Last season rushed in and out so fast that Bengaldom never really had a chance to savor the all-encompassing transition that 2011 brought to the franchise.
A new franchise quarterback in Andy Dalton. A new franchise player in A.J. Green. A new locker room devoid of divas and packed with pros. If the Steelers are Ben's Team and the Ravens are Ray's Team and the Patriots are Tom Terrific's Team, then Tuesday's first day of the 2012 on-field season officially made the Bengals the team of A.J and Andy.
"We've established ourselves now," Dalton said after the 90-minute voluntary workout in helmets and shorts. "I guess technically we're still considered rookies, but after getting that first year of experience it's definitely going to help us out. And I think the guys know what they're going to get out of us."
Even though the 9-7 Bengals have much of the same cast that took them to a Wild Card game, left tackle Andrew Whitworth senses an even newer day. He got that sense when center Kyle Cook mentioned how strange it was lining up in between new guards. He got the sense blocking for former New England running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and watching safety Taylor Mays patrol the starting secondary.
"It's a fresh start," Whitworth said. "The guys are in great shape. There's a lot of guys that are stepping up with the pressure to perform for the first time. Taylor Mays. A lot of other guys. They're no longer hanging around watching. It's taking advantage of the opportunity now. It is the opportunity."
And he got the sense when someone laughed as Whitworth lugged someone else's playbooks up the stairs.
"They said they were wondering what the heck the veteran offensive lineman was doing carrying someone else's playbook and I said, 'Hey, it's a new day,' " Whitworth said. "It's about taking care of each other. Helping each other out like family."
Green doesn't want to come out and call it his team, and Whitworth knows where he's coming from. Last month Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis raved about how Green has snatched a leadership role by being the first in line for every receiver drill and arriving early and leaving late and that's what Whitworth sees.
"When your best player is your best example, that's when you have something special," Whitworth said. "When you have that at every position, and I think we've got a lot of them like that, it's big. Then the guys coming in have to come in and do it that way. The right way."
Take receiver. Although Green has played just 17 NFL games, his 65 NFL catches lead the depth chart. But two of those games have been a playoff game and a Pro Bowl. Just like Dalton.
"I just want to be that leader that I know I can," Green said. "I really don't lead by vocal, I lead by example. I always want to be the first one in a drill and doing everything to the best of my ability. Some of the young guys can actually come along and watch what I do. Work the same and we work together and build this team."
Thanks to the lockout, the last first OTA, in May 2010, seems like a century ago. It will be recalled that was the week the six-time Bengals Pro Bowl wide receiver, Chad Ochocinco, got bounced off Dancing With The Stars and quarterback Carson Palmer said some nice things about it and that now, hopefully, he'd show up. The Ocho didn't for another month, until the June mandatory minicamp. The only guy that missed the voluntaries.
How long ago is that?
The only thing Green was dancing with Tuesday was Dalton's Go ball. It is the way he was made. The best guy works the hardest.
"It always makes it easy, man," Green said. "You've just got to come to that mentality every day that you are a professional and you come to work every day. I take pride in that. That's why I push myself to be great."
Whitworth got the same kind of sense when he lined up next to veteran left guard Travelle Wharton for the first time, an eight-year blue-collar guard from the Panthers. And there was Green-Ellis pounding it like he did in the Super Bowl back in February. And a two-time Pro Bowl cornerback in Terence Newman bouncing around on the edge.
"The nature of our team is different than it was," said Whitworth of those last OTAs. "We're younger and the veterans we've got are guys that do it the right way."
A lot of new talent was on display for the first time Tuesday. Something old. Something new as the search for the perfect marriage of youth and experience continues.
As the team seeks what is going to be a talented but inexperienced No. 2 receiver, Green lined up at times opposite most of the others. Armon Binns, Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen and the two rookies, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Sanu and Whalen also took their shots in the slot.
Mays, who played 60 snaps last season in his second year, worked with the starting defense opposite Reggie Nelson at safety. Newman and Jason Allen, the free-agent vets who have been to Pro Bowls and playoffs, along with incumbent regular Adam Jones are first-rounders looking. They rotated in at cornerback. The defensive line rotated with newcomers first off the bench in rookie tackle Devon Still and veteran free-agent end Jamaal Anderson. Roddrick Muckelroy, who missed all of his second season last year with a torn Achilles, relieved middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. As promised first-round pick Kevin Zeitler lined up at right guard for the first snap.
"A lot of new faces; it's exciting," Whitworth said. "It's a new day."
But Green wanted to make sure it's not a Green Day. Not his team.
"I don't want to look at it like that because I feel like this team is young so we really don't know," he said. "We just go out there and work every day. You know, anybody can have a good day. I just said, we are just a team and we go as each other goes."