Camp Normalcy keeps getting closer to its first snap.
Joe Burrow led the Bengals quarterbacks into Paul Brown Stadium Saturday, along with the rookies and injured players, to start off training camp. On Tuesday everybody else reports and on Wednesday the Bengals take the field for the first time in front of fans since 2019. The Return to Normalcy is capped in Saturday's "Back Together," workout in the stadium.
It is also Burrow's first regular NFL training camp. The league's first draft pick of the 2020s got a truncated one in the 2020 pandemic and he was rehabbing in 2021 before having the greatest season a Bengals quarterback ever had while becoming one of the faces of the sport.
So asking what he can do for an encore after leading the Bengals to the Super Bowl with the NFL's highest completion percentage and longest yards per pass is a little like asking what can Jon Batiste do after sweeping the Grammys.
Which is what offensive coordinator Brian Callahan wants him to do. With a few tweaks, though. One of the things they're looking at this camp is all parts of the offense contributing to cutting down sacks and hits on The Franchise.
And they're walking a line because Burrow is so good at making big plays out of thin air.
"And not that we'd ever want to change the way he plays football," Callahan said at Monday's media luncheon. "But there are definitely things that we've looked at that you could take five, six, seven, eight (sacks) of those off from some decision-making things on early downs.
"The sack thing is legitimate. And there's some things that he can do to help that. You know, there's time and a place to extend a play, there's a time and a place to throw the ball away or to take a check down or what have you. So it's hard to sit here and be like, 'Hey, this is exactly what you got to do.' Every down and distance is different … But there are moments where he could help take some of the heat off of himself and take a few hits off."
_Callahan doesn't see the new right side of his offensive line out for long. Right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La'el Collins (celebrating his 29th birthday Tuesday) are on active/injured lists that they can come off at any time.
"Optimistic they'll be ready to go when it's time to go whether that's next week or three weeks," Callahan said. "They'll be ready to play before the start of the season."
Along with center Ted Karras, Callahan says the new guys are going to show up the most in the efficiency of the running game. And, he hopes, on short yardage, because that's what really has stuck in his craw this offseason.
This is what Callahan told Bengals.com last month:
"Look at the statistics on it and I think we were fifth in total short yardage attempts. We had like 50 tries on third-and-one and fourth-and-one. But we were 25th in conversion. Whatever we were doing on first and second down, we were efficient. We were in short yardage a lot more than most, but we're just not finishing off drives.
"Definitely points of emphasis. Sometimes short yardage is as simple as we're going to beat the guy across from us. Very simplistic football and sometimes we have to do a better job as coaches and being able to scheme against these heavy and tight fronts and big bodies. We definitely need to improve there."
Callahan reiterated that third-and-one and fourth-and-one frustration on Monday:
"It would keep a lot more of those drives alive and give us a few more cracks in the red zone as well, swings at the plate, if you will, to get a couple more chances to score … It always helps to have better players across the board. You put Cappa and LC next to each other, that's pretty good. Those are the things that help get a yard or the yards necessary. It's going to help."
_If the offense has any questions besides who is going to line up Wednesday in place of Collins at right tackle (Isaiah Prince or D'Ante Smith) and if Jackson Carman is going to fend off rookie Cordell Volson at left guard, it is what they do at fourth and fifth receiver. Stanley Morgan and Mike Thomas don't have glittering receiving numbers. But the coaches covet them for their work on special teams and dependability in the offense.
"We all love Stanley in our coaching staff and in our locker room. It's Stanley's mentality; it's his toughness; it's his unselfishness," Callahan said. "He does everything a thousand miles an hour. The reps he got this offseason were helpful for him to really refine his receiving ability, his route running, his knowledge of the system.
"Mike's been really a consistent player for us. He knows the system. He's productive when he's had chances and he does a really good job for Darrin (Simmons). Those guys are fun to watch. I think that competition is going to be fun to watch as well on who emerges in that fourth, fifth and sixth spot for us."
That's the thing. If the Bengals go get a more productive receiver off waivers or in a trade and dress him on a Sunday they don't have one of the Big Three, that takes away a key player for special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons.
_Speaking of Simmons, the longest-tenured special teams coordinator in the NFL going into his 20th season in Cincinnati, he's been saying the streamlined spring doesn't give him a great feel for the roster.
He told Bengals.com last month, "Something like that, you really don't see it until the preseason games when you're going against other teams. We'll certainly have plenty of time in training camp to get a handle on the young guys and hone the skills of the veterans. The OTAs are for self-improvement. Training camp is for competition and working on the team concepts."
Simmons, a major reason the Bengals have been to the playoffs eight times in the last 18 seasons with three different quarterbacks, broke it down Monday.
"I don't have as good a feel this year as I've had in the past. It's probably due to lack of practice time. We didn't practice as much in OTAs," Simmons said. So certainly the younger players I don't have a feel for. It's going to be difficult, frankly, for some of these young guys to crack in there. We have a lot of veteran players coming back. There's a certain level of confidence and comfort you have with those guys that are returning because I know what to expect from them. We played in the biggest game with those guys so there's a high degree of confidence that comes with that."
_Reports have free safety Jessie Bates III not reporting Tuesday, but his coaches said Monday when he does show they expect he'll be ready to play. Head coach Zac Taylor called him "a great leader, a great player," but he's also getting first-round pick Dax Hill ready for starting snaps.
On July 26, it looks like the Bengals were drafting with the Bates situation in mind. But truth be told, they never thought Hill would be there with the next-to-last pick of the round. Actually, they were looking at a few edge players as names flew off the board.
"Maybe a little different than you have been, so you're dependent upon the other teams kind of leaving guys alone that might fit you and what you like," said director of player personnel Duke Tobin on Monday of drafting so late.
"It's hard down there to predict exactly what's going to be there. When we got there and Dax was still there we were really happy. We thought he hit a need, because we needed to add to the secondary a little bit, get some youth there. We needed versatility and we thought he'd really fit the versatility piece."
_Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo says that versatility piece won't include backing up cornerback Mike Hilton in the slot, but he indicated he'll be moving around back there once Bates gets in.
Anarumo is looking for all defensive backs to replicate what went on in the postseason, when they had five of the club's eight interceptions. He says that playoff turnover margin of plus-seven and holding teams to 20 points per game are two things he wants to continue.
"If we can do that throughout the season, it's going to be that much better for us," Anarumo said. "We want to keep the run defense where it was. People get caught up in numbers. We were ahead in a lot of games, so there's a lot of games where I could care less about yards. It's never about yards. Keep points off the board, play good in situational football because yards can get skewed.
"Go back to the first Ravens game. At the end of the game they're gaining chunk yards. I don't care. It doesn't matter. It's about points. Keeping the points in a good spot and continuing the turnover part would be great."