NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Albert Breer details his visit with the Cincinnati Bengals. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
WHERE IS NFL.COM?
Cincinnati, where the skyline looming over the practice fields signifies the team's first-ever downtown training camp after 15 years of practicing in Georgetown, Ky. It's different, to be sure, from the many camps around the NFL that are held in the woods or the mountains. But when I asked coach Marvin Lewis about it, he cited the same reasons others have in moving camp home: "I think the fact that we have an opportunity to continue with our own learning environment, that's been exceptional. It's enabled us not to have to uplift our whole infrastructure of technology and so forth. It's a real positive, and I think it's been a great move for the fans." Yes, it does make it easier for the people of Cincinnati to see their hometown team -- though with the cramped setup, there's room for just 1,600 of them.
1. These Bengals are big. Which they need to be, given that they compete in the AFC North. Their size stuck out, though, in the locker room and on the practice field. Cincinnati has positioned a huge line in front of quarterback Andy Dalton and has paired him with a downhill runner in BenJarvus Green-Ellis. The defense, meanwhile, is loaded with first- and second-round picks, both drafted by the team and picked up off others' scrap heaps. While I was watching (and loving) the old-school Oklahoma drills that the Bengals rolled out on Monday, it was easy for me to see what kind of mindset Lewis is looking for in his players. Lewis told me before this Monday practice, the team's first in pads, "You have to win football games with your pads." And my sense is there's a little more to that than what players will be wearing on gameday.
2. Expectations couldn't be higher. Walking around Paul Brown Stadium, it was hard to miss the T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Born to ... Prepare to ... Plan to ... Expect to ... WIN." Then there were the shirts that were simply decorated with the letters "DNO." Several players tipped me off on the meaning -- Destination: New Orleans. Lewis wasn't pumped that I'd found out. "That's between us -- somebody must've squealed, huh?" he said with a sheepish smile. "That's the goal you set every year," Lewis went on to say. "That doesn't change. We all have the goal to get to the final game and win it." The Bengals haven't won a playoff game in more than 21 years. I have to believe that whatever visualization tactics they use can only help -- particularly with a roster full of rising young players.
3. Dalton and A.J. Green have limitless potential. The Bengals' big-play connection didn't hook up for any unofficial workouts this summer -- both were buying houses in their downtime (Dalton in Texas, Green in Georgia). However, the two second-year stars have done plenty to ensure a strong encore to their grand debut. By all accounts, the passer, the receiver and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden enjoy an outstanding rapport, in large part because they arrived in Cincinnati in the same year. "We're going to be linked together for the rest of our careers because we came in together as quarterback and receiver," Dalton told me. "And it's nice, because if A.J.'s not saying anything to Jay, and A.J. says something to me, I can relay it to Jay. It's the same for everybody. I think that's helped us out; we had that relationship early on." Dalton is well aware of what he's got in Green. "I mean, I think everyone realizes it," Dalton said. "He's so gifted ... I have never been able to throw to a guy who's completely covered and know he's going to come down with it. He's special. We have to find ways to get him the ball."
4. Dalton's next step is coming. When Gruden was breaking down the quarterbacks available in the 2011 NFL Draft, one thing that jumped out at him was the sheer volume of responsibility Dalton had been given as a senior at TCU. That's why Gruden resolutely endorsed the idea of drafting Dalton. That's why Gruden was fine with making Dalton a starter from Day 1. And that's why Dalton can now openly ask for a bigger role. "It's taking control of the offense," Dalton told me. "Last year, I was just a part of the offense, it seemed like. Coming in as a rookie, it's hard to take over. Now, it's, 'OK, I have the experience, I was able to do some things where I've got some credibility.' That's the big area where it's going to be different this year." Gruden didn't object when I relayed what Dalton had said. "He wants more freedom, and he's going to get it. He's shown that he can handle anything that I throw at him," Gruden said, a smile cracking. "I mean, I might just toss him the keys and let him drive away, and I'll just stand there with a box of popcorn."
5. The situation at cornerback must be sorted out. Rookie Dre Kirkpatrick is on the shelf for the next few weeks with a knee injury, Nate Clements just returned from the physically unable to perform list and Leon Hall's comeback from a torn Achilles is being carefully managed. With a mix of young and old cornerbacks, the Bengals are going to have some tough cuts to make. Should they bet on an experienced hand to help a ready-to-win team, or should they go with the promise and potential longevity of a younger player? Six of the cornerbacks on the roster are former first-round draft picks: Kirkpatrick, Clements, Hall, Adam Jones and free-agent acquisitions Terence Newman and Jason Allen. The team also likes a few other young players, such as Brandon Ghee. Here's the thing, though: If this position shakes out the way the Bengals hope it does -- and the right roster calls are made -- this defensive group could be the best that coordinator Mike Zimmer's led since he joined the team in 2008.
