The Bengals return to their locker room Tuesday with a dramatically different DNA at the top of their roster. No franchise quarterback and no experienced middle linebacker, two positions that usually define leadership and reflect the change going on in the room. And depending on the fate of career receiving leader Chad Ochocinco, no dominant personality.
Reality TV's team is suddenly in Extreme Makeover and a core of young veterans haven't been shy about stepping into the leadership vacuum during the lockout. Maybe a jerry-rigged offseason without coaching is the best way to find leadership for a locker room that has grappled with the issue ever since Boomer Esiason left the first time.
On some teams, one guy seemed to have too much burden, such as Carson Palmer. But leadership by committee seems to be emerging from the 136 days out on their own.
The players showed their appreciation to left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko when they gave them a bag of gifts at the end of last month's voluntary workouts, thank yous for organizing the effort that got between 40 to 50 players to town.
"It wasn't so much to get together because it was going to make us better as a team," Whitworth said Monday, an hour after he was one of the 32 team reps that voted to end the lockout and for a new collective bargaining agreement.
"But it was to show guys that this is it. This is what we've got. We're the guys. And it's time to get it going."
Whitworth broke in on that 2006 team that was supposed to make a second straight run to the playoffs, but didn't do it until 2009 with a virtually reconstituted roster. Now it looks like it's about to get a similar facelift when discussions in free agency start at 10 a.m. Tuesday.
"We've got a young core that's hungry," Whitworth said. "A lot of times it's not the team with the most talent that wins but the team that's the hungriest. We were hungry after that bad season (in 2008) and I think we've got a lot of young hungry guys now."
Whitworth jokes that he played the parts of three Bengals officials during the workouts: strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton, business manager Bill Connelly, and public relations manager Jack Brennan. Peko, running the defense with a script hanging from a clipboard, is too mild-mannered to compare himself to fiery defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. But he found time to show plenty of passion.
"I'll tell you, we're going to be walking around there with chips on our shoulders after what happened last year," Peko said Monday. "We were all pumped up going into last year. We were coming off winning the division; we got those weapons in the draft, (Jermaine) Gresham and (Jordan) Shipley. And we got (Terrell Owens) and we thought we were going to the Super Bowl. But we had a bad year and now we have to win and I think we've got guys that realize that.
"The expectations aren't as high, so it's different. I think guys are trying to make up for last year."
Whitworth and Peko sense they have company. On offense, Whitworth has watched two younger guys buried the last three years blossom this offseason in wide receiver Jerome Simpson and quarterback Jordan Palmer while Peko has been followed by third-year player Rey Maualuga, looking for a breakout year by breaking into his old college position at middle backer with Dhani Jones unsigned.
"Rey's been as vocal as I've ever heard him. He really wants to be the leader out there on defense," Peko said. "He was made to be a middle linebacker. He knows this is his chance. I feel really confident with him calling the plays and him being right behind me. There have been other guys on defense that have stepped up, too. Leon Hall, Robert Geathers. There are guys that have been around."
If anyone has his pulse on the new locker room, it's a guy that has been in a lot of old ones. Clif Marshall, director of Ignition Sports in suburban Cincinnati in Mason, Ohio, is a Morton disciple, a guy that cut his teeth as a full-time assistant in the Bengals weight room from 2005-2007. Since then he's volunteered without pay to help during various junctures in each of the last three seasons while he made a name for himself at Ignition with one of the top programs preparing prospects for the NFL scouting combine.
"It was mid-March and I was coming back from Florida after the combine training and Domata and Rey called looking to start right away," Marshall said. "It was Domata that got those guys up there and Rey was one of those guys always helping, reaching out to guys and being there all the time."
Marshall ended up with about 24 Bengals from mostly the defense and seven other NFL players during the lockout with three workouts per week before the two weeks of workouts in early June and four per week after that. Simpson ended up with nearly perfect attendance during an exhaustive offseason he did camps for kids at his high school and college in the Carolinas and made countless appearances in Cincinnati at various events.
"Jerome is a guy who's confidence has really grown on and off the field. I think those last three games last year (20 catches, three TDs) really helped him," Marshall said. "I noticed that during the workouts and then when the offense got together at (the University of Cincinnati). Jordan Palmer told me the same thing. He's just playing with more and more confidence."
Simpson says the lockout has helped him in the sense it's allowed him to concentrate on the little but necessary things.
"I wish I was in there learning the new offense," Simpson said. "But (the lockout) has let me work on getting more explosive, getting off the line quicker. I think I'm in the best shape I've been in here coming into a training camp. Yeah, I would say I'm more confident. I want to help my community. I'm thankful for the fans and want to reach out. I'm just excited to play football again."
For instance, Marshall is extremely excited how Simpson has toned down his penchant for going 100 miles per hour on all routes all the time and has his ample athleticism more under control.
Simpson had a front-row seat for the work Palmer did during those days at UC. Palmer installed maybe 100 plays on an overhead projector during those two weeks and got Simpson and players at each position involved in the discussions.
"It looked like anytime they brought it up into a huddle after practice, Jordan was one of the main guys talking," Marshall said. "He's showed a tremendous amount of leadership. And you take a guy like Whit and he's assumed the leadership role Willie Anderson had when I was there."
Marshall has seen some big things in the weight room. Unlike during OTAs the previous springs in camp, the major lifting period was extended to around nine weeks instead of five or six, so players have been able to follow through on some huge numbers.
Maualuga and defensive tackle Tank Johnson have been able to match personal bests in the bench press while Simpson set a personal record dead-lifting 500 pounds six times. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins has also been impressive with getting close to pushing around 500 pounds on the bench. All under the sign Marshall copied from Morton's room: "Iron Sharpens Iron."
"I knew they were going to get in shape; they're pros," Marshall said. "But I wanted them to try and get faster, stronger and more skilled at their positions. If this doesn't translate to the field, it doesn't matter."
Even with PBS open Tuesday, a bunch of guys are headed to Ignition to finish it off because they have yet to take their team physicals. Simpson has plans to closet himself with new Bengals receivers coach James Urban after he gets his workout in. Peko is also looking at checking in, as is Whitworth.
This time, Whitworth can be himself instead of couple of other guys.
"It will be nice to be back," he said of a locker room changed by a lockout.