Suddenly sophomores looking ahead

Andy Dalton

Monday marked the first day Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green and his quarterback were no longer NFL rookies in the Bengals locker room.

So they were making plans.

"I don't want to end in the first round of the playoffs anymore," Andy Dalton said as he talked about becoming more of a leader next year.

"I'll fly wherever he needs me," Green said as he talked about hooking up with Dalton to play catch during the offseason.

After an improbable season they piled up rookie records tall enough to help the rebuilding Bengals reach the playoffs with a 9-7 record, Green and Dalton were still setting the tone heading into the offseason.

For one thing Green wasn't griping about how the Texans took him away in the second half with one just one catch as some seasons have ended around here.

"There's one thing about me; I'm just going to wait for my time," Green said. "I know they're doing everything they can to get me the ball."

The trappings of a playoff season were in place.

Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer was headed to Miami, where he is reportedly interviewing Tuesday for the Dolphins head coaching job. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was in his office saying he hadn't heard from teams looking for his services. Head coach Marvin Lewis was fielding questions at his season-ending news conference about a contract extension (not yet) and his Pro Bowl wide receiver ("Don't go there to hang out by the pool. You go there and come back learning," he said) as well as the upbeat mindset of his players.

"That was an incredible atmosphere that they had an opportunity to experience on Saturday in Houston," Lewis said. "It's our goal and job to recreate that atmosphere here at Paul Brown Stadium as quickly as we can, because it was unbelievable."

Unlike last season when the lockout blew up the start of rookie seasons, there will be meetings and practices when the offseason program begins April 16 and even the reserved Dalton wonders what that might mean for the youngest team in the AFC that did pretty well without spring ball.

"You get to come back and critique all of the little things that you did in the season," Dalton said. "You get to work with the guys and not just come into training camp where you have two weeks before your first preseason game. It will be nice to come in and watch stuff, try to get better and do a few things with everybody and make sure everybody is on the same page."

Certainly Lewis relishes the chance to get the class of 2011 into PBS for extra work, but he's also thinking about that talented class of '10 that has a couple of Pro Bowl alternates with just one year of OTAs under their belts.

"It's going to benefit all of these guys who have been picked over the last couple of years, because they haven't had that opportunity," Lewis said at his end-of-season wrap news conference. "I felt sitting here a year ago that the offseason for Jordan Shipley and Jermaine Gresham was going to be outstanding. And now I see it for another group of guys; (Carlos) Dunlap and last year's (rookie) group. So we learn how to better apply what we do against the opponent. And that's what we get the opportunity to do."

For a quarterback whose warp speed season ended so abruptly Saturday in the playoff loss, it was only natural to wonder what's next.

"It's been a freaking whirlwind," Dalton admitted. "Starting with the Rose Bowl, getting ready for the combine, Senior Bowl, pro day, getting drafted, getting married, a couple of weeks later moving up here. It's been a crazy year.

"It seems stuff like that happened a long time ago, but its crazy it's already over. It's already 2012."

Dalton is looking forward to getting away from it all and resting his body for a few weeks, but when asked if he would accept a berth in the Jan. 29 Pro Bowl berth he looked aghast.

"Is that even a question?" asked Dalton, a first alternate that seems to be a mere Ben Roethlisberger walking boot away. "Of course. I think it would be a great experience."

The experienced guys were talking about coming back instead of getting away. Nate Clements, 32, whose 166th game on Saturday was his first in the postseason, talked about how the youth of this team renewed his enthusiasm for the game.

"It's got to be a positive when you go to the playoffs with a quarterback that's a rookie and a Pro Bowl wide receiver that's a rookie," said nine-year veteran safety Chris Crocker. "You have all types of weapons, with the young guys that are coming back. Shipley, Gresham. You have some bright spots to look forward to, and defensively we'll have a lot of guys come back also. The future is bright around here."

But it wasn't all candy and flowers as the players went into the offseason. Crocker talked about how the defense was too inconsistent, particularly defending the run. Gruden talked about how the Bengals need to improve all parts of an offense that averaged 15.8 points in the past six games, particularly the run.

"Three yards a carry, (3.9), whatever it was throughout the year," Gruden said. "As many times as we ran it and as (few) big plays we had, it's a major area to try to improve on."

Dalton was as relaxed as he's ever been with the media Monday. Get used to it. Now that he's no longer a rookie, he says he'll be more assertive.

"I think the more you're around everybody, the more they understand you and your personality and things that you do," he said. "I can definitely take some more leadership role in that aspect. I don't want to end in the first round of the playoffs anymore.

"I'm not going to be coming in as the new guy. I'm going to know the guys around the locker room. It's going to make it easier for me to step in. I feel like toward the end of the season everybody understands how I am because they've been around me. The way I play, things like that. I feel like I'm just going to be more and more comfortable here."

Gruden is pleased with Dalton's comfort level with his offense. He bristles at suggestions that he kept a tight rein on him.

"We did a lot more than people think. People see a short pass when in essence there are three guys running down the field," Gruden said. "Maybe Andy didn't throw it and checked down. We did a lot of things out of each personnel group and moved people around. I thought we were far from vanilla to be honest with you. A lot of our running game was disappointing from the lack of big plays. For the most part it was two to four yards and we would pop one few and far between. That's another area we need to improve on."

Just like Dalton says he's more comfortable in the locker room, he also says he's getting more comfortable with the offense. But he's still not going to be a gambler on this river to try and jack up the scoring and big plays that ran out in the last six weeks.

"You have to understand what you're able to do; you can't hurt the team," he said. "You've got to know when to take your chances. The more I played, the more I understood what I was able to do and what these guys around me can do."

What Dalton does think he can improve on is learning the nuances of his receivers. That way he can make bigger plays without the risks. He thinks that's what makes the offseason workouts so valuable.

"I think that's where we can take the game to the next level," Dalton said. "Get to work on a few things like that. Ball placement. Looking at guys' eyes and different things like that. l think that's where it will definitely help us."

The sophomore year has begun.

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