Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has plenty on his plate these days as he digests everything from the late-season struggles of his offense to job interviews for head coaching jobs.
But one thing he knows is that he wants more helpings of what Andy Dalton has served up during his first two seasons as Gruden's quarterback.
"I think everybody knows that's been in our locker room and our meetings, especially on offense, there's a lot of meat left on that bone. It's my job to get it out of them. I take responsibility for the last few weeks. Make sure we get it fixed," Gruden said, and he remains as much a Dalton guy as he was back on Draft Day when he made Dalton his top choice from that quarterback class of 2011.
"If you compare his two-year stats to Drew Brees and the other great quarterbacks now, I think you'd be surprised what he's done his first two years. Obviously he has shown some flaws he has to work on, but every other quarterback in their first two years in the league has shown that."
In a wide-ranging interview with Bengals.com and The Cincinnati Enquirer on Tuesday, Gruden confirmed he has interest from the Cardinals and Eagles for their head-coaching jobs, emphasized the need to improve the big play from a foundation of players he likes, and admitted he'll second-guess some of his playcalling in Saturday's AFC Wild Card loss in Houston for the next year.
"Run, pass, screen. Every play that you call is second-guessed and that is why the NFL is so exciting," Gruden said. "That's why it is so tough on coaches because you have to live with the calls that you make for how many more days until training camp. I'm not going to get over these."
But except for what he calls a speedy "gamebreaker" at running back, Gruden says he'd be happy to go into that camp with a youthful offense that finished 22nd in the NFL, down two spots from last season.
"It's exciting because you can pinpoint people's strengths and weaknesses and what to work on as a group, unit and position and where people fit," Gruden says. "We can hone in on where everyone is going to be and add a few pieces here and there.
"If we went in with the same group I would be happy. We're getting (wide receiver Mohamed) Sanu back and we know where people fit and how to coach them. Hopefully with another year under their belt and another year of experience they can make a quantum leap."
No. 1 on his list is Dalton, and Gruden has to keep reminding himself that the Bengals quarterback is just 25, has made only 32 NFL starts, and has already reached two AFC Wild Card playoff games. It's easy to forget with the heat Dalton is taking for not playing well in both playoff games and a final six games the defense sored as many touchdowns (four) as he threw touchdown passes.
"It's easy to look at the negatives. You can see his start and then he kind of went down here at the end of the year," Gruden said. "It's our job to get him better and to focus on the positives and we can work on the things he needs to work on in the offseason.
"He's got a great understanding of the system. He does a great job in protection and in the run game getting us in the right play. Very seldom do you see us run a play into a bad look. We don't always block people the way we want. At least we can pinpoint what we need to work on and it's quite obvious to everybody who has seen Andy play."
The deep ball. And Gruden is not only emphasizing that, but the need for Dalton to make more plays out of the pocket after doing it earlier in the season.
"A lot of that is maybe guys aren't moving, working with him. That comes from instincts, that comes from being football players, being together," Gruden said. "It's hard to coach instincts, but sometimes we have to take those for granted. 'Hey when I'm out of pocket and you're there, come over here. If I'm running at you, run that way.' Some of those we need to work on and a lot of the great quarterbacks that's where they get a lot of their splash plays. (Tony) Romo, (Ben) Roethlisberger, Aaron Rodgers. Out-of-pocket guys moving around, unscripted plays that we've talked about a lot but that we've not had. We've only had a couple all year. If you're talking about counting the unscripted plays on one hand, it's going to be a tough year for you."
Gruden has it right. Dalton's first two seasons compare with the current reign of quarterbacks. Romo and Rodgers didn't begin playing until their third and fourth years, respectively, and Dalton (19 wins, 47 TD passes) has Rodgers beat (17-58) in victories and tied with Romo (19-55). Dalton has more TD passes than Tom Brady (46) and almost as many regular-season wins (20). Same with Joe Flacco (20-35) and Roethlisberger (22-34). He's got Drew Brees (10-28) beat in both.
"We put a lot on him. He's in his second year and not many quarterbacks in the history of the NFL can say they've accomplished what he has in two years," Gruden said. "When I watch the film and I see some of the plays out there I say, 'Dang it Andy, you have to be better and I have to challenge him to be better.'
"We have to hit some of these shots because it's hard in this league to drive the ball 80 yards in 15 plays every series. We haven't had the explosive plays we would like to have. We had some early and during our stretch late in the season we didn't have them. Whether it is a long run, yards after the catch, long throw. We missed them or maybe didn't call enough or Andy didn't take his shot on some of them."
In the last six games, the Bengals had only three offensive plays longer than 40 yards. The only pass that long came during the third quarter of last Saturday's game. It's also a reason that Gruden is looking for a speed back to complement BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Bernard Scott had been designated the change-of-pace back to team with The Law Firm, but injuries derailed him this season and with Scott headed to free agency off an ACL injury, Gruden points to the draft.
"We do probably need some kind of pace-changer, game-changer, speed, some breakaway-type thing," said Gruden, who loves everything else Green-Ellis brought with him, like ultimate professionalism and 14-for-15 on third down.
"He was everything he was billed. He's a quality guy, he works hard, and those tough yards he gets. That's half the battle," Gruden says.
