When the Bengals gathered Monday for the first time as a group in the 2013 season, quarterback Andy Dalton thought it was a plus they didn't have to use name tags.
"Josh (Johnson) is the only new guy," Dalton said of the backup quarterback candidate after the offense congregated. "Everybody knows what's expected. Everybody knows everybody. That's good from a team standpoint. You're not having to learn new guys, learn new personalities, and things like that."
The Bengals also have another new guy on offense, another veteran backup QB candidate in John Skelton, but the point had been made.
The Bengals have approached this season with the foundation they began to build upon drafting Dalton and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green two years ago with their first two picks.
After 19 wins and two Wild Card appearances with the most Pro Bowlers 25 years old and under in the NFL, the Bengals have opted to eschew free agency this season to fill their holes and have signed their own players. Of the 16 players they've retained, only two, 34-year-old Terence Newman and 31-year-old kicker Mike Nugent, are older than 30.
"I don't know that free agency is going to make this a better team. Everybody in this locker room playing better will make us a better team," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth. "The truth is we've been to two straight playoffs. We play in the toughest division in football and we're trying to get over the hump of winning that division now and making that next step in the playoffs. That's a great spot to be in. We're not 4-12 and looking for a big-time free agent to help us win games. We're winning games. We're trying to win the next big game."
Even as the Bengals mulled their biggest free agent of the season Monday in former Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison, the nuts and bolts of the team were already in place except for unsigned right tackle Andre Smith.
"I think we've had a great offseason. We've been able to get back all the guys that we wanted to. Andre is the only one that's out," Dalton said. "Everybody in the media wants the sexy guy, the flashy big-name guy. But we're such a young team, we've got the core in place here. It's just making sure we get all the guys back. We've done a good job of that and hopefully we can finish it off getting Andre back."
The state of the Smith negotiations look simple. He wants more money than the Bengals are offering. The Harrison negotiations don't look to have gone in-depth yet. But given that their SAM backer is on the field about a third of the snaps, the Bengals won't be looking to give Harrison one of those mega deals he pulled down as a perennial Pro Bowler.
But he's still regarded as a fine player and the respect he has around the league was in evidence in the Bengals locker room Monday.
"He's been a really good player for a long time. I think just having a guy with experience and the type of player he is, it would be great for the team if we could get him," Dalton said. "He knows the division obviously. He's been in it for a long time. I think it could be a great signing by us."
Whitworth, who has gone against Harrison twice a year since 2009 when he became the Bengals left tackle, is also all for it.
"He's one of those guys that sets a tone the way he plays the game. It would be great to have him in our locker room," Whitworth said.
Except for Smith and the departure of special teams captain Dan Skuta to the 49ers, the Bengals offense, defense and special teams are intact from a 10-6 team. Whitworth is particularly excited about the group of receivers led by Green.
"To keep having those young guys back and have the opportunity to get better and develop together that will be great," he said. "We have continuity at all the positions, which is great. No one realizes how young we've been at spots. It is going to benefit us having a lot of guys back who are a year wiser and more developed."
Asked about the criticism that the Bengals haven't done enough to get over the hump, Whitworth said they have by sticking with the core.
"I don't know what the hump is. I think you have a nucleus of good, young players. I think when you have a lot of young talent coming back, you keep the guys that have been there and have produced and have been great leaders and that's what we've done," Whitworth said.
"Then you try and make the next step and expect the guys that have been here, the good young players to develop into great veteran players and wise players in all those ways and I think that's the mentality. To develop the guys we have. I'm really excited. I don't think there's a young player that's played a lot in the last two years that I'm not excited is going to be that much better this season."