Two-minute drill

Jay Gruden

Quarterback Day has turned into Quarterback Week at Paul Brown Stadium with the Bengals starting on a latter-day version of the Carson Palmer-Jon Kitna management team.

A day after they said goodbye to Carson Palmer at a red-hot controversial retirement announcement, they moved closer to a Friday signing with veteran free agent Bruce Gradkowski while presumed training camp starter Andy Dalton spent his second straight day closeted with offensive coordinator Jay Gruden and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese.

"I've been married two weeks and now I go to camp," said Dalton after taking a break with a game of catch with the other quarterbacks. "It's going fast, but it's good to get into the football end of it."

Now Dalton is wedded to Gruden after two days of nuptials. He stepped off the plane Tuesday at noon, met with Gruden at 6 p.m. and then dined with quarterback Jordan Palmer at the Rock Bottom Brewery. He was back in the office at 8 a.m. Wednesday, joined Palmer and the other quarterback, Dan LeFevour, for a lunch-time drive to Cobblestone Café in Fort Thomas, Ky., before throwing the ball around and heading back to the offices.

Before Tuesday, it had been like connect the dots without the dots. Dalton had the plays, but no coach.

"Anytime you just get a playbook with no explanation behind it, you're going to have a lot of questions," Dalton said. "It's been nice to have Jordan and Dan around to help me with some of the things I might not know."

With Gradkowski nearing a signed deal, Gruden was thinking Wednesday about what he might have with his old quarterback from the Buccaneers days teamed with his second-round draft pick.

"The one thing I don't have to worry about with both guys is not being prepared," Gruden said. "They're always going to be ready to go and I know they both love football. That's important."

Except for that annoying little thing known as the 136-day lockout, Gruden's first 174 days as offensive coordinator have been pretty good. He got his No. 1 rated quarterback with the 35th pick, dictating that the Bengals would opt for a veteran backup/spot starter to help groom Dalton. Gruden's top guy on that list was easy. The 28-year-old Gradkowski is so tough that he makes Gruden wince and, not only that, is a football PhD well-versed in Gruden's West Coast offense.

"Sometimes," Gruden said, "he's too tough for his own good."

The intangibles are better than the numbers and that's OK for Gruden. He's not looking for Carson Palmer. The guy that has to do that is Dalton. Gruden is looking for his Kitna. Solid in the locker room. Bright with the offense. Mentor for the kid. And can win a game if need be.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis knows that firsthand after Gradkowski dealt him two of his toughest losses in Cincinnati.

After the officials stole a sack, fumble and 13-7 win from right end Justin Smith with 2:45 left in Tampa Bay in 2006 on a phantom roughing the passer call, the rookie Gradkowski stood back up and uncorked an eight-yard TD pass to Michael Clayton on fourth-and-three with 35 seconds left to lift the winless Bucs, 14-13. It will be recalled the 8-8 Bengals missed the playoffs by a game.

Then two years ago the 7-2 Bengals rolled into Oakland against the 2-7 Raiders and Gradkowski engineered drives at the end of the half and game for the two touchdowns the Raiders needed to erase a 14-0 hole, the last a tying 29-yarder to Louis Murphy with 33 seconds left. A win in Oakland would have gone a long way in locking up a playoff bye.

And, two weeks later Gradkowski went to his hometown of Pittsburgh and threw for 308 yards and three touchdowns to beat the Steelers on another late throw to Murphy.

"With Bruce you know you're getting the ultimate competitor," Gruden said. "You know he's going to be reliable and mentally tough and ready to go every week. I think he's a great role model (for Dalton). He knows how it's done and how to prepare for whatever his role is. Starting, backing up. He was thrown into the fire at a young age in Tampa. He performed well. We didn't have a great record, but he performed well. He's won some big games."

But the Bengals are not courting Gradkowski because of his 6-14 record, 65.9 career passer rating, and 5.7 career yards per attempt. It's knowing the system, having the personality to mesh with Dalton, and managing games when called upon. It has sounded like Dalton is the training camp starter, but Gruden has emphasized the Opening Day starter might not be the same guy.

"The way I'm going into it is it's going to be a competition and the best guy is going to start," Dalton said after being greeted with the banner headlines of Palmer's retirement. "There's been a lot said about it and now that the decision has been made there's a great opportunity here."

While Gradkowski can help the other quarterbacks with the system, Dalton can rely a little bit on the TCU playbook.

"The concepts are similar to what I did in college," he said. "There's the same way of calling plays with obviously all new terminology."

These are the first two days Gruden has been able to teach his draft pick. Dalton came in the day after he was drafted, but the lockout was still on and the club couldn't talk football with him. Now Gruden is drenching him.

"He's a bright guy. You challenge on some things he may not know and the next day he damn sure is going to know them," Gruden said. "I can tell already he competes in that regard. And he likes to know everything. And that good because a better quarterback better know everything.

"We've got a long way to go. We've had 24 hours. We've had a lot of good meeting time introducing the terminology and the protections. Once we get on the field it will be a different animal."

Gruden, the former Louisville quarterback, was caught seeing how his arm felt Wednesday. With league rules stipulating an unrestricted or restricted free agent can't practice until the NFL Players Association recertifies on or about Aug. 4, Gradkowski (if he signs) and Palmer, a restricted free agent, leave just Dalton and LeFevour for the first few days of camp.

"I'm ready," Gruden said.

Or not.

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