PRO PASS PRO
Dalton got sacked 46 times this season for the most sacks on a Bengals starting quarterback since Akili Smith and Scott Mitchell hit the deck 52 times in 2000, but while Gruden says the protection has to improve he likes how the Bengals approached it.
"This is going to sound asinine, probably, but I think from a protection standpoint, as far as protection and blitzes, we're as good as anybody," Gruden said. "A lot of the sacks were Andy stepping up and there were sometimes the pocket seemed collapsed. We need to work on that.
"Sometimes he could have got rid of it. Sometimes maybe he can't see, he moves around a little bit. It goes hand-in-hand, but I think overall protection does need to improve but I think from an understanding standpoint of a lot of the looks and blitzes we see, I think we did a pretty good job."
Gruden indicated that there'll be an interesting match with veteran Kyle Cook and rookie free agent Trevor Robinson ("Get Trevor and Cook and make that decision next year") at center. Cook came off injured reserve to play in the last five games and start the last three after Robinson started the previous seven.
"(Cook) played against good players. I don't think Trevor got any Pro Bowl votes when he started. He showed a lot of promise and did great for a rookie free agent, unbelievable," Gruden said. (Offensive line coach) Paul (Alexander) did a nice job of getting him ready and as he was getting better and then when Cook got healthy it was his job before he got hurt.
"It's a tough decision. If you break your finger writing an article and then they bring in someone and he writes a couple good articles and you've been doing it for a long time what happens to you? It's a tough call. Both are worthy NFL players and we could not have gone wrong with either one."
One of the guys that Gruden is looking forward to developing more is Pro Bowl tight end Jermaine Gresham and he offered him a big vote of confidence. The Bengals felt they could exploit his ample athletic ability and size against Houston's Cover 2 deep zone and their beat-up linebackers, but Gresham dropped a pass on the second play of the game and could manage only two catches for seven yards all day despite seven targets.
"Jermaine just needs to work on his consistency. He can do everything you want to do as a tight end, but for whatever reason, it's 50 out of 70 plays a game. He'll tell you the same thing," Gruden said. "We love Jermaine here. We know he's a very impactful tight end and he did some great things for us.
"Sometimes when you see that guy walk in the room, you think you can just throw it to him 15 times a game and they couldn't stop him. The only thing stopping him is himself. Maybe some of his route discipline is a little shaky and sometimes his hands, he takes for granted with the ball. After that (drops) kind of get in his head a little bit. You just have to let things go. He's got to understand he's not perfect ... he's our guy and we love him to death. We just need to coach him up and make sure he plays with the swaggering confidence that makes him who he is."
Since Gruden doesn't live under a rock, he couldn't help hear the bashing he has taken for the Bengals not throwing to their best player, Green, until 10:15 left in the third quarter. That wasn't the plan, but he did want to use Gresham.
"We had 15 plays in the first half. It's not like we had 35 plays and none of them were to A.J. One of them was a kneel-down," Gruden said. "A lot of them were screens that did not work. We had a couple pass plays and every pass play that we have there is a big alert for (Green).
"It just happened to work out like that. We tried to work Jermaine out early and he missed a couple plays and it just didn't work out. The first drive of the game we had great field position and we had the drop on second down and there was third and long and we had to punt. Second drive of the game we had a run for two to three yards, then tried a screen play, which was a tackle for a loss of four, and then had third and long and had to punt again. Then third drive of the game something similar happened. We had a couple first downs and had to punt and then on the fourth drive had to take a knee. Just like that. They did an excellent job of controlling the clock and we did a poor job of keeping our defense off the field so it worked hand in hand."
Gruden is mad at himself for calling two screens early that got blown up ("We hadn't run a lot of screens throughout the year and now you see why"), but he thought it was the best way to attack Houston's pass rush.
"In hindsight we should have tried to force the run more. They're stout on the inside and (defensive tackle) J.J. Watt is a good player," Gruden said. "They were down a little bit at linebacker so maybe we should have tried to force the run issue a little bit more but I was trying to get into a groove there and get some positive plays through the air and keep them off balance. Instead, we were off balance more than they were."
Balance is how Gruden is approaching the job interest. Indications are he'll visit Arizona later in the week, but he doesn't have a time for the Eagles. He has a track record of not leaping at jobs, as evidenced by his eight-year tenure with brother Jon in Tampa while he also ran an indoor team.
"I got called to interview for these jobs. I figure I better say yes or they'll quit asking me," said Gruden, who turned down interview requests last year before signing a three-year extension with the Bengals.
"I think it will be a great experience and it's exciting. I have every intention of coming back here. We've got a great group of guys here. We're excited for the future here."
While Gruden's move last year has been seen as unorthodox, he clearly has a different mindset in this job market and left no doubt that he'd like to be a head coach.
"I also know in this business your welcome mat doesn't last forever and I'm sure mine has probably been kicked off the doorstep. People probably want me out of here right now," Gruden said after his unit finished two slots lower than last year at No. 22. "That's just the way it is in this business.
"When you enter the coaching profession you necessarily don't do it to be an assistant your whole life. Eventually you'd like to be top dog and run your own ship. When the time's right. Every team has their issues and their problems. That's why they're looking. Eventually when the time is right, hopefully I'll get a chance. If not this year, or next year, or the year after. I'll be happy here because it's a great place."