History rolls into future Sunday


Jay Gruden

Not since the Age of Aquarius and the summer of 1969 has the Cincinnati offense started three rookies on Opening Day.

But its biggest star may not end up being rookie quarterback Andy Dalton or rookie wide receiver A.J. Green. It could be rookie offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, set to call his first NFL game Sunday (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Local 12) in Cleveland, but far from a neophyte as a play-caller in two pro leagues and the eyes and ears of brother Jon during more than 120 NFL games in the Tampa Bay press box.

Gruden has been able to call on a veteran group of assistants and is relying on long-time quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese in the Bengals press box on game days to do what he did for Jon while left tackle Andrew Whitworth says Jay Gruden has been able to capture the offensive meeting room with his sheer detail.

There are times he'll tell Whitworth, the most experienced player Gruden has on Sunday with all of six seasons in the league, "Whit, I know this is your job on this play. Get it done."

"Some coordinators don't know what your real job is. They just want to know what they want the play to look like at the end," Whitworth said. "He can detail you. 'I want this on that play,' and he'll challenge you to get it done and he can do that with each individual guy on this offense.

"That's impressive. Guys sit in there and go, 'This guy knows everybody. It's not just about linemen, it's just not about receivers, it's just not about running backs.' He knows what every single person is supposed to do and challenges you to get it done."

Gruden, 44, is facing arguably the biggest challenge in the NFL this season. A rookie coordinator entrusted with a rookie quarterback who wasn't allowed to school him until virtually the first snap of training camp, where he met his young group of starters for the first time.

But his personality has already overcome a lot. TCU quarterback Andy Dalton was immediately drawn to Gruden's charismatic enthusiasm and sat in Dallas praying for the Bengals to draft him. Gruden translates that attention to detail to bounding around in drills trying to simulate a cornerback's shove or a linebacker's strip. That's how wide receiver Jerome Simpson accidently gave him a black eye last month. It's that desire to be hands on that puts Gruden on the sidelines instead of in the press box while he's calling plays.

"I like to be the fire extinguisher at times and sometimes I like to light a fire," Gruden said. "You can't do that up there on the headphones. I've never (called plays from the press box). It's not wrong to be up there. I just like to be in the heat of the battle."

He says he likes to get a feel for the quarterback by looking in his eyes while also taking the pulse of the team at critical junctures.

And Gruden knows how he has to negotiate these early battles.

"The big thing is to keep our quarterback comfortable and in rhythm and not try to do too much with him early on," he said. "Make sure he gets some completions early and feels good. We've got some talented players, no doubt about it. The whole idea is to spread the ball around and keep the defense off balance and let them play."

One criticism of the Bengals offense before Gruden arrived had been the belief that the ball was thrown in order to keep certain divas happy. While running back Cedric Benson doesn't hide his desire to hog the ball, Gruden appreciates it but tempers it at the same time.

Like on Wednesday, when Gruden said backup running back Bernard Scott is going to get his fair share of carries.

"Bernard has earned the right to carry the ball, no question about it; Cedric just has to accept that," Gruden said. "That's a good thing, not a bad thing to have another back of Bernard's capabilities. Ced won't be happy about it, but that's fine. I want all our guys to be upset they're not getting the ball. That's the kind of guys we want around here.

"Fortunately for us, (Jermaine) Gresham wants the ball. (Jordan) Shipley wants the ball. A.J. wants the ball. I know Jerome wants the ball. There's only one ball. We're going to try and distribute it equally and whenever they do get their number called, it's their job to do something with it so they get it again and again."

Gruden is trying to get them the ball like Greg Cook got it to Bob Trumpy and Ken Anderson got it to Isaac Curtis and Joe Montana and Steve Young got it to Jerry Rice.

Gruden was just two years old back in that September of 1969 when Cook, wide receiver Speedy Thomas, and running back Clem Turner started as rookies in that 27-21 Opening Day win over Miami on Cook's home field at the University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium.

But Gruden's stars were already beginning to be aligned that day. The young Bengals receivers coach, Bill Walsh, coaxed Cook through a 155-yard day on 11-of-21 passing for two touchdowns and one interception with a system that would become known as the West Coast offense. The scheme changed the game and Walsh later used it to win three Super Bowl titles while planting a tree of coaches that flourishes through the NFL and Sunday in Cleveland.

Like Gruden, new Browns head coach Pat Shurmur is a West Coast play-caller and a product of the Walsh arboretum. Shurmur's boss is Browns chieftain Mike Holmgren, the same Holmgren that hired a young offensive assistant in Green Bay named Jon Gruden, the man and brother that Jay learned under.

And the kick of it is, Walsh got his numbering and verbiage for the West Coast from his boss in Cincinnati, head coach Paul Brown, a system Brown created with the Cleveland Browns of the 1940s and 1950s.

"That's exciting," Jay Gruden allowed, but he also said each coach has revised the West Coast enough in the succeeding generations that it can be downright unrecognizable even in the family.

"Totally different," Jay Gruden said. "If Coach Holmgren went into Jon's office two years ago, he wouldn't know half the plays that were called. And the same with Jon going back to Holmgren's (office). They'd catch on pretty quick. But they're called differently. They're lined up differently in different formations. It's grown and everybody has different verbiage for it so other teams don't know it, but the concepts are very similar."

Even Jay's offense is different than Jon's, but Jay had a lot of input during the eight years in Tampa when Jon made great use of shifting and motioning the varying personnel groups. It is those personnel groups that give the West Coast versatility, but given the truncated offseason and his band of kids, Jay knows he can't move his guys around like those Bucs.

At least not yet.

"We'll grow into formation and changing and motions and shifts and all that, but right now with the amount of new guys and rookies we have with the limited amount of time, I want them studying concepts and plays instead of banging their heads against the wall with shifts and motions," Jay Gruden said. "We'll grow into it. We're not quite where we want to be, but we'll have enough to have a good day."

Bengals president Mike Brown is convinced that the West Coast was born when Cook tragically suffered a career-ending shoulder injury that rookie season and the Bengals turned the next year to Virgil Carter. He didn't have Cook's powerful arm, but Walsh used Carter's accuracy to move the ball on shorter, quicker routes and the Bengals made the playoffs.

Gruden has Dalton throwing quick routes out of three-step drops a la Carter and that's why Gruden wanted him badly in the draft. Not only did he think Dalton was the one quarterback that fit the West Coast offense best, but he was the one quarterback that really understood how to manage a game.

"That's why he was drafted in the second round," Gruden said. "Because he's a game manager. He knows football, he knows situations and he's been very smart in his career and he hasn't done anything to disappoint so far. ... From poise and management of the game standpoint, I think we've got a very, very good quarterback."

Gruden knows, in the end, the ball is in Dalton's hands, not his.

"The big thing is to make guys comfortable and let them play. The players are the ones playing," Gruden said. "I'm not trying to out-think everybody and screw everybody up by formations and all that. I want these guys to go out and play and win the head-to-head battles and have fun doing it."

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