Younger Gruden steps into spotlight

The coaching offices inside Paul Brown Stadium are empty on this beautiful mid-June afternoon.

Except for one.

Under normal circumstances, Jay Gruden would be on vacation, like other Cincinnati Bengals staffers at this point of the offseason.

But these aren’t normal circumstances.

As if being the baby brother of an NFL coaching guru isn’t enough pressure, Gruden faces the same challenge as the league’s other new coordinators: preparing to implement a system while not knowing when the player lockout will end. Just as daunting, Gruden must consider that he will likely be working with a rookie starting quarterback who hasn’t enjoyed the trappings of minicamps and offseason tutoring.

Thoughts of the task ahead would never have sailed from Gruden’s mind even had he accompanied his family on their Alaskan cruise. So rather than leave port, Gruden is anchored inside a spacious, albeit sparse room flanked by giant white erase boards covered with formations.

When asked how much the work stoppage has caused alterations in plans for teaching Cincinnati’s new West Coast-style offense, Gruden turns to his laptop and begins fiddling with the arrow keys.

“I’m doing it right now again,” Gruden told last Thursday. “This is my 46th take on my installation it seems like. I keep changing it.”

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is banking on change doing his team some good once the lockout ends.

After 10 seasons, Bob Bratkowski was fired as Cincinnati’s offensive coordinator in February. What followed was an even bigger surprise.

To call Gruden the NFL’s most outside-the-box hire in 2011 isn’t hyperbole. Not only does he lack prior experience as an NFL offensive coordinator, Gruden wasn’t even in the league. He was a head coach in the upstart United Football League.

Gruden himself admits he was “absolutely kind of surprised” to land the job.

“I originally thought that from my background I would have to come in (to the NFL) as a position coach,” said Gruden, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive assistant from 2002-08 while splitting time as an Arena Football League head coach and quarterback.

“I’m confident that I’m ready, but I didn’t think anybody else thought that.”

Lewis did his homework before making the hire, including three Gruden job interviews and lengthy telephone conversations with his older, Super Bowl-winning brother Jon. Jay Gruden has a firm grasp of the offense that Jon ran with the Bucs and play-calling experience, albeit in Arena and UFL settings.

“From the time the season was over, I talked to different coaches and spent time thinking about what direction it was best to go offensively,” Lewis said. “Jay’s name kept coming up.”

In Lewis’ mind, the Bengals have nowhere to go but up after a 4-12 campaign in 2010. However, their offense actually finished with a higher NFL ranking (20th) than during Cincinnati’s playoff season in 2009 (24th), but the unit had lost its run-first identity and failed to compensate in the passing game. Combined with a rash of turnovers, drops and drive-killing penalties, the Bengals were a bigger mess than Chad Ochocinco’s bull-riding debut.

“I feel like we have to attack by meshing the run and pass together,” Lewis said. “They can’t be two separate elements. They have to be coordinated together.”

Gruden will probably have to attempt this without Carson Palmer under center. Disgruntled after eight seasons in Cincinnati, Palmer has said he will retire if not traded.

“Obviously, the biggest question mark is quarterback,” Gruden said. “I haven’t talked to Carson yet. Based on everything I’ve read and heard, he’s not coming back. If he has a change of heart, we’d love to have him. If not, we just have to get somebody ready to go.”

That “somebody” is Andy Dalton, the team’s second-round draft pick from Texas Christian. Dalton was a prolific college passer. But the longer the NFL work stoppage continues, the harder it will be for a rookie such as Dalton to find instant success — especially against the vicious defenses fielded by division rivals Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Lewis and Gruden still remain bullish about Dalton. Lewis points out that because of the lockout, Gruden spent more time this offseason with Dalton in pre-draft interviews than any other Bengals player. Gruden was impressed by how well Dalton memorized the mini-playbook given to him as part of the scouting process.

Lewis also is excited about media comments from Bengals that the team is already embracing Dalton’s leadership during player-run workouts and is ready to move on without Palmer, who hasn’t attended those sessions.

“It’s what our guys needed to do,” Lewis said. “They’ve had a chance to first see the man in person without the coaching staff, which is an interesting thing. It never happens like this.”

Gruden plans to ease Dalton’s transition into the NFL — as well as that of wide receiver A.J. Green, the club’s first-round pick — by paring the playbook once the lockout is lifted. “(My brother) would throw about 600 more plays than I am on Day 1,” Jay Gruden joked.

“We’re going to have to take baby steps, but I don’t want to assume it’s hard for them. I want to challenge them also. I want them to really have to study, learn and push themselves mentally. Physically, it’s going to be a grind because I don’t know how much they’ve been running and all that stuff. That’s another issue — how much deep, down-the-field stuff we put in. We have to take their legs into consideration, so I’m taking some deeper routes out. But from a formation standpoint, I think we’ll start with our basic stuff, continue to expand on a daily basis and see how much they can handle.

“I don’t know these guys, other than what people have told me. I like to make my own judgment. I’m going to keep it kind of basic. The whole point of this offense is to look a lot more diversified but be simple and basic in what we do with the concepts and that stuff. Once they learn the core concepts, we’ll be able to dress up our intent.”

Besides having such longtime Bengals assistants as Jim Anderson (running backs) and Paul Alexander (offensive line) to lean on, Gruden says he won’t hesitate to call his big brother for feedback.

“I always will,” said Jay Gruden, 44. “He’s a football junkie. If I ask him a question about any form of offense, he’ll have an answer.”

But being part of a famous football family will bring its own challenges and expectations. Jay Gruden says he is ready for that, as well.

“Having Jon as an older brother, if you don’t have thick skin, I probably would have jumped off a building a long time ago,” Gruden said with a smile. “I got all my tears out of the way when I was younger. Being in a football family, I know every time you lose or there’s a bad play, it’s the coach’s fault. With the radio and TV shows now, it has gone crazy.

“I’m already prepared to get booed. I already know people are going to say bad things — I wasn’t ready and all that stuff. But I use that as motivation. That’s the best way you can go about it. I love the pressure and the challenge. That’s what drives me, not when everything is going good. I like a little adversity.”

He has found it in Cincinnati.