Jay Gruden enjoys his work.
At various junctures clicking through the tape of his rookie passer, Gruden, the new Bengals offensive coordinator, can alternately sound like a nuclear physicist, a kid playing Xbox, or your real estate agent while finding the time to lighten the load with an occasional flare pass of humor to keep you off balance.
"He throws a dagger here with a seven-step drop and look where he gets his feet; look where he gets his depth on the drop," Gruden says. "Ten yards. His foot hits the 10 yards then, d-ooo-sh. Location, location, location. Just keep watching. It gets boring. I know no one is rushing him. But, oh look, he made that guy almost jump."
The Eagles sang once upon a time "Doolin Dalton," and we are sitting in Gruden's office at Paul Brown Stadium watching Andy Dalton's virtuoso solo act at his Pro Day on the campus of Texas Christian. "High or low, it was the same," is how Don Henley began the ode to the Dalton Gang, and that's what Gruden loves about his modern day triggerman that completed 70 percent of his passes this season.
He's always the same. Except he's rarely high or low.
"Watch where he starts to throw the ball," says Gruden, freezing the tape. "See where his arm is? He's starting to throw and the (receiver) hasn't even turned around yet. His back is to him. That's anticipation … he always gets the ball within the body framework."
Gruden is showing why he thinks Dalton is the best of the rookie quarterbacks for his version of the West Coast offense. He starts with one of the tapes that sold him. TCU's 45-10 home win over Baylor on Sept 18, 2010 when Dalton sifted the Bears on 21-of-23 passing for 267 yards and two touchdowns.
"I had to go back and look at this one because I didn't remember the ball hitting the ground," Gruden says. "Last time I checked, Baylor went to a bowl."
"What impresses me is the location of the throws. He gives his guy a chance to run after the catch," he says. "That's very important throwing to backs, throwing to (Jermaine) Gresham, throwing to A.J. Green. A big part of these guys' strength is the ability to run after the catch. This offense, if we do throw shorter passes, four, five yards, we're throwing it to a location so they can catch and run. I think this guy does the best job of anybody in the draft, in my opinion, of doing that. I'm not saying nobody else can't. I just thought he was the best one at it."
Gruden clicks to a play near midfield. TCU wide receiver Jeremy Kerley is running what Guden calls "a drag hook concept." Dalton starts to throw before Kerley begins to break down on the numbers at about the 42 and when he turns back at the 40 he's looking the ball into his hands and wriggling for some more.
"(Dalton) is reading the flat defender. The flat defender takes the drag, so he's going to fire it in here. He sees it already, he's made a decision and he's going to make an accurate, perfect timing throw. It's not that big a deal, but it is. Because now that guy can catch it and make a move on this cat and maybe get 10, 12 more yards after the catch because of his anticipation and accuracy. If he'd been a count late on this throw, he'd been tackled at the 40, 41-yard line. But since he gave it to him on time the receiver is able to turn his shoulders, make a move and get six more yards because of it. Yards are hard to come by in football nowadays.
Bring a couple of perceptions in and Gruden shoots them down like old Bill Dalton lining up whiskey bottles on the fence.
Arm strength? Dalton isn't supposed to have a big arm.
"It's so overrated, it's stupid," he says.
Gruden clicks to a snap early in the game from the Baylor 28. It's play-action, a West Coast staple. Kerley is to Dalton's left strafing his man on a go route and Dalton barely flips his wrist for an in-stride touchdown pass over the shoulder as Kerley crosses the goal line.
"He doesn't take a lot of effort to throw the deeper routes. It's not like he has to hitch and jump in the air to throw because his arm is weak," Gruden says. "This is 32, 35 yards and it's a dart. Watch how effortlessly he throws it. Play-action to his left, bam, he doesn't over-stride. It's a quick release. It's not like me. I'd have to hitch, wind up, and drop the ball down to my hip."
Gruden actually thought he might be backing up in Cincinnati when he came out of Louisville. Bengals head coach Sam Wyche worked him out, but the Bengals ended up taking Oregon State quarterback Erik Wilhelm in the third round back in 1989 and Gruden went undrafted and unsigned before becoming one of the great Arena League players of all time.
"I thought I had a good enough arm to be a backup, but that was 20 years ago. Who cares?" he asks.
Gruden cares when he's watching Dalton's Pro Day and sees him flinging a ball 59 yards in the air off a seven-step drop.
"This is what sold me on his arm strength," Gruden says. "I want you to watch his demeanor and his body while he's throwing it. There's no strain. That's 59 yards off play-action. Nothing. The body stays right there."
