At least at the Red Dawn, the Bengals New Era on offense seems to be well on track. Behind rookie quarterback Andy Dalton and his pair of electric young receivers, the trio is asserting itself with its striped descendants as well as in the NFL's haven of statistics at the Elias Sports Bureau.
Off his club rookie-record 332 yards in Sunday's 24-22 loss in Denver, Dalton joined Hall of Famer Dan Marino as the only rookie quarterback since the 1970 merger to rack up triple-digit passer ratings in each of his first two games and Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in the home opener against the 49ers (1 p.m.-ESPN 1530) he'll try to match Marino's 28-year-old feat of starting off with three straight.
When Dalton hooked up with wide receiver Jerome Simpson on what may have been a Bengals record for the 84-yard sprint, it also put Simpson in rarified post-merger air. He became just the 11th player and second in the last 12 years to log 100-yard games in three of his first six NFL starts.
It's a heady list with Hall of Famers John Stallworth, Kellen Winslow and Dave Casper, as well as a future Famer in Isaac Bruce. And current Pro Bowler Miles Austin and Simpson are the only ones to do it since 1999.
And after the first 100-yard game of his career, wide receiver A.J. Green went into Monday night's game leading all NFL rookie receivers with 165 yards.
But the stats are tempered with reality, not to mention a 1-1 record. As quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese says, it's all about getting to the next level. A 300-yard rally on the road is nice but it's hard to compare it to Carson Palmer's 2004 debutante ball in Baltimore when he microwaved 24 fourth-quarter points for a victory.
"He has to jump over the next hurdle," Zampese said of Dalton. "Can (he) come back in the fourth (quarter) and actually take over the lead and win the game?"
Suddenly in his 280-yard second half conspiring with Green, Dalton went from caretaker to playmaker in the time it takes to say, "Ken Anderson."
"He never wavered; he kept throwing the ball," Zampese said. "We thought he could be more than (a caretaker). I'm not sure who came up with that. Whatever we ask is what we expect, whichever way it went, I knew he was capable."
With 29 catches for 457 yards and three touchdowns, Simpson's numbers have dwarfed those of the Bengals top five all-time career receivers in their first six starts. The closest is the rookie performance by wide receiver Cris Collinsworth 30 years ago when he also pulled down three touchdowns on 27 catches for 352 yards.
SIMPSON'S FIRST SIX STARTS VS. BENGALS BEST
RECEIVER YEARS REC YDS TDS 100 GAMES
Jerome Simpson '08-11 29 459 3 3
Chad Ochocinco '01-02 14 178 0 0
Carl Pickens '92 8 157 0 0
T.J. Houshmandzadeh '01-02 14 181 0 0
Cris Collinsworth '81 27 352 3 1
Isaac Curtis '73 20 300 1 1
"Jerome is playing well and he's coming off a very productive game," receivers coach James Urban said about his 136-yard effort. "He really cares about it. This game is really important to him."
But Urban also saw Simpson drop a couple of third-down balls Sunday, including the crushing one on third-and-eight with just under seven minutes left over the middle at the Denver 20 that would have secured a Mike Nugent chip-shot field goal for a shot at a 25-24 win.
"There were some balls he put on the ground that he shouldn't have put on the ground; you can't do it," Urban said. "Drops happen sometimes. Jerome's got great hands. Tremendous hands and he should have great confidence in his hands and just make the plays."
The ball was a bit behind Simpson over the middle, but Dalton had a free rusher coming at him and he had to get rid of it. Zampese wants Dalton to improve on some of his throws that maybe aren't as accurate as they could be, but the big picture is clear.
Take these snaps Sunday with the clock starting at 2:25 and the Bengals, with no timeouts, at their own 5. After a four-yard dump to tight end Jermaine Gresham, Dalton hurried everyone to the line to get another play off before the two-minute warning, a nine-yard throw to Green for a first down.
"It's another realization of what we have," Zampese said. "We have a guy that can do it and take us down the field where we can all feel confident he's got us, he's got our back. The result is the result and I'm not sure that we didn't define anything other than the fact we went on the road and came up short.
"But in the process of doing that I think we found out more about the guys we have. It was good to see those guys running around with the ball and guys getting separation on the outside."
Simpson's 84-yarder conjured up memories of the play in last season's finale in Baltimore when he set sail over the middle and had the ball punched out from behind. He had another fumble in that game when he tried to fight for an extra yard, but on Sunday he clearly showed he learned his lesson as he tumbled to the Denver 9 in the fetal position protecting the ball with both arms.
"I had a flashback there for a moment but I thought better of it," Zampese said, "and channeled all my positive energies to Jerome running down the field with good ball security at the 9."
The 84-yarder is the classic West Coast offense pass. A timing route that is more about angles and precision rather than distance through the air. Dalton flipped it about 15 yards over the middle, but it was thrown right in Simpson's stride so that he could rocket past the safeties without hesitation. It's the yards-after-catch concept built into the system and the one Urban saw used so well as an Eagles assistant the previous seven years.
Green also had some YAC Sunday, especially on one play he leaped over the DB to pluck it off his helmet and ran away from him for a 26-yard gain.
After the past several years of Bengals coaches unhappy with nothing happening after the catch from their wide receivers, it's a festival of feet.
"He caught it and split it," Urban said of the big one. "And Andy made a great throw right on time. He did what he's supposed to do. He showed all the things that make him Jerome Simpson on that one play."
RECEIVERS WITH THREE 100-YARD GAMES IN FIRST SIX STARTS(Since 1970)
FROM ELIAS SPORTS
Jerome Simpson, Bengals (2008-2011); Miles Austin, Cowboys (2009); Marcus Robinson, Bears (1999) ; Isaac Bruce, Rams (1995); Hart Lee Dykes, Patriots (1989); Mike Quick, Eagles (1983); Stacey Bailey, Falcons (1983); Kellen Winslow, Chargers (1979-80); Dave Casper, Raiders (1976); John Stallworth, Steelers (1974-75); Frank Grant, Redskins (1974-75). Quick and Robinson had four 100-yard games.