With Andy Dalton stepping into the Hall of Bengals quarterbacks in the Paul Brown Stadium opener against the 49ers (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530), the scrutiny ratchets up a few notches since Sunday's game is as much about the past as it is the future.
Ken Anderson always seems to win the poll when it comes to rating the best Bengals quarterbacks of all-time in a competition that invariably pits him against Boomer Esiason.
Both were NFL MVPs. Both took their teams to Super Bowls. Both never got the chance to get back to revenge close losses, Anderson because of the 1982 strike and Esiason because age caught up with him and everyone around him.
But that's where the similarities end. Anderson was straight-laced-1950s-Midwest-aw-shucks straight out of Chip Hilton who talked about his offensive line first. Esiason came rollicking into the '80s with New York City bombast and an MTV edge and lockered with his offensive line while he embraced the spotlight as one of the faces of the hip and happening NFL.
"You have to be yourself," Anderson said this week. "You take a look at Boomer and I and there probably weren't two more different personalities. But we both had some pretty good success here."
Then put Dalton somewhere in the middle in there. He seems to have Anderson's completion-percentage cool and Esiason's fiery sideline manner.
"I don't know how many times we've looked at each other on the sidelines and said, 'Man, that dude is yelling at us and screaming at us,' " left tackle Andrew Whitworth said with a laugh before practice this week. "It was awesome to see him care that much and not have one ounce of fear in his eyes."
But the only fire Dalton has showed to the public is his bright red hair. In his dealings with the media the most controversial subject he's gone near is a potential nickname. That all seems to change during a game.
"He's not scared. At first he was quiet in the preseason, but he's really jumped out of his shell," Whitworth said. "The biggest thing for Andy right now is that he's playing the game all in, heart on his sleeve. Passionate. That's awesome. That's something this team needs and it's kind of something new for us. Offensively having a guy that fired up and that passionate while he's playing is neat."
For the first three weeks or so, Dalton's mates wondered if he had a pulse, never mind if they had a quarterback. Then there began to be signs during the first couple of preseason games.
He was the first guy to race onto the field to greet Mike Nugent after a field goal. He pumped his fist down the field after that first touchdown pass to A.J. Green. He lined them up at the line of scrimmage like a coach.
"He has gone on to realize this is his team and he has to do whatever it takes to rally the troops," offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said. "Whether he's 19 or 59, it doesn't matter. Not when you're the quarterback.
"It comes from the heart. He's not an over-the-top guy," said Gruden, who quarterbacked enough indoor football championships to realize pros won't listen to a guy that constantly yells. "You take your shots. You can't do it all the time because it's like, 'Here we go again.' He's got a great feel for people's emotions and what they need to perform at their best."
Gruden, who can get a strong whiff of it while calling a game on the sidelines, saw it in Denver down 17-3. As much as Dalton's 280 second-half yards validated his ascension to the job, his leadership in keeping the rally going may have impressed his mates even more. But Gruden thought Dalton's watershed moment came late in the first half of the second preseason game against the Jets on the road.
Dalton had already thrown two picks and helped botch a fumble that lost 18 yards. But he drove his team downfield in the face of some funky Rex Ryan looks before the two-minute warning to get the first Bengals touchdown of the season after he had rifled a huge throw to wide receiver Jordan Shipley over the middle to the goal line.
"He very easily could have gone into a shell that some quarterbacks never come out of," Gruden said.
Bengaldom knows exactly what Gruden is talking about. Was David Klingler's demeanor ever right after the Steelers sacked him 10 times as a rookie in Pittsburgh? Wasn't Akili Smith's body language forever altered after Ravens defensive tackle Rob Burnett drilled him in the chin strap on a three-step drop for a game-ending concussion?
But Dalton has proven to be resilient to the awful things that can happen to rookie QBs. He shook off a wrist injury to come back and become only the second quarterback in the last 40 years to start a career with two straight 100-plus passer rating games.
Certainly his first two games indicate he's not going to be in any kind of discussion with Klingler or Smith. Dalton's style also won't get him compared to predecessor Carson Palmer on the field.
"More passion I would say," Whitworth said. "He's very poised and calm. At times he gets into the game and gets fired up. You can tell he's going to be a momentum guy. When he gets momentum he's feeling confident, he's going to be a player.
"You're a young team. You're worried about making mistakes and the biggest way to get rid of those mistakes is when you're fired up and passionate and play that way."
Whitworth thinks the Jets game proved to Dalton that he could not only succeed even in the debris of the bad, but also keep everyone together while he was doing it. And he thinks the 23-year-old Dalton's outlook is a nice fit for a young offense.
"He's gained confidence and the young guys are getting more confident at their positions," Whitworth said. "I think with him jumping out and being passionate is going to help these young guys jump out and show their emotion and confidence and help those guys be good.
"Sometimes young talent that has no fear is dangerous. Sometimes you worry that the guys that have been around so much, they think negative. These guys don't have a negative thought in their head. They weren't here for 4-12. They weren't here other years. They just think, 'I want to show why I can be good,' and they're playing that way."
But back in the locker room, when asked where the fire is burning, Dalton shrugged.
"I just do it if I think it needs to be done," he said.
Which is OK by the old master.
"Have to be yourself," Anderson said.