Andy Dalton directs the offense during Tuesday's opening OTA session.
James Harrison made his Bengals debut Tuesday with a chip on his shoulder that is supposedly as big as Pittsburgh.
Yet his new quarterback may have an even bigger chip after an offseason of taking the heat of back-to-back Wild Card losses. Andy Dalton's chip looks to measure the breadth of the first round of the 2011 draft.
"I'm just a second-round quarterback," Dalton said with a smile Tuesday, shrugging off the chip with the same reassuring calm that has marked his first two seasons as the Bengals franchise quarterback.
He's rung up 19 victories in those two seasons, which is more than three of the last four quarterbacks elected to the Hall of Fame (Troy Aikman, Steve Young, John Elway) won in their first two seasons as regular starters. It is also more than Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. The same as Eli Manning. And one fewer than Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.
That said, Dalton met the issue head on after the Bengals unwrapped his toys for a shiny new and improved offense during an energetic first voluntary practice of the spring on the grass fields at Paul Brown Stadium.
And offensive coordinator Jay Gruden supplied more gifts than RGIII's registry with what Dalton called a huge installation period for Day One that reflected the staff's comfort level with its players' grasp of the playbook.
"The way we finished the playoff game, no one wanted to end that way. There's been criticism. Everybody can say what they want," Dalton said. "It's a big year for me. It's a big year for this offense … we've got everybody back on offense, a solid defense. We've added some guys. We've got everything in front of us. Now it's just time to go do it.
"Everything we want is ahead of us. I'm sure a lot of people are saying that right now. A lot of people made moves in the offseason. We didn't have very many moves. We've got everybody back and with that it's time to go prove the doubters wrong and prove to the people that have confidence in us, that's what we're going to go do."
Dalton exuded that confidence Tuesday, at least according to right guard Kevin Zeitler. Dalton's hope is that with everyone now familiar with the offense, there is no reason to be bogged down "and everyone can just go out and play and have fun."
It's just one practice, but the receivers—even the incomparable A.J. Green—looked a year faster and wiser, and Dalton pumped the deep ball pretty well.
"He was running around like a crazy person today. I think he was just excited about getting going and messing around with his new weapons," Zeitler said. "He had a lot of energy today. I think Andy always has been like that, but maybe because it hasn't been for a while I just noticed it. It made me want to run down the field every play."
Wide receiver Andrew Hawkins noticed it, too. He arrived with Dalton and two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green two years ago and everything now seems easier and more natural.
Dalton admits he's spending more time working with his receivers and talking more to his other teammates simply because he has the time and confidence after two years of transition.
In the wake of his rookie year, last season Dalton had to deal with four different starters opposite Green, a new running back, and a new interior in the offensive line. On Tuesday, he surveyed a huddle that either had a returning skill player or had rookie tight end Tyler Eifert and rookie Giovani Bernard, two fleet receivers he could have used last year.
And yet, last year wasn't a natural disaster on the offensive side of the ball. The Bengals finished middle of the pack (18th rushing, 17th passing) despite all those sophomore challenges.
"I think he's excited about what we have. We're all excited about that. And we're excited about him," Hawkins said. "I just think he's ready to get this thing on the road. We've got a lot of weapons and if we put the work in that we need to put in, the sky's the limit."
All four quarterbacks put in extra work Tuesday after practice. Veteran wide receivers Brandon Tate, Ryan Whalen and rookies Cobi Hamilton and Tyrone Goard stayed behind to work on the deep ball, and Dalton floated one to Tate in stride.
If the pundits are having a hard time getting behind Dalton in a consensus, he has no such problem in the locker room, where his teammates are convinced of his winning ways.
"Give me names," Hawkins asked of the critics. "I'm sure he doesn't pay attention to that stuff."
"It's all about a comfort level once you're in Year 3. I feel like this is his team and he knows it his team, so all he has to do is go out there and play," Green said. "He never had a hump to get over. I feel like he's good, he's fine. There's been a lot thrown at him, but he's the type of guy that can handle this stuff."
