Updated: 8:40 p.m.
INDIANAPOLIS - When new Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden ran offenses and teams in the UFL, one of the other teams once drafted a dead guy. So it is with great enthusiasm that Gruden's first assignment as an NFL coordinator is to help the Bengals decide if quarterbacks Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert are worthy enough to pump life back into the franchise.
"They say you never go to a grocery store hungry. It's a lot like that here. I'm starving and I'd love to get all these guys signed up," Gruden said Saturday after the offensive line worked out here at the NFL scouting combine. "Because you're looking at great players at every position. As soon as you see a quarterback, you say, 'I'd love to take him.' All of a sudden here comes A.J. Green. 'Have to take him.' Or a right tackle. 'Oh my God. We could use that.' "
But the Bengals are clearly shopping in the quarterback aisle in the wake of Carson Palmer's trade request/plea/demand. Boss Marvin Lewis is proceeding as if Palmer isn't going to be here.
Newton, the Auburn Heisman Trophy winner, won the first showdown of the combine's top quarterback prospects Saturday in dueling news conferences with Arkansas' Ryan Mallett.
The competition continues Saturday night in interviews with the teams, when the Bengals are one of the teams scheduled to meet with the top quarterback prospects before Sunday's workout at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Bengals are interested enough that it is believed club president Mike Brown is sitting in on some of the 15-minute interviews with prospects.
At his news conference the smooth, well-rehearsed, third-person-invoking Newton read from a statement in which he backed off from last week's comments that he wanted to be an entertainer as well as an icon. Meanwhile, in what one media member described as a "train wreck," reports said Mallett refused to address questions about his alleged off-field problems several times before abruptly ending his session.
"Shoot, we might not take a quarterback in the first five rounds, who knows?" Gruden asked. "We might have some revelation by draft day or somebody else might put furniture back in their house, I don't know."
But Gruden is moving into the notion that the Bengals could be close to doing what he and his brother never did during head coach Jon Gruden's seven seasons in Tampa: Take a quarterback before the third round.
"That's one thing if Jon could go back and do over. I don't think we had a lot of money to get a free-agent guy. If he could go back in time he'd try to draft a young stud and develop him," Jay Gruden said. "Get a Matt Ryan and an Aaron Rodgers and build around him. Now those teams don't have to draft that. They can go linemen and receivers and get stronger and stronger. If you don't have that you might have to go two or three draft picks or two or three free agents before you find him."
Gruden is already thinking young at quarterback, which is why he chatted with running back Cedric Benson for about 90 minutes last week in his office before Benson goes on the free-agent market March 4 if a collective bargaining agreement is reached. Benson, irked by last year's abandonment of the run game, left the meeting avidly enthused and talking about how he told Gruden he'd win games for him in the fourth quarter.
"We had a good old time. He's a good guy. He wants to come back it seems like. It's all about the Benjamins now," Gruden said. "I don't know what he's going to get. That's between him and his agent. But I like what he does with the ball.
"We also have to be realistic about where he'll go. Where would you go? To Sports Illustrated for $1 million or to the Las Vegas Sun for $400,000 even though you love Las Vegas? Running backs' careers, we all know they're (short). I would love to have him back. He's the type of guy who wants to do well, he wants to succeed and I think he's a good guy to build your offense around right now with the young quarterback. And that's what we need; a physical back we can hand the ball to 20 to 25 times a game if we need to; if we have the young quarterback."
The top two quarterbacks that figure to be worthy of that fourth pick are Newton and Missouri's Gabbert. They both have their knocks. Newton has off-field baggage and comes from a very un-pro offense. Gabbert comes out of a five-receiver spread and flings it sidearm.
But that's not the first thing Gruden is looking for when they work out Sunday.
"I want to know if he can lead our team and has any type of charisma," Gruden said of trait he displays himself so he knows it. "Is he a boring guy in the huddle mumbling? I want a guy who can speak up and people can rally around; that's half the battle right there. You have to at least sell that you're good and you believe that the play can work even though it may not. You have to at least make other people believe in you. That's the most important thing. Whether or not he is reading the same way I would teach read is not important as long as he has a general idea about defenses and progressions, which 90 percent can do. I want to see their charisma and leadership skills and how they communicate."
So Newton is a no-brainer in the charisma department. He passes Gruden's test on that already. What he wants to see from Newton is what he's asked to do in the offense and how. First, because Gruden wants to see how Newton is mentally with the pass game. Second, because he wants to steal some of it because he finds it so intriguing.
As for Gabbert, who isn't throwing Sunday, Gruden said, "I'm more interested in his workout and at his pro days seeing him throw."
Gruden admits he's "a quarterback freak." He loves to study them, he loves to watch them. His favorite of all-time is Joe Montana.
"My dad coached him at Notre Dame (running backs) when he was there," Gruden said. "Then my dad was with the 49ers and I emulated myself, footwork and all that, as Joe. Now I could watch Tom Brady any day of the week. Peyton Manning, those guys. (Drew) Brees. I just like watching great quarterback play."
But he admits the tape evaluation process is a lot tougher than it was nine years ago during his first combine with the Bucs because of the advent of the spread offense in the college game. Both Newton and Gabbert qualify. The next tier looks to be Mallett and Washington's Jake Locker. Gruden says Mallett had some forms of pro offense because of Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino's short stay with the Falcons, but the Washington scheme is similar to the Bengals West Coast style.
"These spread offenses are zone reads and all this stuff," Gruden said. "You take a guy like Newton and if you do go that route you should implement some of that into your game. We would have to adjust our game to fit some of these guys coming out strengths. The other guys like Gabbert are spread guys. You don't see the real throws and progressions and concepts that you do on Sunday."
Newton is getting on the nerves of the media with his incessant use of the third person, but Gruden will visit Auburn in the first person when Newton has his pro day March 8 and make at least another trip before Newton figures to come to Paul Brown Stadium as one of the team's allotted prospect visits.
"For me I'm just going to continuously keep working on my craft, and that's to become the best quarterback possible during this transition," Newton said of the spread. "Obviously, everybody knows that Cam has been in a spread offense and I have been trying to work as much as possible on trying to be fluid in coming from under center, with the three-step game, the five-step, also the seven-step drop."
Mallett needs Newton's media adviser. He got ripped for the ham-handed way he handled the off-field questions while Newton didn't take as much heat for ignoring the question about his theft of a laptop that led to his dismissal from Florida.
"Sir, I'm going to let you know right now what I did in the past is in the past," Newton said. "My sole focus is to perform at this year's Combine. I'm not going to entertain anything that happened in my past. I'm all about the future. I'm trying to prepare today to make my future as best as it can be."
The difference is that Newton kept his cool. Particularly when he was asked about the NCAA's ruling that his father sold his service.
"Yes, sir, the question has been asked," said Newton of the NFL's interest. "My father is just like any other father that wants the best for his son. He wants to see his son succeed in every way possible."
Believe that Gruden is going to go back and watch the tape of that news conference.
"The thing about evaluating a QB that people don't understand is you can't tell how good he is by a spiral he throws at the combine," Gruden said. "There's so much from the time the ball is snapped until he hands it off or throws it that he has to do. The poise and pressure, how he handles third down, how he handles getting booed, how he handles getting intercepted and coming back. When you go in the tank, can he come back? Is he mentally tough or is he a mental midget. If a receiver comes out and chews him out how is he going to handle that? Is he going to be a leader, stand up and follow him? You can't tell that by a 15-minute interview or going in there and meeting him at a school. That's why that position there are so many mistakes."
But Gruden knows firsthand and not third person that the biggest mistake might not be taking one if he's there.