The Bengals take the field one last time this week (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) in their mandatory minicamp before disappearing until training camp in 46 days.
And just like the previous month of voluntary workouts, they won't yield the answers we want to know. If the Bengals are to win the AFC North, they have to run the ball better than they have in the last six years, stop the run better than they did in the last six games, and take heat off their best player, A.J. Green, and we won't know any of that for a long time.
But what we do have this week are three final practices to see if any of the top storylines that have emerged since May have changed. And unless (knock on Joey Votto's bat) someone gets hurt, they probably won't. Head coach Marvin Lewis has to like the fact his mandatory crew looks the same as his voluntary, as opposed to a division rival like the Ravens that has had as many as 19 players missing from their voluntary workouts.
We'll see if guys like Brandon Ghee, Taylor Mays and Brandon Tate keep improving this week. But usually the top storyline belongs to the quarterback and this club is no different.
If this is Green's team when it comes to the marquee player, then this is Andy Dalton's huddle.
Dalton's demeanor happened to be a topic of discussion Sunday night at the kickoff event of the foundation he has started with wife Jordan. Designed to provide comfort and care to seriously ill and physically-challenged children and their families, the couple is looking to impact 50,000 Greater Cincinnati children during the next two years.
The event at Jeff Ruby's in downtown Cincinnati sold out, but the most interesting thing was the cross-section of guys that responded to be celebrity waiters. You had defensive linemen (Domata Peko, Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap), offensive linemen (Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler), safeties (Jeromy Miles and Mays), as well as receivers (Jordan Shipley and Ryan Whalen) and a running back (Brian Leonard). A pretty good crew considering the players had a four-day weekend before Tuesday's practice.
"He has a leadership role and he's embracing that role and really taken over the huddle," Leonard said in between handing off stuffed tomatoes from his tray. "He's got that confidence in his eyes that you didn't see last year."
That will happen when you become the first rookie quarterback in history to win nine games and throw 20 touchdowns while taking your team to the playoffs. Want to get the attention of a locker room? You don't need a mandatory minicamp, but an 80.4 passer rating against a schedule of 10 games against top 10 defenses helps.
"A lot of guys respect what he did as a rookie; just his attitude," said Whitworth, struggling with the tri-state's biggest apron. "He did it the right way. He didn't beat himself on his chest. He's a team player. He realizes it takes a team player."
Peko—"I'm sweating like it's practice"—paused between hors d'oeuvres.
"I think we're ready to go to the next level," he said. "Andy's got a year under his belt. He's relaxed and he's one of our leaders."
Shipley, probably Dalton's closest friend on the team, sees the same thing.
"He's confident where he's at," said Shipley, dishing some Bruschetta. "Everybody has a lot of respect for him and I think you can see some of that with the guys that are here tonight. A year of experience can only help you."
They're also finding out that he's got red hair for a reason. He's not exactly the strong, silent type as has been portrayed. If you push the right buttons ... watch out.
"It's great; I love to see it," Whitworth said. "For a quiet guy, he's got an explosive temper when it comes to doing things the right way. If I get on him for doing something I think he did wrong, I'll take a jab at him and, as we say, he'll 'AndyDalton you'. He'll say something that's probably too serious or too mean, and then he'll calm down. But it's great to see. I think it's great to have that fire."
Jordan Dalton can see the bond with Andy's mates growing. She had to laugh when the aprons came out Sunday night and "it's like it's a competition on who can be the better waiter."
"He feels more in a groove with the relationships with a lot of the guys," she said. "I think he's earned their trust a little bit."
The Bengals are hoping to reap the fruits when it comes to the AFC North. The kids should from Sunday's Bruschetta even before then. Jordan Dalton is hoping "The Hub" can open by the start of the season. The Daltons are unsure of the location, but they're working with Cincinnati's Children Hospital to create a room of laptops, computers and games so "kids can go somewhere with their families to have fun."
The wide receiver roster scrum is a real-time event that is going right down to the Labor Day waiver wire.
Notice that ever since guys like Armon Binns and Mohamed Sanu took the field last month the buzz about signing a veteran receiver (Braylon Edwards. Really?) has pretty much died?
Binns looks to have a real shot at starting, the Bengals seem to think Sanu can be a big-time player in the slot, and it's hard to keep Tate off the team the way he returned kicks and punts last season and has come on the last week or so at receiver. After Green, Binns, Sanu and Tate, there are Jordan Shipley, Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and Marvin Jones fighting for two spots. Hawkins would seem to have an edge because of his value as not only a receiver, but as a gunner and potential returner.
