Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan looks at quarterback Joe Burrow this spring and doesn't see a whole heck of a lot of difference.
"Same old guy," Callahan said this week as he watched the ancient 25-year-old put in some end-of-practice sprints. "He's in great shape. He's healthy, which is a big step. Finally, we've got an offseason together. He looks normal. No lingering effects."
And that's just it. The normal is the different. After his rookie spring was erased by COVID and last spring was consumed by rehab, this is our earliest look at Burrow.
And everyone else's, for that matter. Callahan is aware of no tweak in mechanics or footwork. He's not sure Burrow had time with the Super Bowl practically ending as the clock struck midnight on Valentine's Day.
"For him, the rest part of it was a big deal, too," Callahan says. "Maybe not messing with his motion and things too much and I think it's going to pay off for him. He did a really nice job of getting away this offseason in the short amount that it was and working on things he wants to improve schematically.
"But I don't know if there was some big overhaul. Just fine-tuning his command of the offense and being comfortable. Now he's rolling."
When Callahan talks scheme, he's talking about making things easier for Burrow when it comes to areas they've identified that need improvement, such as the red zone, short yardage and play-action.
"We didn't finish as well as we started. We're trying to find some things that might help us down there. Finding ways to get easy touchdowns so we don't always have to make a great throw or run a great route."
Callahan knows play-action helps everything and he can't wait to deploy their new offensive line in more than pass protection.
"We need to improve in the play-action game for getting guys open down the field, whether it's not as hard a throw, whether you don't have to drop back," Callahan says. "Hopefully the play-action helps the line a little. I'm excited about what the new offensive line looks like in the run game. I think we've got a chance to be pretty good up front."
The centerpiece there is former Cowboys right tackle La'el Collins, graded the third highest run-blocking tackle in the league last season by Pro Football Focus. New right guard Alex Cappa (39) and center Ted Karras (42) are first-pagers, too, in the run grades.
"(Short yardage) comes with improved play up front. It comes with improved scheme from the coaching side. I thought we did some good things in short yardage and I thought there were times we just got beat in short yardage."
When they break it down, Callahan says they're focusing on the late downs.
"Look at the statistics on it and I think we were fifth in total short yardage attempts," Callahan says. "We had like 50 tries on third-and-one and fourth-and-one. But we were 25th in conversion. Whatever we were doing on first and second down, we were efficient. We were in short yardage a lot more than most, but we're just not finishing off drives.
"Definitely points of emphasis. Sometimes short yardage is as simple as we're going to beat the guy across from us. Very simplistic football and sometimes we have to do a better job as coaches and being able to scheme against these heavy and tight fronts and big bodies. We definitely need to improve there."
O-LINE OASIS: Any discussion of short yardage has to include that re-tooled offensive line ("It all works together," Callahan says) and it's been an eyeful. Asked if any returning offensive veterans have pleasantly surprised, he keeps going back to Collins, Karras and Kappa.
"The additions up front have been really impressive," Callahan says. "A guy like LC looks like he's supposed to look. They practice like they're supposed to practice. Ted Karras has been really fun to be around. He's dialed in. Seeing those guys, that feels different."
What's not different is his core. Burrow. Running back Joe Mixon. Wide receivers Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, Ja'Marr Chase.
"All our guys came back the way they always come back," Callahan says. "Mixon is in great shape. TB is in great shape. Ja'Marr is in great shape. Tee is coming off surgery, but he looks great. He's a freak show."
CONTINUITY CENTRAL. All three of head coach Zac Taylor's coordinators are head coaching material. Callahan, who turned 38 Friday, interviewed for the Denver job back in January, so who knows how often we'll be able to say, "Callahan returns." It's his fourth straight year on the job, making him the longest-tenured OC for the Bengals since Bob Bratkowski went from 2001-10.
Taylor calls the plays on Sunday, but he relies on Callahan to get him there. In next week's last practices before breaking for the summer, Callahan is putting in and teaching his 15th and final installment of the offense. This last Thursday it was red zone. On Tuesday, the final lesson is specific endo-of-game plays, a pretty small situational package.
But in the fourth year of the offense being coached by the same guys and run by a bright third-year quarterback, it's not so much installation but review. Plus, with all of the offense at the voluntaries, he's been able to go heavy on installation this spring.
Here are the differences he sees between spring ball and training camp:
"We'll come back in training camp and review it again," Callahan says. "It won't be as much as me installing and teaching, it will be more guys just reviewing what's in for this day and how we're going to practice it.
"Training camp is more review mode. Offseason, it's install. Here's the play, here are the routes. Training camp, 'We know what this is, now here's a review. This is in today. Changing this formation.' Very much in review mode. Focus on refining it as opposed to re-learning."
SLANTS AND SCREENS: Taylor's second and last week of on-field practices start Tuesday, but last week he got a good look at a team that isn't so young anymore. After fighting to the Super Bowl in a taut December and January with pretty much you grow up fast and this is pretty much the same roster.
"Just stressing that it's a lot of above the neck work. It's communication, it's urgency, and I think our guys are getting better at that every single day. You really see it from the vets," Taylor said after one practice. "The guys that have spent a lot of time in this league operating at a high level right out of the gate, which is really encouraging to see. It's good for those young players to see, too, what it is supposed to look like so they'll be up to speed sooner rather than later." …
Taylor keeps saying the same thing about franchise free agent Jessie Bates III: "We love Jessie. The business part is the business part. We have to continue to look forward and get our work done and I think the guys have handled that really well." …
The Taylor-Made Bengals have put an emphasis on cultivating leaders like Bates. It's why they tend to draft college captains. It's certainly a reason they traded up to draft Toledo safety Tycen Anderson in the fifth round. Along with running a 4.38 40-yard dash at several different positons in the Toledo secondary, Anderson was a face-of-the-program guy. The Bengals have already seen why this spring.
"In a special teams meeting one of the first couple days, (Anderson) was put in position where he was extremely confident with what he was saying and was right," Taylor said of coordinator Darrin Simmons' demanding conclaves. "Darrin likes to put a lot of pressure on those guys and 'Are you confident or are you second guessing yourself?' And he stood out that way. It's one example. But I think there's been several examples from a lot of young players standing out that way." …