CINCINNATI -- On a mid-June morning at Paul Brown Stadium, Andy Dalton sits attentively at the start of a quarterbacks meeting, softly reciting a polysyllabic play call while watching tape of his perfectly timed sideline throw to star wideout A.J. Green from the Bengals' practice the previous afternoon. It's a sequence that speaks volumes about the polarizing fourth-year pro's poise, maturity and mastery of the Cincinnati offense, yet the man in charge of the attack would like Dalton to pump up the noise.
"Way to be decisive, get it out of your hand and complete it to our guy," offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, seated in the corner of quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese's office, says to Dalton, who garners nods of approval from fellow passers Jason Campbell, AJ McCarron and Matt Scott. "I like how you made the call, but I still think, to a man, we need to be louder, more demonstrative. Because we play in some loud stadiums."
|Upon taking over as the Cincinnati Bengals' offensive coordinator this offseason, Hue Jackson called Andy Dalton to express confidence in him as the team's starting quarterback. (Al Behrman/Associated Press)|
Then, in a reference to Dalton's soon-to-be-first-born child, Jackson smiles broadly and adds, "Get out of the 'street voice' you practice for Noah. You need to use your 'road voice.' Get it so loud, it's to the point where you're embarrassed."
In essence, Jackson is telling Dalton to be more like him -- adding yet another intriguing layer to their strikingly symbiotic relationship. It's not a stretch to declare that, despite notably productive pasts, this frequently lampooned coach and his oft-maligned quarterback are about to embark upon a season that will define them both, each man leaning heavily on the other.
Whether as a punching bag or a punch line, Jackson and Dalton have plenty of experience when it comes to falling out of favor with the football-watching masses. Their personalities might be very different, but their challenge is the same: Join forces to secure the franchise's first postseason victory since the 1990 season, and win over a skeptical public.
As the Bengals, fresh off a third consecutive playoff flameout, strive to reach the next level, the unfailingly brash Jackson and the relentlessly reserved Dalton are immersed in a shared quest for salvation. Either they'll help elevate the franchise and reap the commensurate rewards, or they'll faceplant with a resounding thud.
"We are joined at the hip," Jackson concedes while enjoying a happy-hour beverage at a downtown Cincinnati bar, about 10 hours after coaching up Dalton in that quarterbacks meeting. "We are tethered together. And I'll jump off a building with this guy, because I believe in the things he's trying to accomplish with his career, and I think I can help him."
On the surface, this is a bigger mismatch than Super Bowl XLVIII: a not-so-fiery redhead getting prodded by a smooth-scalped, swagger-laced strategist who famously bragged about "building a bully" during his topsy-turvy stint as the Oakland Raiders' head coach. Yet Bengals coach Marvin Lewis didn't hesitate to entrust the development of his young quarterback -- and, quite possibly, his own professional fate -- to Jackson after former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jay Gruden was hired as Washington's head coach in January.
"We all have a lot on the line," Lewis says. "This is big. This is a great marriage between Hue and Andy, with a lot at stake."
The potential payoff is substantial. For Jackson, who showed so much promise while guiding the Raiders to a 7-4 start in 2011 -- his first and only season as a head coach -- before losing his job and enduring what amounted to a two-year stint in professional purgatory, the possibility of getting another shot to run an NFL team beckons.
For Dalton, whose three-turnover performance in a 27-10 home playoff defeat to the San Diego Chargers in January continued a pattern of postseason futility, there's an opportunity to vault himself into the NFL's upper echelon of passers -- and to be compensated accordingly. As he and the Bengals attempt to hammer out a lucrative long-term deal that will likely exceed $100 million in total value, Dalton relishes the chance to raise his game and make some noise.
By all accounts, Dalton has embraced the transition from the far more relaxed Gruden, his coordinator during his first three seasons in Cincinnati, to Jackson, whose coaching style is about as subtle as a Blake Griffin dunk. Shortly after Jackson was promoted from the position of running backs coach in the wake of Gruden's departure, he placed a phone call to Dalton, and an immediate alliance was formed.
Recalls Dalton: "The first thing he said was, 'You're my guy. We're gonna do this thing together. You're the guy that's gonna take us to where we want to go.' It's exactly what I wanted to hear, and exactly what this team needs. You want to know, from the top down, that they've got your back."
In the same conversation, Jackson told Dalton that "things will be different. We have to be better. And I'm going to coach you hard. If you'll allow me to push you, we can get to where we both want to go." Dalton, the coach recalls, "was receptive. He didn't even blink. He said, 'Coach, let's go.' I'm very proud of the fact that he's allowing me to coach him. He wants to be great."
So here Dalton is, on a muggy Tuesday afternoon, taking part in what will turn out to be the final day of offseason workouts, directing the first-team offense during a spirited practice at nearly empty Paul Brown Stadium, trying to incorporate Jackson's coaching points while coaching up his teammates in the process.
The first thing that jumps out is the tempo. Jackson, who directed top-10 offenses in 2010 (as coordinator) and 2011 (as head coach) in Oakland, is one of many men in his profession who have gravitated toward accelerating the pace in an effort to dictate to the defense.
