CINCINNATI — As spring turns to summer, and full-squad NFL minicamps return after a year hiatus, the Cincinnati Bengals are quietly going about their business.
To repeat: The Bengals are quietly going about their business. No reality TV stars, no better-than-TV dramas, no glaring distractions.
Just football. Really.
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A year ago, the only thing that kept the circus out of Paul Brown Stadium was that the NFL lockout kept everyone out until late July. The Bengals finally gathered for training camp with a second-round rookie quarterback, a brand-new offense and low outside expectations. Carson Palmer said he’d retire before he’d return to Cincinnati, and Chad Ochocinco was traded as soon as business resumed.
Turns out a changing of the guard — a.k.a. quarterback, receiver and linebacker — served the team well.
The Bengals went 9-7 and made the playoffs. Now the quarterback, Andy Dalton, is no longer a rookie. Neither is the star receiver, A.J. Green, and he looks like a mega-star in the making. External expectations are different, but so are internal attitudes. The Bengals still have questions to answer, but they also have a bunch of reasons to be very excited about what’s ahead.
“I think there’s a certain confidence level that’s been cast upon the football team that maybe last year was not here from the inside in,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said Tuesday, at the beginning on a three-day, mandatory minicamp. “I think that’s probably the biggest change. The expectations from everyone are a lot higher. Mine haven’t changed, but I think others have changed.”
Lewis likes what he’s seen since his team gathered for organized team sessions three weeks ago. The minicamp is basically an extension of those and marks the end of any formal spring work for the veterans before training camp opens July 27.
That’s when the Bengals will really get to work on building on what they did a year ago — and trying to better it. These spring sessions in no pads have still been valuable, and maybe more so here than with some teams around the league because a new offensive coordinator, new quarterback and new pass-catchers didn’t have them a year ago.
“It’s been a good time with everybody,” Green said. “It’s family bonding time. There’s definitely a different feel. We’re more confident, and I think we feel more comfortable around one another.
“It’s time to sit down and focus on some of the stuff we need to work on.”
The vibe in the locker room is one of excitement and certainly not one of contentment.
“I go back to (last year) and think it’s pretty cool where we are now and what we were able to accomplish then,” veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. “We had to take it on the run in training camp. Considering the way we played last year offensively with that, I think we played pretty well. There’s no excuses. It’s got to be better. With this early start, we finally get to put in plays and explain why we are doing it this way, rather than just what to do.”
The Bengals are holding a pretty good competition for jobs and opportunities in the receiving corps and have seven or eight players who realistically could end up seeing snaps in some sort of complementary role to Green. Two new offensive guards, including first-rounder Kevin Zeitler, are stepping in, and Ben-Jarvus Green-Ellis and Bernard Scott both figure to get touches in the running game.
The coaches see Dalton as a player who sees the game beyond his years and has proven, to an extent, he can be a winning NFL quarterback. These spring practices have given him a chance to assert himself as a team leader.
“I was able to prove myself a little bit last year, and now everyone knows and understands we’re going to be on the same page,” Dalton said. “I can (speak up) a little bit more. I probably should have done a little better job last year, but there were a lot of other things that were on my mind. But this year, I’m comfortable with everybody that we’ve got.”
It all adds up to a team that has veteran pieces, a bunch of gifted young skill players and adds a well-regarded draft class to what’s suddenly a stable locker room.
“I think it’s just different here,” Whitworth said. “I don’t think this team would allow that kind of stuff that was allowed before.
“I think it’s different. I feel like I’m repeating myself, but I feel like there is a difference in great players and great leaders. A lot of guys are good football players, but sometimes they don’t do much for their locker room. I feel like this team is different.”
Lewis said the Bengals have done plenty of classroom work over the last few weeks — in part because rules implemented in the new CBA called for less field time, both now and in training camp — but haven’t spent time talking about new or heightened goals.
“Our expectations in that (locker) room don’t really change,” Lewis said. “What the players can’t do is worry about what expectations are, one way or another.”
They’re high. And if the Bengals keep handling their business, they’re only going to get higher.