Offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's stars are healthy again.
After Friday's first practice of training camp, Bengals perennial Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green realized it was pretty much the first time he had lined up with wide receiver Marvin Jones and tight end Tyler Eifert since the Bengals put up five TDs against the pre-Mike Zimmer Vikings in December of 2013.
Oh, there had been a few occasions this spring that everyone had got together with quarterback Andy Dalton. But this was training camp and about 1,400 fans in the stands at the Paul Brown Stadium practice fields and the Giants coming in here to practice in 10 days.
"It felt good to have the starters out there," admitted Green, who struggled with injuries himself last year. "To see Marv back after missing a whole season and Tyler, it was great to see those guys run around and get some balls thrown their way and get back in the swing of things."
It's also the first time we've seen Dalton and his receivers since they had another bonding session as he continues to expand his leadership at the urging of offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. When Dalton spent his third session of the offseason at Dr. Tom House's quarterbacks lab at USC in mid-July, he also took six of his receivers for some fun in the sun in Los Angeles. They combined a family vacation with some shopping and football.
"It was lot of fun having the guys out there. It was a different environment,' said running back Giovani Bernard. "It was cool seeing how Andy prepares. I never knew there was that much to being a quarterback. I knew the mental aspect of it, but there's a lot of throwing mechanics and all that and timing is a huge thing."
Green and Bernard made the trip, as did Jones, wide receiver Mohamed Sanu and running backs Jeremy Hill and Rex Burkhead.
"We didn't go to the ESPYs, but they were going on while we were out there, so there was a lot going on," Dalton said. "It was more of a timing thing. It seemed to work out for everybody and L.A.'s a fun place."
"It's always great," Sanu said, "when you can learn something you didn't know about your teammates. It was good to spend some time together."
On Friday, head coach Marvin Lewis said the result of Jackson prodding Dalton on the leadership front has been beneficial. Dalton and Andrew Whitworth, the 10-year left tackle and the de facto offensive leader since he challenged an 0-8 group the day before they beat Jacksonville in '08, were the offensive captains last season and it looks like it's going to be that way again.
"Whitworth is cutting his ties to allow Andy to keep growing. As Whit would say, he's passed the baton to Andy. He's happy to give it up," Lewis said. "And that's a good thing. And Andy's done a good job of accepting it. And now the season is what counts, all the way through in making it count. "
Jackson doesn't want to take credit for it. He simply says, "Andy has earned the right to lead. And then you have people you can lean on like Andrew Whitworth and the other guys on the team that have been through the wars. But your quarterback is who you want out in front. I think everybody turns to your quarterback when things go upside down. We're unique because we have a guy like Andrew Whitworth we can turn to. That being said, Andy has really been out in front and trying to take the lead and that's what you have to do."
To his credit, Dalton credits Jackson for taking him out of his comfort zone. On the field, Dalton is heady and fiery. Off of it, by nature, he's reticent, respectful and reserved. That doesn't always work for an NFL quarterback.
"Since I got here, I've been pushed on the field with Jay (Gruden). Now Hue is pulling at different angles and it's been pretty good," Dalton said. "I just haven't been working on a football stand point. There's more to playing the game.
"Hue's got an expectation. He wants everyone to be on the same page with him and that's what makes the best players they can be and that's the way to get the most out of our offense. He's been able to do things to get guys going."
Whitworth himself has noticed Dalton working at leading.
"He made that an emphasis this year. To prove himself in that way," Whitworth said. "He's done a great job to this point. He has to keep that up."
But if he's going to lead anybody, they have to have healthy bodies. That's what Friday was all about.
Cincinnati Bengals host training camp at Paul Brown Stadium practice fields 07/31/2015
"There were a lot of guys that weren't with us," said Whitworth of Friday morning's walk through. "It's crazy. It's almost like a new huddle. I don't know when is the last time we all wound up together."
Never, really. Throw in Hill, the 1,000-yard rookie running back from last season who has never played with Jones and Eifert, and Dalton and Jackson were feeling pretty good about it all.
Take Jackson's reaction after Dalton pulled off a play-action fake. He dropped back, couldn't find anybody open, and kept rolling until he found Eifert underneath the coverage and close to a first down.
Jackson rushed over to congratulate Dalton for getting a big chunk on a check-down. No turnover. No incompletion. The ultimate Jackson compliment. Dalton knew when to say, "Uncle."
"I think we've got a chance to be versatile and get a lot of guys involved," Dalton said before the workout. "I think that's one thing that we've got because of the players we have we can spread the ball around a lot. I think that's obviously a good thing. I think a couple of years ago when we had everybody a lot of guys were making plays. Like you said, Marvin had 10 touchdowns. The more guys we get involved the better we'll be. "
So you can imagine what the ever hyperactive Jackson had going on the first day. He's saying he's not going to show anybody anything until the Bengals open in Oakland Sept. 13, still six weeks away. But on Friday we saw speedy rookie wide receiver Mario Alford running reverses, Sanu roaming out of the backfield, Eifert lining up inside and out.
Green knows what it means for him.
"You saw when Marv and Tyler were healthy," he said of 2013. "Marv had 10 touchdowns, I had 11, and Tyler played well."
But they may also have more intangibles than ever as Dalton puts his foot down.
"Every good team I've been on has had multiple leaders," said Whitworth, who won national championships in high school and college. "At some point Domata (Peko) and I have to pass on the baton.
"I think Hue pushes. Hue gets the mindset of football and the attitude. I think that's the thing he's pushing on Andy. I think Andy has that internally, but to let that show. Hue's big on pushing guys to let your character show, let out who you are. I think that's good for Andy. He has a lot of character inside him. Sometimes he holds it in and he's starting to let it out."
Dalton shook his head Friday. It's hard for him to believe he's heading into his fifth season.
"Now," he says. "I'm probably one of the oldest guys in the locker room, not one of the youngest. I do feel comfortable where I am."
He's right. Less than a third of the 90 players 28 have at least five years of NFL experience.