These camps no passing fancy

Brandon Tate

You can look at it this way:

After rookie wide receiver A.J. Green's 51-yard snatch-and-grab beat Cleveland in the last two minutes on Nov. 27, the Bengals passing game collapsed down the stretch with rookie quarterback Andy Dalton throwing just four touchdown passes in the last six games he averaged less than six yards per pass.

Or, you can look at it this way:

Green put up rookie numbers his fellow Pro Bowl receivers can't touch and Dalton accomplished things a rookie quarterback never did in history without the benefit of the most basic football rite:

The passing camp.

In fact, once Andre Caldwell went down with a sports hernia, the Bengals played the last four games with basically all first-year full-time receivers who had no work in offensive coordinator Jay Gruden's offense until the first day of training camp.

And it is the execution of the West Coast's timing and rhythm that the Bengals believe are Dalton's biggest attributes. Which is why receivers coach James Urban is walking around with a smile these days knowing he'll see his guys starting April 16 instead of July 30.

"We need to get better and that comes from repetition in the offense," Urban said this week. "It's going to be a great offseason because we're going back to the bare bones teaching things from square one and building it up again. We'll be that much better."

Of course, who is going to be Green's running mate at the No. 2 receiver in the May drills is as unknown as the lockout and quarterback were last year. Not as daunting as 2011 for sure but, still, incumbent Jerome Simpson and his primary backup, Caldwell, are free agents with even bigger questions looming. Simpson has off-field issues and Caldwell is coming off surgery.

In three months the club is going to have a better idea where it stands with those two, but until then the Bengals will canvas the college prospects as well as eye veteran free agents. They won't be hopping out in the first few weeks of free agency to pay a No. 2 receiver No. 1 money, but by April 16 the Bengals may have their eyes on a serviceable veteran before the April 26-28 draft.

Then there are the all-important voluntary camps in May and June that Dalton and Green and Urban and Gruden never had. And there are names already here that very well could flash in those workouts, such as Brandon Tate and Armon Binns.

"A lot of people call them passing camps. That's what you're doing; you're throwing the ball. You can't bang bodies," Urban said.

"The strengths of Andy's skill sets are rare. The anticipation and timing and the speed he can get the ball out of his hand. When you have a quarterback with that skill, you need predictability and reliability. We need to be accountable. If the wide receiver's depth is 12 yards, then we have to be at 12 yards because that's what the quarterback is anticipating."

It all starts with Green. Urban has already talked with him about his regimen and he's excited about an offseason that is going to see Green working with Lions Pro Bowler Calvin Johnson in Atlanta and Cardinals Pro Bowler Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona. When Green gets back in April, Urban says "we'll be looking at how defenses stop Pro Bowl receivers."

They got a pretty good idea in the last month. After Green sprained his shoulder in St. Louis Dec. 18 during a 115-yard game, he had 98 yards receiving in the final three games in which eight of his nine catches went for less than 21 yards.

Urban says it was a little bit of everything. The shoulder. The top five defenses. The coverages that were tilted to him.

"We saw some of it late in the year. Against Houston they rolled the coverage," Urban said of the playoff game. "The next step is you have to understand it's just not me one-on-one, it's 'How do I run the routes against that type of coverage?' That's the next step. But it doesn't show up in the stats. A.J. still made some big plays later in the year. He got some big pass-interference calls. He got a huge play for us in Houston (52-yard penalty) and to me that's a catch. It's that aggressive mentality we have to have."

Green is on track to become one of this decade's dominant receivers. He became the first rookie receiver in five years with 1,000 receiving yards and the first one to make the Pro Bowl in eight. While he works on getting off the line of scrimmage and getting tips from the greats on how to beat the gimmick defenses, the Bengals work on getting him some help.

Urban isn't ready to close the book on Simpson and Caldwell. He reminds everyone that until Simpson caught 50 balls for a 14.5-yard average and four touchdowns this season, he had dressed for 13 games in the three previous seasons.

Urban wonders what could be coming with a passing camp in a season Simpson wouldn't have to learn the playbook. Although his knock is that he has trouble taking the Xs and Os to the field, Urban feels the only thing Simpson is lacking is consistency.

"He'll tell you that. Jerome worked hard at it," Urban said. "He did some spectacular, dynamic things for us. I don't think it was a lack of knowing what to do. I think he's got a pretty good grasp of what he's supposed to do. It's just always doing it the way we need it done, how we want it done."

Urban can't say enough about the three slot guys under contract in Andrew Hawkins, Ryan Whalen and Jordan Shipley. With Shipley going down in the second game with an ACL injury, the rookies Hawkins and Whalen have more snaps in the system than the highly-regarded Shipley, and Urban says, "Those three guys are as solid as it gets."

But it is hard seeing any of them as consistent down-to-down threats on the other side of Green. They'll get their shots in May and June, as will the interesting pair of Tate and Binns.

The 6-1, 195-pound Tate averaged 18 yards per his 24 catches in New England in 2010, but when he arrived off the waiver wire last season it was four days before the opener and he was immediately given both return duties.

"He was just kind of thrown into the mix and we were trying to get A.J. and Andy and the rest settled into a new offense," Urban said. "I'm excited about his offseason, once he truly learns the offense and a couple of different positions. Then let his natural talent take over and see if he can't help us. He played a lot of football for the Patriots two years ago."

But it is the 6-3, 210-pound Binns that has the Bengals intrigued after a rookie year he steadily improved once he signed to the practice squad Sept. 20. While the Bengals were preparing for Fitzgerald and Houston's Andre Johnson late in the seasons, Binns gave the offense an eyeful playing the role as the scout team's big receiver. His practices got him promoted to the active roster for the last two games in place of Caldwell.

"The big thing is that Armon has embraced everything we've thrown at him," Urban said. "He puts in extra time in the weight room and the study room and he stays late on the field. He seems to be a pretty instinctive player. He runs good deep routes with double moves where he looks impressive. He can track the ball."

Urban's not ready to put him or Tate in the starting lineup yet because they basically just got here. But what the club has seen is encouraging. For instance, Binns has barely run plays from scrimmage.

Urban says he has done very little of "lining up in our huddle, heard our call, broken the huddle and lined up and run our play."

But Binns has lit it up when working off the cards of the scout team against the first-team defense and in those few periods a week devoted to the younger players.

"Coach (Marvin) Lewis does a tremendous job of developing the younger guys in a couple of periods each week," Urban said. "It's where our developmental guys are put in position to run our plays against our developmental defensive guys and in those situations he's shined."

Which means, it all gets back to the passing camps.

"We're not talking rocket science," Urban said. "These are things they've been doing all their lives. But they haven't done it with our quarterback and the timing of our offense and how we want it run."

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