THE NEW GUYS
Newman: The former Dallas Cowboy reunited this spring with Zimmer, his defensive coordinator in Dallas from 2003 to 2006, with better-than-expected results. Many thought the Bengals were simply taking a flier on a past-his-prime defensive back when they signed Newman, who had been cast aside after nine seasons with the Cowboys. To be clear, Newman is not what he once was. However, he does look to be carving out a role as a valuable player for the Bengals.
Devon Still and Brandon Thompson: The Bengals used second- and third-round draft picks on Still and Thompson, respectively, to add depth at defensive tackle behind Domata Peko and Pro Bowler Geno Atkins. It looks like they've accomplished that; the agile, 300-pound Still and the ox-strong, 320-pound Thompson both have a chance to see the field early.
Mohamed Sanu: The former Rutgers standout torpedoed his chances at being a first-round draft pick with a slow 40-yard-dash time. But Sanu has shown why he was once considered a potential Day 1 pick. Sanu has quick feet and good football smarts, impressing coaches with his readiness to step in and assimilate, as well as his ability to outfox veteran cornerbacks. He could eventually be the perfect possession complement to Green.
Kirkpatrick is plenty frustrated with his struggles to stay healthy. He told me he's "probably only practiced with the team four times ... I want to be out there, I want to let these guys know that I'm ready to step up any time my name is called. Right now, it's just staying focused mentally." Normal stuff, right? Well, guess who's helping Kirkpatrick through this? None other than Adam Jones himself. Kirkpatrick explained that the corner formerly known as "Pacman" has been drilling him on the defense, popping questions when the rookie least expects it and trying to help, in a broader sense, with the transition to life as a pro. "I'm just trying to do my part," Jones told me. "I wish I had someone do that for me when I was coming in the league, on the field and off the field. I ain't trying to be no hero, I'm just trying to be me and do my part." Between helping young players here and at the rookie symposium, it at least seems like Jones' effort is sincere.
- Troubled Arizona State product Vontaze Burfict is here and, believe it or not, the linebacker has done plenty to change the perception of him within the Bengals organization. It's still early, and there's plenty of time for things to go the other way, but Burfict has lost weight and he's shown good instincts on the field. He's also behaved himself off it.
- Interesting talking to veteran tackle Andrew Whitworth about the team's new iPad playbooks. He said the best thing about them is that they help with efficiency. He can now, for example, study film in the cold tub. The worst thing? No more scribbling notes on plays or marking down reminders in the margins. The team has addressed this problem by asking players to carry spiral notebooks with their iPads.
- Saw a young fan carrying a sign that said "Your a good man, Mike Brown" at practice. Would've been better if the fan had used the grammatically correct "you're" instead, but still, it marked a departure from the horrific perception problem Paul Brown's son has battled in the Queen City over the last few decades.
Could this be the best team of the Lewis era? Privately, the Bengals believe it could be. And the behavioral issues that dogged the Bengals in recent years seem to be largely gone. As the coaches will tell you, this is a likable group. That staff, too, is loaded, with perhaps the best 1-2 punch of coordinators in the NFL in Gruden and Zimmer -- both leading prospects to land a head-coaching job in 2013. (They've also locked up their head coach for a few more years; on Tuesday, Lewis signed a contract extension through 2014.) The rookie class is promising, with guard Kevin Zeitler and Sanu adding to the offense, and Kirkpatrick, Thompson and Still jumping in on defense. It seems the risk-taking style Brown has employed forever is starting to bear fruit.
So ... DNO?
"I think every team has some kind of slogan or T-shirt," Gruden said when I brought it up. "It's a matter of backing it up, doing what's necessary to get there. Saying what you want to do, having initials of where you want to go and all that good stuff, is nothing if you're not coming out here and working hard and staying after practice like these guys are doing. Going to the weight room, getting a little more in, watching a little more film with your coaches, that's how you get there."
Read closely what Gruden is saying. He's laying out what he thinks it takes to win -- and he's saying the players are doing all of it. In the rugged AFC North, these Bengals certainly look like they have a shot.