"I think that maximizes a lot of Andy's abilities," Lewis says. "His anticipation on throws is one of his incredible skills and talents that he has innately. And if we speed things up, that really makes it effective."
Given that Dalton, in Jackson's words, "can assimilate a lot of information and get it to the proper people very quickly," this high-octane approach theoretically plays to the quarterback's strengths. He also has a plethora of young, talented playmakers at his disposal, from Green (already one of the game's top receivers entering his fourth season) to emerging wideout Marvin Jones, versatile tight ends Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert and elusive second-year pro Giovani Bernard at running back. Says Dalton: "A lot of things we're doing is getting our guys in space. When you've got athletic guys like we do, that's what you want."
One thing Jackson clearly doesn't want is for Dalton -- or his offensive teammates -- to feel overly comfortable. While the coach is highly complimentary of Gruden, it's no secret around the Bengals' facility that the atmosphere has become far more charged since Jackson took over.
"Andy definitely seems different," says Jones, a fifth-round draft pick in 2012 who had 10 touchdown catches among his 51 receptions last season. "He's really taken this offensive tempo and the aggression of Coach Jackson and he's running with it. He's slinging the ball with a lot of velocity and he's confident in it."
Says veteran cornerback Terence Newman: "It seems like (Dalton's) a lot more confident, and like he has more freedom. He's getting rid of it and just letting it rip. Hue's gonna have those guys 'going H.A.M.' over there."
In the eyes of Gresham, who's coming off a somewhat disappointing 46-catch campaign, the switch to Jackson was the best thing for Dalton's development.
"Hue should be a head coach, but he's not, and he has a lot to prove," Gresham says. "And so does Andy. He's gotten a lot of flak, but he's been the starter since Day 1, and he's put up numbers that a lot of us haven't. I know I'm one of those that haven't. We need to take that next step as an offense, and I think Andy's ready. He's got a little more of an edge to him.
|Andy Dalton and A.J. Green have been the second-most productive quarterback-receiver combo (3,705 yards) in the NFL since 2011. (Associated Press)|
"One thing about Hue, he will get the most out of that redhead, because he won't settle for anything less than excellence. It can't be mediocre. It can't be good. It has to be great."
And in the process of demanding greatness from his quarterback, Jackson is simultaneously empowering Dalton, enlisting him as an ally and giving him ownership in the offense.
"He's told me that (in practice) he's gonna get the play in, and then he's gonna go talk trash to the defense and let me control everything," Dalton says, laughing. "That's his personality."
Dalton's personality is far less forceful. Quarterbacks might tend to be cocksure, suck-the-air-out-of-the-room extroverts, but Dalton comes from the Eli Manning school of low-key leadership.
"I'm a little more chill," Dalton says. "I'm not someone that's gonna get up in your face all the time and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I don't think I have a temper. I try to have as much patience as possible. One thing they're really trying to stress is that it's my team; I've gotta take control of everything. For me, it's growing into that, making sure guys know that if they're not doing something right, that it's gonna affect me and affect the outcome of the play."
Says Lewis: "Yeah, he's a low-key guy, no doubt. His personality away from here, his personality with his family can be what it is. His personality here has to be different than that."
For better or worse, it has to be more like Jackson's. And Dalton has, in fact, become more assertive among his teammates. On this particular Tuesday, he responds to a poor snap from fourth-round draft pick Russell Bodine, who is slated to become the Bengals' starting center, by pulling aside the rookie and telling him he has to do better.
It's a scene that Zampese later cites as evidence of Dalton's progress as a leader, saying, "I saw it there the last couple of practices, where he actually hunted down the center after bad snaps and told him, 'This is unacceptable.' Then he told him, 'I need you.' Those two things together, the message will be very well-received."
Rather than bristle at the rough patches Dalton and his teammates encounter at practice, Jackson welcomes the struggle. The previous evening, at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, shortly after chatting up the proprietor, Jackson had confided that he hoped the offense would encounter some adversity during the final full-team workout before training camp.
"Anybody can go back and complete a bunch of passes when the protection is there and guys are open and the play isn't breaking down," the coach had said. "But when things start to fall apart -- those are the moments I'm looking for. Sure, we want to install an offense. But we're also building a quarterback, and those moments are more important toward that end. I want there to be chaos. I want to see how he reacts in those situations.
"To me, that's the Achilles' heel of a quarterback: Everything's not always gonna go right. So at the end of the day, you have to have those situations where things are not looking as good, so you can get out of them. I need to know, under pressure, that you will make the right decisions for our football team, and not for the football player. He's done that."
There are times when Dalton has handled the pressure admirably, such as a dizzying four-game stretch last October that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Month honors. In leading the Bengals to four consecutive victories, Dalton completed 89 of 131 passes for 1,246 yards with 11 touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 116.8.
