This was the week of The Re-Union of the Dalton Gang.
At least in seven-on-seven, where tight end Tyler Eifert checked back in for the offense on that first day of voluntary field work Tuesday, his first work since missing all but the first quarter of 2014.
Starting wide receiver Marvin Jones, after dealing with a hamstring issue at the end of a year-long stretch where foot miseries kept him off the field, assured the media he would be back for the rest of the week's work that was closed to the press.
And wide receiver James Wright, coming off a promising rookie year he had emerged as the No. 3 wide out before injuring his knee and missing the final month, was back full go in 11-on-11. He appeared to those watching to still have the speed and explosion that convinced them to take Wright in the seventh round despite not making a single catch at LSU his senior season.
The Bengals headed home Thursday after their first three days on the field with word filtering back from at least one long-time Bengals observer that quarterback Andy Dalton looked as good as he has in the four years he's been here. It is no coincidence that he was throwing to The Gang. guys that were nowhere to be found during the stretch run. Two of them, his best pass-catching tight end (Eifert) and 10-TD man in 2013 (Jones), never made it to the bank.
On Tuesday, it was like watching a March free-agent haul come out of the training room.
For one thing, they are a two tight-end team again, albeit an inexperienced one with third-rounder Tyler Kroft asked to complement Eifert in the blocking game.
"Oh yeah they make us better," says offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. "Tyler gives us more flexibility. He's a talented guy that can get down the field for you...He just has to keep going and getting better."
While Jackson regains his X-and-O flexibility with Eifert, Dalton gets more outside options with the return of Jones and Wright. Jones is assuring the worrywart media types that there's nothing wrong with his speed after his surgeries and on Tuesday the 6-foot-1, 201-pound Wright looked as big, physical, and quick as he did when he impressed last year in the spring camps.
Wright caught only five balls last season, but they were of such the huge variety that there have been some T.J. Houshmandzadeh comparisons.
Cincinnati Bengals host OTA's at Paul Brown stadium practice fields 05/28/2015
His first NFL catch was a big one, 24 yards in the tying drive against Carolina, and his second came at home in Louisiana on Dalton's first long third down in the wake of his 2.0 passer rating against Cleveland. When they converted the third-and-eight, Dalton was on his way to a career-best 143.9 rating in the 27-10 win over the Saints.
Then two weeks later Wright converted a third-and-six in the winning drive against Tampa and late in the game pulled off a 30-yard catch on a Dalton beauty down the sideline on third-and-11 that bought 28 seconds in the 14-13 victory.
By the time the nerves cleared in Tampa, Wright was their leading receiver with three catches for 59 yards and had emerged as their No. 3 receiver with no Jones. But he also had torn his PCL and wouldn't be back in time for the Wild Card Game.
But Wright is back now and Jackson has been waiting. Instead of playing just one position last year, Wright is now working out of all the wide receiver spots. There are some whispers that Wright, with his third-down heroics and physical, aggressive approach, may be a latter-day Houshmandzadeh.
"I have a lot of trust in James with his speed, athleticism and toughness," Jackson says. "He knows how to play. He knows what to do. He does it with confidence. A lot of people say we won't play young guys, but we play the best players. If you have a chance to help us, we'll play you."
It will be recalled that Wright is a textbook study on how the Bengals have made the draft work for them the last several years in combining the eyes and ears of the scouts and the coaches.
There was no tape of Wright catching a ball at LSU his senior year because he was buried behind a first-rounder and second-rounder. But he made enough noise on special teams that the club's southeast scout at the time, Robert Livingston, made notes on it. And Livingston noted on the second play against Alabama that Wright delivered a crack-back block on safety Landon Collins that sprung running back Jeremy Hill for a long gain.
Livingston, now a Bengals defensive assistant, gave his information to the coaches and Jackson and special teams coach Darrin Simmons jumped all over it. Simmons, without a wide receiver that could cover kicks since the days of Quan Cosby, coveted his gunner speed and physicality. Jackson, in Baton Rouge at the LSU pro day to check out Hill, had been apprised of Wright by two friends before the workout. Jackson had worked with LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in Baltimore and wide receivers coach Adam Henry (now with the 49ers) had been Jackson's tight ends coach in Oakland.
"They got me before the pro day and said, 'Hue, you've got to see this kid. He didn't catch a ball, but he can play,'" Jackson recalls. "When you hear something like that from two guys you trust, you're looking. Adam knows I like big receivers that can run."
When they brought in Hill for his pre-draft visit, the Bengals asked him about Wright and he gave all the right answers. As the seventh round neared, the Bengals were talking about him and Stanford fullback Ryan Hewitt. There was sentiment in the room for Hewitt because there was tape on the kid playing both tight end and fullback while there was virtually no tape of Wright at receiver.
But he had two coordinators heavily on his side. Wright probably became a Bengal the morning of his own pre-draft visit.
"Darrin told him he'd pick him up at 7 in the morning in front of his hotel," Livingston says. "It's raining like heck. Just miserable. Darrin shows up at 6:45 and there's James in front in the rain with his bag. And he's been that way ever since."
Now it sounds like Dalton and his Gang are coming in from last year's rain.