Andy Dalton knows he's running into the biggest year of his career. Is it a crossroads?
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis' new T-Shirt slogan says, "Challenge the Moment." It's almost like it was custom made for his quarterback Andy Dalton, but the rest of his roster seeking a breakout year in the postseason also has plenty of challenges:
For the first time in the A.J. Green-Dalton Era, there is a new man calling plays in offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. With Mike Zimmer gone, this is the guy that is going to supply the no-nonsense-salt-and-vinegar to preparation and practices. And Dalton knows the demanding Jackson is going to get in everyone's face on offense with a different demeanor than predecessor Jay Gruden.
"I think he's going to push guys. There are some guys that haven't been pushed as much vocally before," Dalton said Monday as the shirt hung behind him in his locker. "Jay had a different style than what Hue is going to bring. Guys are just going to have to get used to how Hue does things. Obviously, we haven't been out to practice yet so I don't know exactly what it's going to be like with Hue running everything now but it is going to be a little different than Jay.
"I'm sure I'm part of it. * I*'m sure Hue is going to be very vocal with me. I am no exception out there. I am one like everybody else. I think it's going to be good for us. "
While Dalton has quarterbacked the Bengals to three straight playoff appearances, a top ten defense was the heart of the run and the soul of it, Zimmer, is now the head coach in Minnesota. And one of the leaders, right end Michael Johnson, is in Tampa.
But nose tackle Domata Peko, the de facto defensive captain in his ninth season, shares the faith the defense has in new coordinator Paul Guenther. Last week, cornerback Adam Jones talked about how involved Guenther had been in game planning as the linebackers coach and on Monday left end Carlos Dunlap talked about how he worked with the defensive line and coach Jay Hayes in coordinating the pass rush and drops.
"We're going to be fine. We're just going to do what we've been doing, relying on each other and working hard and giving our best effort," Peko said. "I think we have all the tools. We're going to miss Zimmer a lot. He's a hell of a coach and I love Zimmer. But it's time to move up and Paulie G. is going to do a hell of a job with us. Our defensive line is one of the groups that leads this team, that makes this team go round. If we continue to do what we've been doing, we're going to be fine."
For the first time since the Re-Boot of 2011, internal contracts are an issue. Peko agreed to what amounted to a three-year extension last month. At about the same time, Bengals president Mike Brown and Lewis said they're trying to sign Dalton before the season so the subject doesn't fester. On Monday, they officially exercised the fifth-year option on three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green for 2015. They also want to do a deal with Pro Bowl linebacker Vontaze Burfict before he's up after this season.
The Bengals made a clean sweep of about a dozen of their own starters and regulars they needed to sign last season, but that was all done before everybody got together for workouts.
"A lot of guys don't talk about when they're negotiating deals. It's a private thing," said Peko, who continues to make about $5 million per year as the anchor of one of the best fronts in the game. "You keep it to yourself, between you and your agent. But I know that Andy, A.J. and Vontaze deserve to get paid. I can't wait to see when they sign their deals. It will be awesome. It's good for our team because they're a big part of our team. We want to make sure we keep these guys locked down because they're hell of players."
This hasn't exactly been a combustible locker room so it remains to be seen how they handle this next step in the maturation process. On Monday, they've done what they've done since they've won 30 games the last three years and said all the right things.
"I guarantee you everybody here isn't thinking about my contract. I am not worried about it," Dalton said. "When it happens it is going to happen. I can't worry about it. I am not in control of that right now. I don't think it's on the minds of everybody right now."
The contract talks revolving around Dalton carried Monday's headlines and why not? There's no obvious number to pay the guy. Everybody can get on a soap box and not be wrong. He's accomplished more than any other Bengals quarterback in his three seasons and only Dan Martino and Peyton Manning have thrown more touchdown passes in their first three seasons.
But he has also been the beneficiary of a top 10 defense, has been up and down in big moments, and threw 20 picks last year.
So the contract year and the 0-3 playoff record have intersected to form a natural crossroads season that Dalton understands.
"This is a big year. Just from the standpoint of okay, now I've been through it three times now. I've played well. I've been to the playoffs. Obviously the playoffs haven't gone well for us but it's not just me," Dalton said. "There's a lot of guys that are here, a lot of guys that we've had a taste of what could be and now it's time to really go take advantage of it.
"I'm not only one who thinks that. It's not just me here that believes that, who thinks that and who has been through it all. Obviously, being the quarterback I'm the one who will get talked about a lot but there is a lot of guys who want to accomplish a lot more than what we've done. That's what we need to have on this team."
On Monday, Dalton talked about the challenges of keeping his team in games by passing up the temptation to make the big throw in order for something less risky. While the taste of the stunning home playoff loss to San Diego lingers, Dalton's eyes have felt plenty, too.
"I've watched it several times. We had chances in the game. Obviously the turnovers killed us," Dalton said. "I wish I would have done some things differently in the game. It didn't turn out that way. You got to take the good things that happened last season and improve on them.
"You have to understand having the ball in your possession you have to take pride in that. You don't want to give the other team a chance to have it more. Protecting the ball is going to be big. It's going to be a big emphasis for me, a big emphasis for this offense. If you are holding the ball you have a better chance of winning the game. "
That has long been one of Lewis' principles and he's banking on Jackson, a long-time confidant, to make sure ball control means just as much as scoring. Lewis wasn't there to expound on his T-Shirt when the Bengals arrived Monday because he's attending his father's funeral service Tuesday morning back home in McDonald, Pa. But head strength and conditioning coach Chip Morton gave them a pretty good idea.
"All of our goals are eventually to go to the Super Bowl. What Chip was saying was cutting it down into moments," Peko said. "For example, this moment, working out, making the most out of this. Challenging yourself in this particular moment. Then we get to (on-field activities) and challenging yourself in that moment, and then cutting it down more. Eventually when you do those little things right, that takes you to the main prize."
In this big year, Dalton also thinks the T-shirt means the little things.
"You want to find a way to be one percent better every day. I think there's a lot of different stuff that we touched on in there when we met with the strength coaches," Dalton said. "Every little thing that we're doing in there, yeah, we may not have done it before. We may not have a full understanding of it, but try to do it to the best of your ability because in that moment it's going to make you better. I think that's kind of what challenge the moment means. I think it will kind of grow with getting everybody back and the different experiences we'll have throughout this offseason I think it mold what exactly what that means, too."