Andy Dalton warms up prior to his first practice as a Bengal.
GEORGETOWN, Ky. — The contrast wasn't lost on Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. Heck, the one time he had his team down here, there was enough drama that they won an Emmy. And that wasn't last year, when he remembers thousands poured into Georgetown College for the T.O. and Ocho Show and football became a sideshow as it often has in his previous eight seasons.
But after a 136-day lockout and a three-hour delay for their first practice thanks to a classic central Kentucky thunderstorm, Lewis' new band of understudies quietly went about their work before a little more than 100 fans. And Lewis couldn't contain his smile after the first practice of the post-Emmy era.
"It's about football. It's about this group right here," Lewis said on what turned out to be a nice, soft summer evening (insert metaphor here). "It's a refreshing thing. Our football team is very conscious of that and they understand that. You know what? You don't talk yourself into anything. You have to do the work; you have to do the execution. You have to win time after time to be successful and not talk about it. It's not about the names on the line; it's about what you do now and how you execute."
Considering rookie quarterback Andy Dalton had never lined up with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden at any practice before Saturday night, the execution was flawless compared to the fits and starts of last year. It was, as Gruden said, "like freshman P.E. in your first class of high school. You've still got a long way to go. High school, college and med school before you graduate. We have a very long way to get to where we want."
But there was giddiness out there that it looked as good as it did. Dalton, the redheaded heir apparent, hit his first seven passes of the intermediate variety in an 11-on-11 drill, was calm, collected, and enjoying his first action with No. 1 pick A.J. Green, an heir apparent himself in the wake of Ocho's trade to New England.
"What do you think?" Gruden's eyes danced when he was asked about Green. "I like those big guys that are tall, run fast and catch the ball. He's got a long way to go. I don't know what else you'd ask for in a wideout."
The linchpins of Lewis' New Deal were on full display with Gruden's contagious enthusiasm, his West Coast offense's array of quick throws off play-action, and Dalton's blue-collar, steadiness. Gruden realized, "I'm giddy now and I'm going to have to rein it in … but he was impressive."
"He spit out all the plays correctly. He didn't have any trouble in the huddle," Gruden said. "No panicking, broke the huddle. That's a feat in itself with all new terminology and looking at veteran guys like Whitworth and Bernard Scott and there was no issue with him. He was calm, confident. He missed a few throws but for the most part he ran the show."
Dalton isn't pretty in the pocket like his predecessor, but he fought threw some early overthrows to get into a nice flow in the 11-on-11.
"Andy relies on a lot of anticipation. He threw a couple a little too early, a little too hard, but he was anxious," said Gruden, who couldn't get over that this was the first time he'd seen Dalton live with his playbook.
"For his first time in a professional uniform, different receivers he's never thrown to, and the different tempo, new plays, it was impressive I thought. He's got a long way to go. I've got a long way to go."
After Dalton's first trip through the autograph line (Lewis made all the rookies sign), he sensed that he's in the middle of a titanic transition.
"Everybody's excited. It seems like the Bengals are a new team this year," Dalton said. "We've got a lot of new guys around here."
But how would he know? After signing his deal Friday night Dalton got to campus at 12:30 a.m. and, thanks to the lockout, he had never seen guys like Green and the batch of college free agents and tight ends he was about to throw to. The only thing missing was the "My Name Is" stickers. But he was thinking more demeanor than anything else.
"I was just trying to come in and take charge and show everybody I've got confidence and that I can be a good leader out there," Dalton said. "I felt really good. With the new offense, everybody is learning and I feel like I've got a really good grasp, as much as the other guys. I'm just trying to help everybody out. I'm trying to show everybody I've got confidence."
Gruden admitted there was such as long way to go that his guys didn't even throw against a blitz Saturday. "Coach (Mike) Zimmer didn't throw any fastballs." But he was giddy. Remember, Dalton was the kid Gruden put his butt on the line for in the draft, ID'ing him as his top choice. And on Saturday, Gruden got what he wanted to see.
"He's about 220 pounds. He's been working out, he's in great shape," Gruden said. "His arm looked fresh. I didn't see anything wrong with it."
Neither did Lewis. The only drama was supplied by Mother Nature with a fire-and-brimstone performance that knocked power out for 90 minutes and practice for 360 minutes. Lewis wondered about the term "rebuilding," which everyone has tagged on this team.
"I don't know," Lewis said. "I think some would say we've changed for the positive. I said it in December it would be a new beginning. If things worked out and I were back here that I was going to do something that not many people get to do and start fresh again."
On another part of the field, Dalton sounded as fresh as his arm.
"I had a lot fun out there," he said. That's the way football is meant to be played."