what this team is made of now, I know who the leaders are and I didn't know those guys then. I put my trust in Jon to do it and take care of it, which he showed he could. And that's what we are asking Andy (Dalton) to do now."
Heading into '03, Kitna had already made 27 starts in the same system. Now, there is no veteran quarterback, and even if there was, it's a new offense. Not only that, there was no spring ball. Everything might as well be new.
"Had Carson been head and shoulders above Jon, he would have been the starting quarterback, but at that point he wasn't," Lewis said. "Andy comes in here in a little different situation. He has been in an offense that throws the ball quite a bit and he has handled it his whole career. The team is put together differently right now. There isn't a veteran quarterback on this team that has been here and been a part of these guys. They are all learning an offense that was different than the past. We are all starting from scratch, and the guy that our offensive coaches had coached the most this offseason prior to the start of football is Andy. We had spent the most time with him leading up to the draft, so he came here with a little heads-up on the other quarterbacks except for Bruce (Gradkowski) because he had been in this system before."
But '03 or '11, Zampese still wants to see the same thing: That Dalton dependability.
"I want to see the ball move down the field," Zampese said. "No timeouts. No balls five yards away from the receiver. No clock issues. Execute the offense with some energy. That's him. That's what he's done since the day he stepped in."
That's what Bart Johnson expects to see Friday night.
"He did it as a redshirt freshman; he moved right in," Johnson said. "I would expect to see him be calm and collected."