What Gruden also doesn't care about is the big deal being made about a quarterback making the transition from a college shotgun offense to taking the snap under center in the pros.
"I've seen him take a center snap. I've seen him do it. He does it five or six times in this game," he says. "TCU does both. They were something like 75 to 25 percent. But they did both. We're going to do both. We'll be in shotgun some, too. Who knows what we're going to be?"
Gruden might just be playing with Pittsburgh and Baltimore there, but he's serious about this snap-under-center stuff. He clicks to a play where TCU is backed up and Dalton has two backs behind him while he hunches over center. This is why Gruden likes his mobility. Not great speed—4.8, 4.85 in the 40—but what Gruden calls "functional speed." Now Dalton is going to have to make a throw against his body on the run.
"Play-action. Rollout to his left and he's throwing a comeback," Gruden says of the sideline route. "He's moving the pocket left. Good speed coming out. He's got an idea where (the defender) is. He knows he might have to pull up. He does. Quick release. Accurate throw."
Gruden likes Dalton's ball-handling on play-action and how it doesn't alter his motion. Like this. He clicks to a snap where Dalton's play-fake has held the linebacker at the line and the tight end is "sneaking behind him" just over the middle.
"He puts it right over that linebacker," Gruden says. "He doesn't lob it. He puts enough zip on it where (the safety) doesn't destroy the guy, so now he catches it, gets his head around so he can make a move. And he does and we get a block … ."
Dalton is "only" 6-2, but Gruden knows that is an inch and a half taller than Drew Brees. He looks at him throwing in shorts on the Pro Day tape.
"He's thick. He's 218 and he's got a thick lower body," Gruden says, rapping his first on his desk. "You never know with injuries, but he's built to withstand hits."
Gruden's favorite play of Dalton's tape comes off play-action and it didn't even count because of a holding call that wiped out a touchdown. But the fact he hung in the pocket and unloaded about a 30-yard TD pass to tight end Logan Brock caught the eye.
"He sets up deep, looking deep to the flat. He get pressures in his face (from the right end), but the ball's in the air, throwing to a spot; because that's what he does," Gruden says. "Watch his feet. Look at how quickly he gets his feet under him. How quickly his head comes around. Bang. He sticks the back foot and look where he is. He's perfectly upright with an effortless throw under duress and he threw it early. He anticipates where (Brock) is. This is when I had to turn off the film and say, 'Really?' "
That's not the only time Dalton's tape stymied Gruden. The last score of the Baylor game, a nine-yard laser to Kerley, had Gruden muttering. Gruden says he had to go back six times to watch it because he wasn't sure who caught it as Dalton worked to his left side of the field.
"You talk about the ability to adjust and throw," Gruden says. "(Kerley) is supposed to run a flare and up to the back pylon, but (Dalton) sees the guy is playing soft. So he throws it on his back shoulder instead of throwing it to the pylon. That's what a lot of guys would do; hoping the guy will outrun him and (the defender) probably runs back and picks it off. He puts it on a dart right on his outside shoulder right at the front pylon. Seriously? He threw that hard. He has the ability change the trajectory of all his throws."
How many times did Gruden watch the seven quarterback candidates this spring? Try countless. Some had better arms. Some were better athletes. Most were bigger. But it all came back to Dalton and throws like this little six-yarder: Dalton is working off a play-action fake and suddenly he needs to deliver the ball underneath before the defender gives his buddy help.
"But watch how quickly he gets the ball out on the hitch," Gruden says. "He sees the coverage. Now he quickly gets it out. Watch his foot. He sticks the back foot. He knows it. Bam and he gets it out of there. It's only a six-yard completion. But the quickness of it. You see the delivery. Bang. You know what I mean?"
He's not saying the other QBs can't get that ball there. But they might have strained or had too long of a stride or thrown it into the ocean. But this is Doolin Dalton. Like the song says, "Always the same."
Gruden is looking at the Pro Day tape. He wants to see Dalton's drops. Dalton is doing the self-snap and he's dropping three, five and seven steps. Just like the Baylor game. You can count his misses on your ring fingers.
"Seam post to the left; one of the hardest throws in football," Gruden says. "Quick five-step, plant, let it go. See the arm? The ball's here and the receiver hasn't found it yet. There it is … thanks."
A few clicks later the session ends. Gruden punches the computer calling up the next subject. He's kind of running the seam post. He hasn't seen it yet. But he thinks he's found an NFL quarterback. Maybe he'll be saying the same thing.