Yet consistency has been an issue: Just four quarterbacks threw more interceptions than Dalton's 20 in 2013, and he has had his share of stinkers during each of his three seasons. His playoff numbers have been downright putrid -- one touchdown, six interceptions, an 0-3 record and an anemic 26 offensive points produced.
There's only one way to erase that stigma. "I've got to get a win," Dalton says. "That's what it comes down to. Everybody's gonna say, 'Oh, he doesn't play well in the playoffs ...' They say that until you do it, and until you win. And as long as the team wins, it'll shut everybody up."
Fortunately for Dalton, his bosses are far less doubtful than outside observers. The Bengals, Lewis insists, are committed to Dalton as their franchise quarterback, and they'll likely put their money where their mouth is.
With one year remaining on his rookie deal, Dalton hopes to finalize an extension with the team before the start of the season. If not, this could truly be a make-or-break campaign, though the Bengals could ensure his continued presence in 2015 via the franchise tag, should they so choose.
He clearly wants to stay in Cincinnati. Drafted in the second round out of TCU after incumbent Carson Palmer informed the organization he wanted to play elsewhere -- and would retire rather than fulfill his contractual commitment to the Bengals -- Dalton became an immediate starter and developed a strong sense of loyalty to the organization.
"Absolutely," says Dalton, whose wife, Jordan, gave birth to their son, Noah Andrew, on June 30. "I came into a great opportunity. I'm not gonna get into the whole Carson thing, but Carson wasn't here. And he said he wasn't gonna be here, that he was over playing here, and I came in and got a great chance to start right away. I've embraced the city -- I have a foundation that we're really involved in -- and my wife and I love it here."
That's another common thread between Dalton and Jackson. Having served as the Bengals' receivers coach from 2004 to '06 -- a stretch that coincided with the team's first playoff appearance in 15 years and highly productive seasons by receivers Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- Jackson developed a strong relationship with Lewis, the team's coach since 2003, and with owner Mike Brown. (Jackson's familiarity with Brown contributed to the infamous "greatest trade in football" that sent Palmer from the Bengals to the Raiders midway through the 2011 campaign.)
After getting fired following an 8-8 season in which the Raiders narrowly missed the playoffs, Jackson struggled to find a landing spot in early 2012, receiving only one interview for an offensive coordinator position (from the St. Louis Rams, who instead chose Brian Schottenheimer) and no offers. Lewis essentially threw Jackson a lifeline, bringing him aboard as an assistant secondary and special teams coach.
The following year, longtime running backs coach Jim Anderson was nudged into retirement, facilitating Jackson's move back to offense, with an additional "assistant to the head coach" title. That gave Lewis a viable succession plan and peace of mind when Gruden, as expected, became a hot head-coaching candidate. Jackson's near-instant promotion was not especially good news for former Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who, after landing the Vikings' head coaching job later in January, hoped to bring his good friend Jackson to Minnesota as his offensive coordinator.
"The way I feel about Marvin and this organization, after all they've done for me? There's no way I could have gone," Jackson says.
Instead, he'll stay and coach the men in striped helmets -- and try to unleash a new level of intensity in a quarterback still hovering between the realms of whipping boy and potential star. Though Dalton lacks the arm strength of a prototypical franchise quarterback, his combination of intelligence, work ethic, mid-range accuracy and anticipation gives him a chance to thrive, especially in an offense designed to cater to his strong suits.
"This offseason has been a great offseason for Andy," Lewis says, "because it's been the challenge of Hue Jackson every day to play to that standard, and to live up to what Hue's expecting out of him as the leader of the team."
It has been a pretty fulfilling offseason for Jackson, too. Shortly before leaving the stadium on that mid-June Tuesday, Jackson presides over a meeting in his office in which he breaks down tape of that afternoon's recently concluded practice. He smiles at the screen: At one point, after several receivers clear out the middle of the field, Dalton finds Green on a short crossing route, and the receiver races untouched toward the end zone, with only tight end Alex Smith within 10 yards of him.
"Look at this," Jackson says, his voice rising. "This is the prettiest thing in the history of football. Look at the window to throw this football. Look at that protection. Look at that soft spiral. Look at that route. Oh my gosh! There you go. That's a touchdown. Put the ball on the goal post."
Two hours later, between bites of a harvest salad in a bustling downtown bar, the coordinator talks up his quarterback once more. This time, however, the coach's voice is disarmingly soft. Either Jackson doesn't want to broadcast his insights to the rest of the happy-hour crowd or, perhaps, Dalton's low-volume proclivities are starting to rub off on him.
"I'm not trying to make Andy me, or make him anybody else," Jackson says. "He has to do it within his own personality, or else it will be seen as phony. But I think inside of him is a tiger. I think there's a guy that has a burning desire to be the best at what he's doing.
"The guy's won 30 games, which is impressive. But he'll be the first to tell you he's not there yet. He's still clawing and scratching and trying to get there. But I think there's a real fire in there, and he's gonna unlock and unleash what he really is. Not that he hasn't, but I think there's more there. I think he's on the cusp of becoming what he wants to become. And I'll be right there with him, every step of the way."
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @MikeSilver.