Andy Dalton isn't a kid anymore.
Though the Bengals quarterback is only 26—an age at which some NFL quarterbacks are still in a learning mode—he's quick to agree with the suggestion that his NFL "youth" is behind him.
"It's just my third year, but I've played a lot," Dalton said Tuesday as mandatory minicamp began at Paul Brown Stadium. "I've started every game since I've been in the NFL, and I've got that going for me in terms of being a leader on this team. Not only playing quarterback, but being a guy who understands what we're trying to do.
"It makes it easier for me (to be a leader), and for guys to say, 'OK, he knows what he's doing. He has played quite a bit and understands everything we're trying to do. He's been there. He knows what to expect.' "
Dalton also knows that despite his success—two-for-two on playoff seasons, a fair share of high-ranking statistics—the jury is out among NFL analysts on whether he can rank as an "elite" pro quarterback. He knows that can come only with playoff victories, and the Bengals are 0-for-2 the last two years as Wild Card qualifiers with consecutive losses at Houston.
"Year 3 is big for me," he said. "It's big for this team. We've played well enough to have two playoff appearances and haven't played well once we got there. It's big for us to show that we're going to get back to the playoffs and then win and make a run at it. It's what this team expects. We've brought everybody back, basically, from last year's team, and that's the attitude we're taking into this year."
Head coach Marvin Lewis sees a rapidly-evolving Dalton both on and off the field.
"He's going into this third year, the cast around him gets nothing but better, and as far as his leadership, he's spreading his wings, we all feel that," Lewis said. "I was at his (charity foundation) event Sunday evening, and I felt that there. I also saw him last night at the zoo with a bunch of kids.
"You can tell he's a different guy than the kid who joined us three years ago. He's maturing. A lot was cast on him as a young guy—he experienced the same thing in college (starting as a TCU freshman)—and like then, he just keeps growing into it and getting better and better. He looked a little different walking by me just now in the hallway. He used to have that 'deer in the headlights' look a little bit. Now he fully understands there are certain things that are asked of him. We've all collectively got to do better, and he's excited to lead us in that direction."
Dalton did not make the Pro Bowl last year, after getting there as a rookie, but by almost every quantitative measure he was a better player than in 2011. He led the team to a better record (10-6 after 9-7), and he was personally improved over '11 in TD passes (27 to 20), completion percentage (62.3 to 58.1), TD-interception differential (plus-11 to plus-7), passing yards (3669 to 3398) and passer rating (87.4 to 80.4).
His 47 career TD passes are third-most in NFL history for a player in his first two seasons, trailing only one Hall of Famer (Dan Marino, 68) and one certain future Hall of Famer (Peyton Manning, 52). He also rushed for four TDs last year, most by a Bengals QB since 2002.
Dalton rallied the Bengals to victories from four fourth-quarter deficits in 2011, and last year he led the Bengals to a 7-1 record in the season's second half – matching the 1981 Super Bowl Bengals for the best record in franchise history for the second half of a 16-game season. The 2012 Bengals struggled to a 3-5 start, but they wound up becoming one of only nine of 123 NFL teams since 1990 to make the playoffs from 3-5.
But like his youth, that's in the past. The future took another step forward Tuesday with the opening of mandatory minicamp.
"The biggest thing with this, as compared to the OTAs we've been having, is that you get on the kind of schedule we have for a normal (regular-season) week," he said. "These two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) will be like a Wednesday and Thursday of a normal game week. It's good for the rookies to see what it's going to be like during the season."
And as for Dalton's personal goals between now and the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at Chicago?
"The biggest thing is just to make sure that I've got full control of everything," he said. "One area is changing plays at the line of scrimmage. I did a little more of that last year than I did in my first year, and I expect to do more of it this year than last year. And I expect to be better at making adjustments on the sidelines during the games themselves."
Just like an "older" quarterback.
"I know it's funny for me to say 'young receivers,' " he said, "but guys like Marvin (Jones) and Mo (Sanu) and some others that didn't get to play a full season last year, I've got to get them out there and get them fully comfortable with what they're doing. It's just making sure that everybody's on the same page. And when we get a chance to hit big plays, we've got to hit them."
And not just in the regular season, but in the playoffs as well.