Marvin Jones came off the practice field with that toothpaste commercial smile of his after another productive day Friday.
Even without Superman A.J. Green, sidelined by the sideline, super soph hopefuls Jones and Mohamed Sanu stepped in at wide receiver to cap a very encouraging two days for an offense that is suddenly as crisp as it was sloppy during the spring.
"During that first 11-on-11, Mo and I looked at each other," Jones said, "and I said that we were flying around fast out there like it was a regular-season game. The tempo was great."
Tempo. That's the watchword of this camp. Head coach Marvin Lewis wants these guys in and out of the huddle. Crisp. He wants 18 seconds on the play clock. Not a dozen. Smooth. He wants the ball in and out of quarterback Andy Dalton's hand. Right now.
So far, he's getting it.
"What jumps out is you come in and the guys know what to expect. The thing about it is that we're pushing the tempo," Lewis said. "I felt good about the tempo, in and out of the huddle, to the line of scrimmage and give the quarterback a chance to work. If we dilly-dally around and mess around, that play clock is sitting there at 12 when we get to the line of scrimmage. We want that play clock at 18 if we can or 20 if we're in the huddle. If we can get in and out of the huddle in that time, that's good. That's why we push that envelope as much as we can."
It is not only Jones and Sanu, but the only thing first-round pick Tyler Eifert and second-round pick Giovani Bernard have dropped is a boatload of talent into a passing game that quarterback Andy Dalton seems to thrive on orchestrating point-guard like.
Jones threw an invisible behind-the-back pass Dalton's way and Dalton fired back, "I'm just looking for assists and wins."
Except for the wayward long ball that almost took out Green with a bruised knee, Dalton has been smooth the first two days of camp. One informal chart has him 21-of-30 in 11-on-11 drills against mostly the first-team defense, good for 70 percent. Throw in backup Josh Johnson's 14-of-18, and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden admits his guys are looking much better than they did six weeks ago.
» On the first snap of 11-on-11s Friday, Jones, playing in Green's spot, runs a comeback route on savvy Terence Newman and Dalton delivers on time.
» On the next snap, Eifert the Notre Dame tight end, lines up in the slot, gets matched up on the club's best safety, Reggie Nelson, and beats Nelson to the sideline on a deep crossing route, where Dalton hangs it out and up so that Eifert can pluck it out of trouble.
» Speedy slot receiver Andrew Hawkins takes advantage of a miscommunication between young cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Shaun Prater and scores a TD on the deadly angle route. A bunch formation freezes the backup defense, but when rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche ties up tight end Alex Smith, Sanu and Hawkins don't panic and don't run into each other. Sanu runs a crossing route, where both Stoudermire and Prater jump him, and Dalton easily finds Hawkins down the middle.
"There's a sense of urgency. They're mature enough to understand. We've acquired enough leadership from people that they understand," Lewis said.
Enough that Lewis simply suggested the guys to speak at Thursday night's Bengals Pep Rally because there are so many stand-up guys that he didn't want to offend anyone.
In the end Dalton and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis took the mike for the offense. But he could have easily gone with Green and left tackle Andrew Whitworth. Or Hawkins and center Kyle Cook.
BJGE is the ultimate pro, guardian of the fundamentals, and a team-first guy unafraid to jump people for missing blocks. Dalton plays the position and he felt comfortable enough earlier this month to host his receivers for three days at his Dallas home. One night he had dinner at the house and a couple of nights they went out for barbecue.
"Just leading by example and when people ask questions (I) just answer them," Green-Ellis said. "Doing the best I can when things happen. Obviously, it's a quarterback-driven league and Andy is our quarterback so he's going to be a natural leader but we also have to have guys in place around him. As you know, if you build any company it all starts from the top but you also have to have good managers to manage each and every group for things to go on.
"That way it's not all the pressure on him, then when we come together we are all on the same page. That's a process we are going through right now, I think we'll be pretty good."
But there's got to be some talent and Eifert is oozing with it, much like Green.
"We've got to ramp him down a little bit; he's catching too many balls," Gruden said with a laugh.
But there is something serious happening with Dalton and Eifert.
"Tyler is already making a good mark on the quarterback; that's the important thing," Gruden said. "You bring people in here and we can sell them all we want to, but it's up to the quarterback to gain his trust and vice versa. Both these guys are already starting to see a trust factor. Tyler is going to get better. He'll have a better understanding."
The hope had been that another season in the system for Sanu and Jones would make everything smoother and so far it has. Jones made an improbable catch on Thursday when he cut off a go route against cornerback Adam Jones. Both Marvin Jones and Dalton read it and when Dalton couldn't quite get it to the back shoulder, Jones twisted his body to the outside and stuck out his hand for the grab.
"When you're slant-and-going, dependent on what that corner is doing, you have to adjust to what's there," Jones said. "What I was thinking initially was going deep for the touchdown, but that's why you have to peek back because when you're at a certain level with the quarterback, it could be an opportunity for that back shoulder.
"When I made the double move, I went and I started digging for the deep ball. I just peeked back and saw it come on me, so it was kind of a reaction. When you have a feel, especially in running routes, you know that back shoulder could be available. So you peek a little bit early. If it's deep, you go deep. If it's back shoulder, you turn around and adjust."
Now, Jones says that might have happened last year. After all, he was getting comfortable enough late in the year that he had his best game in the biggest game of the regular season in Pittsburgh. But he admitted he has to have a feel to make that play.
"We're confident we're going to be on the same page," Jones said. "We have a lot of tools. We have exciting tools, especially bringing in Eifert and Gio (Bernard). We added different dynamics to the team. I think me and Mo, we're comfortable in the system, we know what's expected of us, we've had a lot of snaps with Andy, so the expectation is we're supposed to be elite in terms of connection. But you add people like Gio and Eifert, and it just changes the game."
It certainly didn't look this crisp in the spring and there were concerns. For Gruden, it starts up front, where Whitworth, left guard Clint Boling, right tackle Andre Smith, and backup center Trevor Robinson didn't take a snap. All but Smith is back and he hopes to be in the mix Sunday.
"We've got Whit back and Clint back and that helps because we had a lot of linemen playing and they were kind of in a funk," Gruden said. "Now we've got stability up front. They have more confidence. That's where it starts. As long as they do their job we have a chance to get some balls off downfield."
But Gruden is cautious. He knows defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is slowly installing his stuff and soon they'll be dealing with buzzsaws.
"They'll start to do more and how we adjust is how we'll be," Gruden said. "We're installing faster as far as play concepts are concerned. It's going to get harder and harder … (but) we feel good about where we are. We feel good about the guys knowing what to do and where to line up, so we're able to install more this year Day 1 than probably last year. I just felt with everybody coming back from OTAs and last year, there's no reason to hold back. Install it fast and get used to the way the tempo is going to be during the week."
Tempo and, also, temperament from wise heads like BJGE.
"I think it's kind of coming around now where people are starting to notice things that we're doing. None of it really matters. You earn what you get," Green-Ellis said. "If we go out and play well, everything that comes with it is fine. But everything that goes on is the hype. And the only thing we can do right now is focus on football. If we try to focus on what everyone is saying, there will never be enough time and space for us to work instead of reading all the articles and things like that. We have to stay focused and that's one of the things we're going to have to do. Especially as a young team."
BJGE, New Orleans born and raised, smells something brewing on his side of the ball.
"All these different mixes and flavors I think is going to be good for us," he said. "The same thing in the wide receiver room, you have guys who can do different things and do different things well. It will be good for us."
So far, so good.