When Bengals rookie wide receiver Ryan Whalen is expected to make his NFL debut in Sunday's game against the 49ers at Paul Brown Stadium (1 p.m.-ESPM 1530), the West Coast offense truly comes full circle.
Rookie 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh coached Whalen at Stanford last year. When he quarterbacked the Colts into the 1995 AFC title game, Harbaugh's offensive coordinator was the same Lindy Infante that was the Bengals quarterbacks and receivers coach when quarterback Ken Anderson was NFL MVP in 1981.
So while Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden doesn't have the exact blueprint of yesteryear, suffice to say Whalen is on the same page. Whalen's development has been accelerated by the similarity of Gruden's offense and the one Whalen played in at Stanford. West Coast all the way around as Whalen immediately has jumped into all three spots with the emphasis on the slot.
"While some terminology changes, a lot of the formations, protections, even route names are the same," Whalen said before Thursday's practice. "There's kind of a network of people, coaches that have learned from each other. I think a lot of the coaches we had at Stanford and some coaches here probably learned from the same people."
Gruden isn't sure of much except that he's got plenty of brainpower and moxie at wide receiver on the bench but zilch when it comes to NFL experience.
Whalen romped at the last Orange Bowl and Andrew Hawkins has two CFL rings, but both may be dressing for the first time at an NFL game Sunday. Slot receiver Jordan Shipley is out for the year with an ACL injury and starter Jerome Simpson's status for at least Sunday is in doubt as the subject of a drug investigation.
And, just for the heck of it, rookie starter A.J. Green surfaced on Thursday's injury report (toe) that limited him.
If Simpson is out, that would put Andre Caldwell's five NFL starts opposite Green's two with Whalen's debut in the slot. Brandon Tate, still learning the system after arriving here three weeks ago on waivers from New England, is an outside receiver.
Whether the Bengals would activate Hawkins or just go with four receivers remains to be seen if Simpson can't go. After all, the Broncos beat the Bengals with just two receivers last week that came into the game with a combined 22 NFL games. But Green's toe could make the Bengals put all five wideouts active.
"Someone is going to be there. Someone is going to have to step up," Gruden said after Thursday's practice as he deals with Shipley's injury.
Even before Simpson's status became cloudy, Whalen had already moved up into the pecking order. Now the 6-1, 202-pounder, the sixth-round pick from Stanford whose grade point average of 3.5 is the same as Shipley's yards per catch on just four balls this season, is poised. Which is why Gruden isn't too concerned that Whalen has a bead on his playbook.
"Hey, I'm having trouble with (my son's) homework at Moeller," joked Gruden. "I would say it's (easy) for him."
Whalen, who got his degree in science technology and society, gets it. He's coming into an extremely tough position.
"We have guys that we believe in here. We have the quarterback and the offensive line and the running back and guys like Andre Caldwell and A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham," Whalen said. "It's unfortunate for guys like Jordan and whatever happens to Jerome, we're going to support them through it and we're going to keep working to get better as a team because this is who we've got."
Whalen, who turned 22 the day the lockout ended, didn't benefit from OTAs but he's hustled into the mix with a style that has people talking about the savvy moves and sticky hands of T.J. Houshmandzadeh, a seventh-round pick, by the way. He doesn't mind it when people only refer to him as smart and handy and don't mention that he's got decent speed.
"You just use your actions that are going to speak louder than what they say," he said. "Just using it as motivation and I think part of that is that Stanford, the program there is continuing to be on the rise and I think that's starting to dispel some myths that people have about just a bunch of nerds over there that can't play football."
Harbaugh and Whalen came to Stanford together in 2007 and Harbaugh sold him hard enough that Whalen opted to pretty much stay home. His hometown is Alamo, Calif., in the East Bay region of San Francisco Bay, and he was looking at the Ivy League, the service academies, Cal and Oregon. He heard from Harvard and actually visited Yale and Princeton.
But Harbaugh got him.
"The combination of athletics and academics, the Pac 10, the guys on the team and the way everyone got along," Whalen said. "I spent some time with Coach Harbaugh and liked his vision for the program, and I felt like I had an opportunity to play. I felt like you couldn't make a bad decision going to Stanford."
So he and Harbaugh ended up going to the NFL together. It only took them three games to hook up. Whalen knows what is going to make the 49ers tick.
"His energy, his enthusiasm, and his knowledge of just playing in the NFL," he said. "He changed the culture at Stanford. He took a program that was 1-11 and made it physical with a tough mindset and that's what he's doing in San Francisco."
They last met at the NFL scouting combine in February a hectic month after Harbaugh took the job and counseled Whalen some but kept it friendly.
"We just kind of caught up. We had a good relationship," Whalen said. "I hope to catch up with him Sunday. Maybe in warmups."
Harbaugh will no doubt recognize the drills.
Tate isn't as fortunate as Whalen since the Pats playbook is so different. But Gruden is anxious to see his speed on the outside.
"Hopefully he'll get some time this week," Gruden said. "He's very explosive, no question about it. He's a big-play threat but he has to get caught up mentally."
With the Bengals threatening to be short at receiver, they need to get a big game from Gresham, their big, athletic tight end that can split out. But Gruden indicated he doesn't want to rush putting him in a lot of new spots.
"It's only Jermaine's second year here, (my) first year here. I think the more familiar he gets with the terminology the more we'll be able to move him around," Gruden said. "Obviously he has the ability to line up in different places. It's a matter of getting him to feel comfortable to run a route according to where he's lined up. We're slowly but surely getting to that point."