It's nice to say the team needs experience, but quite another to say who you would let go in exchange for that experience.
Especially after the Lavernaues-Coles-Antonio-Bryant-Terrell-Owens moves of '09 and '10 convinced the Bengals to go younger in '11 and it paid off. And what would a vet do to Green's emergence as the receiver leader with the departures of Andre Caldwell and Jerome Simpson, one of the underlying storylines?
Word is whenever there's a question about something, the receivers just say, "Whatever A.J. does," which is exactly what you want.
The big question heading into Tuesday is the state of Shipley's rehabbing ACL. Shipley, a pure slot receiver, is getting better and better after being allowed to work in much of the voluntary camps, but he doesn't seem back to 100 percent. Will the Bengals just shut him down when training camp starts so they can PUP him and provide a little more air to the roster fight while he gets all the way back? But will they take him off the practice field for 11 weeks to do that?
Like Tate, Jones is starting to come on some, too. It looks like he may need some time to develop into his body, but he's tall and he can run. When the dust clears, he could be the ideal sixth receiver that is a game day inactive.
But try getting down to the five that are going to play.
Sanu, by the way, became the ninth Bengals draft pick to sign on Monday. The only one left unsigned is third-rounder Brandon Thompson, the defensive tackle from Clemson.
The little-known Ghee has used his time well as some of the top cornerbacks sit out May and June, making the secondary picture even murkier.
As the voluntary work began last month, one of the big storylines was the six first-round corners vying for what is probably, at the most, six corner spots. But with Leon Hall rehabbing his Achilles and Nate Clements (abdomen) and Adam Jones (muscle pull) on the sidelines most of the way nursing injuries, and current first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick battling new technique and muscle pulls of his own, Ghee has opened eyes.
As a third-round pick in 2010, Ghee's not exactly chopped liver but he had to work his way back off the practice squad when he got cut following last year's training camp. At 6-0, 193, the coaches never questioned his size and speed but they felt he needed to learn the game. He seems to be doing it.
It looks like all the corners, and that includes Hall, are going to be able to line up Day One next month. And that should help Kirkpatrick. He's missed some time with pulls and that's been a bit of a setback as he adjusts to the Bengals scheme and the concept of off coverage. Unlike past years when it would have been urgent to get him in there on Sept. 10, the Bengals have so much depth there they don't have to rush him.
Exactly how tight is it at safety with Mays, Jeromy Miles and Robert Sands to be the guy opposite Reggie Nelson?
Tight enough that you can't have this discussion until the pads go on. Really, the meter hasn't moved much since February, here.
But it has to sound pretty good for Mays if the Bengals think he's doing well in what is virtually passing camps. That wasn't supposed to be his M.O. His strength is supposed to be defending the run, but he's showing an ability to run with receivers in coverage and to get lined up right. Miles has had a good month, too, and his ability to cover on the corner in a pinch can't be overlooked.
The only statements that can be made about watching the offensive line in shorts is who is playing where.
The fact that the Bengals watched former right guard Bobbie Williams work out right in front of their eyes after last week's Monday practice and then let him sign in Baltimore says the Bengals must feel better about their young guards than the Ravens feel about theirs.
We'll find out if the Bengals' optimism is justified, but there's no question the overall guard play was seen as lacking last season and that the Kevin Zeitler draft selection at right guard was universally hailed as a good pick. And it is widely believed the Bengals are more athletic at both guards than they have been for several years. Plus, 2010 draft pick Otis Hudson and 2011 draft pick Clint Boling are viewed as athletic backups. It's never easy to lose such a likeable and committed team leader like Williams, but if the kids are ready ...
If the Bengals don't run the ball better, it's been all for naught. Since they won the AFC North in 2005 with an offense ranked fifth in passing and 11th in rushing, the Bengals have finished running the ball the next six seasons at 26, 24, 29, nine, 27, and 19th last year.
The No. 9 in '09 was apparently an anomaly, but the Bengals are hoping the new guards and the crisp tracks of new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis help lift them out of their struggles with the run game in short yardage, red-zone, and on the goal line. In the 33 games since Cedric Benson put 169 yards on the Jets in the '09 Wild Card Game, Cincinnati's top two backs—Benson and Bernard Scott—have averaged 3.7 yards per carry.
But that's another storyline that has to wait for pads.