Inside Training Camp  

 

Cincinnati Bengals training camp: Marvin Lewis leading shakeup

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The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Albert Breer visits the Cincinnati Bengals.

Where is NFL Media?

At Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, the only NFL training camp with a city skyline as its backdrop. The Bengals are in their fourth camp back home after a long run of summer road-tripping across the state line to Georgetown College in Kentucky.

Observations

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1) The players here are sporting "Bengals Revival" T-shirts, and as head coach Marvin Lewis explained to me, it's the outgrowth of an effort he started with his staff at the end of the 2014 season. He wanted them to evaluate everything -- similar to the way he did in 2011 -- and shake things up. As part of that, the Bengals doubled the size of their weight room, added a dining area and redid the players' lounge. "We kinda restarted things," Lewis explained. "And I told the coaches after last season, 'We gotta find a different way.' Our way's not good enough. We gotta find a different way. And we gotta push all the time. I think the guys have done a good job, the players have done a nice job of responding to that. They know that. They know that here is not where we want to be. We want to end up at the top." The obvious inference that can be drawn, of course, is that it'll take a little more to get out of the first round of the playoffs, where the team's past four seasons have ended. Lewis continued, "Every step, the organization has done a great job in putting the guys in position to do these things. Now we've gotta capitalize on it and get it done."

2) The elephant in the room (that is, the one that's sitting next to the playoff elephant) is the number of players going into contract years. Among them: receivers A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, tackles Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith, linebacker Emmanuel Lamur and defensive backs George Iloka, Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Reggie Nelson. Part of this, of course, is a tribute to the job the Bengals have done in drafting and developing talent. But it's there. "You could see this as an opportunity not just to win but for those guys to play their best football possible and get an opportunity either elsewhere or here," Whitworth told me. "Anytime you get guys, especially guys who have been here awhile, becoming free agents, there's a sense with the guys, 'Man, I can't believe this guy could possibly not be here.' And there's a sense from those guys that have been here that, 'Hey, I wanna go prove that I'm worth keeping, and if not, that another team would really want me.' I think everybody feels that, so there is a sense in this room that everyone needs to put their best thing on tape. That's the best way to handle it." Lewis, for his part, downplayed the effect, saying the Bengals went through a similar situation two years ago. And he doesn't think it'll make a big difference in their play. "I don't think the guys are deep enough thinkers for that," Lewis said. "That would really be deep thinking for most of these guys. I'm around them enough to know. I do think it's one of the things you have to address, because of outside influences, whether they're family, friends, agents, they talk too much about them, because there's nothing they can do. It'll all work out for all of them."

3) There's always pressure on the quarterback, but there may be more here than almost anywhere else. Andy Dalton was a godsend coming out of the painfully slow Carson Palmer divorce, but at this point, his performance in Cincy's run of four straight playoff one-and-dones (in which he posted a 55.7 completion percentage, one touchdown against six picks and a 57.8 passer rating) has solidified the perception of him as a middle-of-the-road player. That doesn't mean the people here see it that way. He's improved his decision-making this offseason and has grown into more of a leadership role -- Whitworth actually forcefully handed him the reins at the end of last year and took a step back, to let No. 14 try to make the team his. "He continues to lead the guys away from here, he leads them within here, and those are the things you grow as a quarterback to do," Lewis said. "He's had to grow on his own. He didn't come in behind a quarterback and sit. He's been the quarterback from Day 1; Whit has helped him through the process, but now Whit has passed the ball to him and said, 'You gotta take it and run with it.' And I think he's done a great job. Now he has to go out there and play and exhibit that, and it all grows."

New additions

See the best images of training camps across the NFL landscape.

A.J. Hawk, LB: The former Ohio State All-American has looked remarkably fresh for a 31-year-old entering his 10th NFL season. Lewis' program has specialized in getting a lot from guys at an advanced age (36-year-old cornerback Terence Newman, who signed with the Vikings after spending the past three seasons in Cincinnati, comes to mind), and Hawk's fit in coordinator Paul Guenther's defense gives the coaches flexibility to take their time with Vontaze Burfict, who had microfracture surgery this offseason and might start the season on the PUP list.

Tyler Kroft, TE: Because so much of the Bengals' lineup is set, the rookie class will likely largely be redshirted, but Kroft is one who has impressed and could chip in early. So long as he can stay healthy, Tyler Eifert has shown every sign he can be a Pro Bowl-level tight end this year, but Jermaine Gresham's departure via free agency has left snaps on the table in two-tight-end sets that Kroft could well gobble up.

Overheard

"We haven't scored enough points or stopped the other team, and we've turned the ball over. You do those three things, you lose. You turn the ball over, you don't score enough points and you don't stop the other team, you lose. ... It's part of maturing and being a mature football team. When this time comes, you gotta make it happen. We had balls in our hands in Houston three years ago and we dropped them. You gotta make those plays. If you wanna continue to go on, you gotta make those plays. If you make one of those plays, we're up in the game. It's close in the game, J.J. Watt makes a hell of a play in 2011, intercepts and runs it back for a touchdown. The next time, we drop it. Those kinds of things, you gotta make your way, you gotta make or break your way."

-- Marvin Lewis, on the Bengals' playoff failures.

Extra points

» You've heard about the Bengals' talent before. Still, I thought hearing about it from Hawk (a former Super Bowl champion with the Packers) was interesting. This was his reaction to walking in the door here in April: "The talent level is unbelievable. Every single position, a ton of depth here, ton of explosive playmakers on both sides of the ball. That was exciting coming in; I noticed that from Day 1."

» After the team finished last year banged up, the Bengals' staff is working to be as conscientious as possible in managing guys' health, even now, to try to make sure they're in the best shape possible in January. "All the same people ask about the playoffs," Whitworth said. "You can just point to the healthier teams, and they're always the teams that make the late runs."

» The hype around Geno Atkins is real. One coach told me, "It's the best I've seen him." Atkins was probably the best player on the roster before blowing out his ACL in 2013, and the injury robbed him of some explosiveness last year. Still just 27, it looks like he's all the way back.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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