Dalton admits it's easier in Year 3 to approach his mates because he's got such a better handle on his own job and the offense.
"I said this last year: it's not worrying about what the next play is going to be. I can take my time," Dalton said. "It all comes down to the quarterback. The quarterback is running the show. If I need to say something to them about a route, if I need to say anything to them, I've got the time to give them a tip, and with our guys that doesn't take much because they understand.
"I keep saying the same thing. It's just trying to make sure everybody is on the same page. You can tell a guy on a route, 'Don't fade,' or 'Hey, stay flatter.' I try to keep everybody up to par on the hand signals … everybody's a year older. We should be more experienced and better."
Hawkins thinks Dalton's role is easier now because there is so much familiarity on offense. Instead of learning the splits and where they went to college, they're shooting baskets during lunch or talking about the NBA playoffs.
"We're not teammates this year, we're friends and I think that translates to the field," Hawkins said. "It's easier for him to say, 'Hey Hawk, give me a few more yards on that route,' or 'Hey Mo, come in a step.'"
But maybe the biggest sign Tuesday at how far this offense has come since not scoring a TD in its last two elimination games is how much of it Gruden put in for the first workout.
"We've got a veteran offense and a lot of guys back so with us having a huge install today we were able to do that because they already know the offense," Dalton said. "There's not a whole lot of teaching and getting used to new guys in there. We've got a nice core group here. Now it's just perfecting the little things."
Gruden threw enough formations out there that for the first time in a May of the Zimmer era it almost seemed liked the offense was ahead of the defense. Green said he never lined up in so many places during one practice. It looks like tight end Orson Charles is going to get a serious shot at playing some fullback, since he lined up in the backfield a few times as well as at tight end. An observer checked with Hawkins, a slot receiver, to make sure that he saw Hawkins split wide while Eifert lined up in the slot.
"I'm sure you did," Hawkins said. "The thing about our offense is we can plug guys anywhere. Our (receivers) play every single position."
One of those little things is a very big thing and it is the deep ball. The deep ball that Dalton overthrew Green in the final three minutes of the Wild Card playoff game when a completion would have extended the season. And the deep ball that Dalton couldn't find very often down the stretch, when he didn't complete a pass longer than 25 yards in the month of December.
"It's just not Andy; it's me, too," Green said. "I can run them better. Give him a better target to throw the ball. It's on my part, too. We're both going to get better each practice. That's the big focal point coming into OTAs."
How big? When Green lined up against cornerback Terence Newman for the first one-on-one drill pitting the receivers vs. the cornerbacks, wide receivers coach James Urban checked in.
"Urb came up to me and said you already know what the route is, so I knew it was going to be a go ball," Dalton said of simple run and gun deep. "Had to set the tone for how it's going to be."
Green did his part racing by Newman and Dalton did his by lofting it high enough so that Green was able to adjust and come back ever so slightly for it. Earlier in the team drills, Dalton hit wide receiver Marvin Jones in stride streaking past cornerback Adam Jones and safety Taylor Mays off play-action.
"We had a nice deep route and with the action we had he beat Pacman, which is nice, and I was able to lay it up over the top. When you hit those on these first days it kind of sets the tone of how these OTAs are going to be," said Dalton, who has been working with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese for the past month on his deep-ball footwork.
"I think it's quickening up the drop or throwing the ball a little higher on different throws and things like that. With the time that we've had with the phase before this one getting into OTAs we've put in some work and I definitely see an improvement."
That's not the only thing Dalton sees in a familiar huddle.
"There's been a lot of focus on making sure everybody is doing the right thing at the right time, all this kind of stuff," he said. "Now it's just go out and have fun. We're playing a game that a lot of people want to play, but not a lot of people can do. We've got to enjoy it out there and just have fun with it. I think that's the biggest thing and it will work for us."