Jermaine Gresham (84) gets instruction from tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — Carson Palmer and Reggie Kelly aren't here anymore, but their words hang on Bengals tight end Jermaine Gresham like a SAM linebacker.
And since they aren't here anymore and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is, the tight end position has undergone a major change to the eye physically and philosophically.
"It," said Gresham of the new system "caters to anyone who gets open."
Kelly, the Bengals eight-year anchor at tight end as a monster blocker, also served as the locker room's spiritual leader and happily mentored Gresham in his rookie season last year even though he took his job. Palmer, who shattered virtually every single-season Bengals passing record despite not having a threat at tight end until Gresham came along, had a message for him after the loss in Indianapolis last Nov. 14.
Gresham, in the middle of one of the best rookie seasons in Bengals history, had just destroyed the Colts with all nine of his catches that day coming in a madhouse fourth quarter. One of them was a touchdown with 2:35 left that cut the Colts lead to 23-17 and when the Bengals got the ball back on Mike Nugent's blood-and-guts onside kick, Palmer went right back to Gresham on the first play.
But Gresham tried to fight for extra yards after the six-yard gain and lost a fumble at the Colts 34.
"I just remember the fumble," Gresham said. "Carson helped me a lot after that game. He just said, 'You can dominate. You need to approach the game like that.' It gets back to Reggie Kelly. I need to mature and be a better practice player and be a better pro."
With 52 catches the most by a Cincinnati tight end in more than a decade and a load of athleticism, there's not a lot to improve, except Gresham's grasp of the new system and taking it up a notch as a blocker.
And while the system is quite different, Gresham is still one of the biggest weapons. After 10 years where Cincinnati's three best receivers were always outside guys, Gresham is the second or third best as one of the more explosive tight ends in the game.
With the addition of seven-year man Bo Scaife from the Titans, Gruden has two pass catchers at the spot that Bob Bratkowski didn't have in the previous decade calling plays.
So he'll automatically have more multiple tight-end sets than Bratkowski ever dreamed of, a concept that had former NFL quarterback Jim Miller excited Tuesday as he watched practice with former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots during their NFL Sirius Radio stop.
Miller said the two tight-end set is going to make it easier for a rookie quarterback to read defenses with one safety theoretically needing to drop down into the box, and Gruden agreed.
"Do they play the run or do they play the pass?" Gruden asked. "Especially with good pass catchers like Bo and Jermaine."
And, of course, the multiple tight end sets fit Gruden's plans of protecting that rookie quarterback with a high-powered running game.
But if Kelly, 34, wasn't a huge factor in the pass game (it took him four seasons to get 52 catches as a Bengal), he was key in blocking the big blitzers and pass rushers, particularly in the division. In fact, Jets head coach Rex Ryan used to call Kelly the X-factor when he was the Ravens defensive coordinator.
The Bengals felt Kelly's blocking fell off last year and while they offered him a contract before this training camp, it apparently wasn't to his liking because he went looking for another job. Now Scaife suddenly has the most career catches on the roster with 251 after a decade Bratkowski spawned two of three most prolific wide receivers in Bengals history while the tight ends were fit to block.
Gresham expects to play in Detroit on Friday (7:30 p.m., Cincinnati's Channel 12) even though he sat out Tuesday's practice. Gruden knows there haven't been many balls his way compared to the receivers, but he expects that to change.
"The more we get to know them, the more we put in, the more active they'll be," Gruden said. "Jermaine and (the other tight ends) haven't made a major splash yet, but I think they will by the time we get rolling Week 1. (Scaife) is a talented receiver and he's run a lot of routes in his day and caught a lot of balls. He has a great feel for the game. Jermaine is still learning but has all the talent in the world. Those two together are pretty good and Chase (Coffman) does a nice a job getting down the field. Those are three pretty good ones."
The Bengals just have to figure out who's going to block LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison in Pittsburgh and Terrell Suggs in Baltimore, a day at the office for Kelly. As the 250-pound Scaife said, "I'll do whatever they want me to do. I'm sure they don't want me blocking 300-pounders, but I'm not going to shy away from blocking assignments."
And not only is Gruden not asking them to shy away, he thinks they can do a good enough job with their blocking to complement what the group can do in the passing game. Scaife has played on some excellent running teams in Tennessee and Gresham has the size and willingness to be above average as he learns to do it and received praise for how well he blocked as a rookie.
Plus, it looks like the tight ends are going to have help from fullback Chris Pressley, emerging as the club's first true battering ram of a fullback since the early Jeremi Johnson era.
Throw in the quick three- and five-step drops, and it's going to be different.
"You noticed?" Gresham asked with a smile.
"You have to be versatile here as a tight end. You've got to be able to block," Gruden said. "You've got to be able to block in goal line. You've got be able to block in short yardage. Out on the field you have to pass pro and be able to run routes. That why it's a tough position. You're asked to block defensive ends sometime."
However they do it, it is going to be a different look. Scaife's career low is 29 receptions, so on paper, anyway, the Bengals are looking to have their most catches by tight ends since they had 67 in 1989 for an offense that finished third in the NFL. Scaife, who blocked for Bengals running back Cedric Benson at Texas, is coming out of a similar approach and offense with the Titans.
"There aren't too many differences," Scaife said. "We wanted to run the ball, wanted to have a nice short (pass) game, and take some deep shots. We've got some talented receivers. Now the big thing is for Ced to have a big year and open it up for them."
Gresham says his biggest goal for this year besides recalling what Kelly taught him is "to win. I'm not used to losing. 4-12. That was disappointing.
"(Kelly) taught me how to be a professional. Everything about being a pro on and off the field, how to take care of yourself, how to take care of your body. Being a man. He taught me a lot that one year."
It might be the only familiar thing.