Cue Jay Gruden.
With a quarterback greener than a first year, a hovering ghost, and a magic wand of an offense handed down from the founding fathers of the franchise, Gruden is a fiery, passionate underdog in the Harry Potter mold. He's not looking to make a movie, but with the end of the NFL lockout imminent, he's about to take center stage in one of the league's most improbable scripts.
And he's going to open it up, not pull it back.
"Everything is pointing to us failing offensively," Gruden said this week in his busy office that took no vacation. "The rookie quarterback and the young guys on offense, blah, blah, blah. But we're going to put everything behind us and set a high standard for ourselves."
The Bengals still covet quarterback Carson Palmer and what he means to a team that has built around him as the centerpiece of a division sweep two years ago. But his trade demands and the lockout have dictated they make a move.
His name is Andy Dalton, a second-round pick that Gruden has yet to coach but he's heartily endorsed his resourcefulness and accuracy for his West Coast offense. None of Gruden's players have had a second with him and his new playbook together with the opener in Cleveland just 59 days away, when he'll call his first NFL play. While he didn't rule out that the team could acquire a veteran quarterback with some NFL snaps once free agency opens, the three guys Gruden knows he's going to have report with a total of 15 pro passes.
"Maybe I'll eeny, meeny, miny, mo it," Gruden joked about picking a starter.
With his family moving to Cincinnati from Orlando, Fla., and then going on a cruise, Gruden chose to stay behind and eschewed a vacation. Content to come to Paul Brown Stadium to watch film every day, he has been tweaking the playbook and practice scripts, as well as polling a variety of NFL offensive coordinators on how they're going to cope with the truncated preseason.
"Some are going simple, some are going business as usual," Gruden said. "I'm going full throttle. We've had a lot of time off. So we'll work them hard when we get them. They better be ready to stay in meetings late at night."
A head coach and general manager of the unkempt rosters of the minor leagues, Gruden may be pining for the good old days of the AFL and UFL once the chaos of NFL free agency is unleashed to coincide with training camp. But he says the experience doesn't give him an edge. Besides, he's sticking with what he's learned. He's not paring anything down or ripping out any pages.
"Every year is different. Every team is different. There isn't anything close to the detail and fronts and blitzes and protections and different things defenses do in the NFL," Gruden said. "I've never been a less is more guy. I might have to be, but I'm going to throw a lot at them. I'd rather on game day have a lot of plays instead of wishing I had that play and this play and not having enough in. That's the way I've always been. There are pros and cons to each way. Maybe we'll have to simplify it a lot. We'll see what type of guys we have here. I don't know. I plan on challenging them and going full throttle. It will be good for our defense, it will be good for our offense. See what happens."
Gruden's full throttle approach means putting the gas on Dalton. He's not saying Dalton is going to be the starter when camp starts. But he also said the camp starter may not be the Opening Day starter. He thinks whenever camp starts, the club will name a guy from the crop of Dalton, Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour. There could also be a veteran free agent in the mix.
But it sure sounds like Dalton. Asked if there's time to get just one quarterback ready and not enough time for auditions, Gruden said, "That's a good question. We're not going to force-feed anybody. We're assuming Dalton but if Dalton is not quite ready—he's only (23)—then we'll get somebody else ready."
But Gruden says there is no question how he thinks a quarterback can learn. He liked the feedback from wide receiver Quan Cosby when Cosby said in a radio interview that Dalton was helping him with the playbook.
"Do you get better sitting on the sidelines making notes on a clipboard or do you get better playing?" said Gruden, not asking. "The way to get better is playing. If you make a mistake, you learn from it. You learn the speed of the game very quickly. You're going to have to adjust. It's hard to do that standing on the sidelines clapping your hands after a good play. If he's the guy, he's got to be that guy and learn fast.
"Guys have (gone with a rookie) and been successful and guys have failed miserably. It's not an easy position ... it's a unique position for a unique individual and I know we drafted the guy with the right frame of mind and hopefully his ability will prove his worth."
Quarterback is only one of the issues. There's the matter of the practice scripts and at this moment, with practice looking like it's going to start either on time or not too far past the original July 29 first workout, Gruden is set on a plan.
"We're planning for eight or nine very good install days," Gruden said. "There's going to be a lot of information in those eight or nine installs. From there, we'll see what we need to add, what we need to correct, what we need to get better at. We could have two in a day, but usually it's one installation at night, practice once or twice the next day, watch the film, and install again. ... Whether there are OTAs or not, that's usually the way it goes. Install and critique. Install and critique."
Then there's also the question of reps. Do they give just the guys that are projected to start in Cleveland all the practice snaps while taking a fewer number of players to camp? Gruden leaves the numbers games to head coach Marvin Lewis.
"That's the other part; how good of shape are these guys in?" Gruden asked. "How do you handle the physical part of the game as far as what shape they're in? But they need the reps. ... You have to take advantage of the reps, and that's what you do in every training camp. If you have one great rep, maybe you get five the next day, and maybe 10 the day after that. The big thing is for everybody to stay focused and make the most of all the reps and the best players will play."
Besides the quarterbacks, Gruden sees the wide receivers and the tight ends having the biggest transition to his scheme. The West Coast is making a ballyhooed return to Cincinnati. Sired by Paul Brown, nurtured by Bill Walsh, and executed by two NFL MVPs, it was the Bengals scheme for their entire existence until the last 10 years under Bob Bratkowski.
And the Bengals may be just as young at receiver if Chad Ochocinco isn't back. His fate, by the way, may be tied to the new rookie salary pool that has reportedly spurred an imminent agreement. If there is wiggle room for negotiation under a hard cap and first-round pick A.J. Green doesn't get in right away, the Bengals may opt to keep The Ocho.
"Different terminology, different formations, it's very different than what we used last year," Gruden said. "It's good everybody is starting on the same page. The routes are different somewhat. The progressions are a little bit different. I'm sure some other routes will carry over, but they'll be called differently. Everybody knows how to run a slant, but their slant and our slant is called differently. Some route combinations will be very similar, but called differently, which is fine. We have two receivers we drafted (Green and Ryan Whalen) and I'm sure we'll get a couple of new guys It will be good for everybody to start on the same page and we'll see."
Like his offense as a whole, Gruden isn't looking to baby the young wides.
"I want to give everybody a chance to run different route cuts," Gruden said. "I don't want to just give them three of four route cuts a day. I want to see them do a lot of different things. See what they can do and what they can't do. What concepts are good against certain coverages and those that aren't. That's the way I like to do it. I like the quarterbacks to see a lot of different looks and a lot of different plays. We want to be multiple in what we do and give the defense a lot of different looks."
It sounds like Gruden's August is going to be as up-tempo and intense as the month of transactions that is going to deluge the NFL. But since no coach has ever gone through it, who's to say his plan can't work as well as any others? He hasn't even really probed his brother on the issue because Jon Gruden never faced a camp like this in his decade as an NFL head coach.
"He probably would have more stuff in than I do," Jay said. "Who knows?"
What Jay Gruden knows is that he's got a plan even as he prepares to hit the gas.
"We'll find out," he said, "in a month or two."