CINCINNATI – They had become addicted to the old way around here. From Chad Johnson or Ochocinco or whoever he was each week to the reclamation of knuckleheads, the old way held the Cincinnati Bengals back, always teasing with false hope. The talent was just good enough to overlook the headaches and there forever lingered the promise of the big winning season that never came.
"At what point did Carson quit?" Bengals coach Marvin Lewis asks, repeating a similar question. "At some point last year he decided he didn't want to be here. This didn't happen at the end of the season. There was a point earlier on when he said, 'This isn't the place for me.' "
Palmer had already given up on them. And if the quarterback who held all the personalities together no longer cared, what was the point in clinging to the old way? For Lewis there was no debate. "We're not talking people into playing," he says. And as soon as Palmer's demand that the team trade or release him became public, the coach was done with everything that had been a part of the old: the drama, the shows, the demands of a few wanting the team to be about them.
As one team official says: "We got rid of all our [expletive]."
And as a result, they found something better.
"I was getting an opportunity a lot of coaches don't get to … and that is a chance to start over at the same place," Lewis says.
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He is sitting at a conference table in his office. It is early evening in this season of rebirth and he leans back in a chair, crosses his arms over a long-sleeved Bengals T-shirt and talks about the lack of sleep he's been getting these last few weeks as a good thing. He rushes to work earlier than ever before. From the ruins of Ochocinco and Palmer has risen a team of young players devoid of ego but desperate to be good. His onetime franchise quarterback, traded to the Oakland Raiders for two high draft picks on Oct. 18, might have fired the team but this brought Andy Dalton(notes), who has led the Bengals to a 4-2 record in his first NFL season. In addition, there's a new offensive coordinator, Jay Gruden, and rookie wide receiver A.J. Green(notes), who unlike Ochocinco, says nearly nothing but might someday be even better.
Andy Dalton is not an excitable man. He sits at his locker with a calm but confident look. When Green first met him, the receiver thought to himself, "This guy is going to be great just by the way he goes about his business." He is doing the same thing Cam Newton(notes) is doing in Carolina, which is starting as a rookie without the benefit of an offseason. But unlike Newton, who has filled highlight shows with his rocket throws, Dalton has drawn little attention despite the fact his team is winning. The coaches say the calm and decisiveness he brings is a big reason why the Bengals are succeeding.
If this were happening in New York, Chicago or Philadelphia, it would be the story of the year. But since this is Cincinnati and the new quarterback doesn't have his own reality show, nobody is paying attention. And yet maybe this is what the Bengals needed. For too long they were the story for all the wrong reasons.
Dalton has endeared himself to his new teammates by not being flashy. He bonded with the offensive linemen this summer when he went to Louisiana to attend a foundation event hosted by tackle Andrew Whitworth(notes). Later, he stayed at Whitworth's house for two weeks as the players held an informal camp during the lockout. He says he feels the players have accepted him because he listens to them and doesn't try to be anything more than who he is at this moment: a guy in the corner of the locker room reading his electronic tablet and devouring the playbook.
"I think I've always been even-keeled," he says. "That's important. Guys feed off a quarterback so they need to see what you do. The biggest thing for me when I stepped on the [NFL] field was to say, 'It's just playing football.' That's the attitude I have."
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He is a religious man and he has a favorite Bible verse: 1 Peter 5:6, "Humble yourselves, therefore under God's mighty hand, that He may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you."
Years ago, Dalton heard Texas quarterback Major Applewhite say this on television after the Longhorns won a bowl game and he thought these were the perfect words to describe his own life. He adopted them and he's since found it easy to never get too high or too low. Given the Bengals of the past few years, it's probably a good thing.
"I think he's earned the respect of the locker room," Whitworth says. "When you play quarterback it's hard. To play quarterback as a rookie that's even tougher. But to play quarterback as a rookie with no OTAs or minicamps, that's really hard. And he's done it."
"People believe in Andy because of how he conducts himself," Lewis says.
The Bengals coaches looked hard at all the big quarterback prospects: Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert(notes), Christian Ponder(notes), Jake Locker(notes), Ryan Mallett(notes) and Dalton – researching each, visiting them at their homes, calling their coaches, watching them work out. Raiders coach Hue Jackson, who had gone through a similar search while he was the quarterbacks coach with the Ravens when they drafted Joe Flacco(notes), suggested to Lewis that he FedEx each quarterback a playbook two days before his visit in Cincinnati and ask the players to "teach me the offense" when they arrived.
It proved revealing because even though all the players were accustomed to drawing offenses on white boards, "some draw it better than others," Lewis says. Dalton, who had studied Cincinnati's playbook so well he found a typographical error and called the team wondering if he was misreading something, walked to the board and whipped through the exercise so well but without any pretension or showmanship as if he were a coach himself. It was in stark contrast to one prospect who was obviously trying to show everyone how much he knew and was attractive to the Bengals' coaches, who were looking for a quarterback that wasn't trying to be a star.
Still, it was Dalton that they wanted. Lewis fell in love with him first, even before Gruden had a chance to examine the tape.
"Have you seen the kid from TCU?" Lewis asked his new offensive coordinator.
"TCU?" Gruden replied.
Then Gruden loaded up Dalton's tape and he too was dazzled.
The Bengals visited with him five times – more than any other team – formally talking to him at the Senior Bowl, the NFL scouting combine, his pro day at TCU, the interview in Cincinnati and another private workout at TCU. Both Lewis and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese remember watching his college tapes over and over, searching to find the flaws that had other teams and draft analysts keeping him out of the first round, but they found nothing. He never made mistakes.
After Palmer, who was intercepted 33 times the previous two years, and the tumultuousness of the offense in previous seasons, Dalton's stability was enticing. The interest heightened after Gruden watched one workout and declared Dalton the perfect player for the new offense. Soon a plan was devised. Since Dalton appeared to be a second- or third-round prospect, the Bengals thought they could take A.J. Green in the first round with the fourth overall pick and get Dalton in the second. But it was far from a flawless strategy. There were so many clenched stomachs, everyone involved hoping no one would covet the two the way they did.
One morning, not long before the draft, a published article suggested that "the team that ends up with either Andy Dalton or A.J. Green is going to get a steal." The coaches groaned. Then they looked at each other and wondered if any of them had been talking too much to people outside the organization. But draft day went exactly as planned and Gruden, who jokes that he was sitting in the corner shivering in fear of losing one or both, was ecstatic.
In his office, Lewis smiles. This year has been fun, he says, mainly because the energy is renewed. How many coaches get to start over without moving? These days they are fired after two bad seasons. Carson Palmer did him a favor; now that the Bengals have gotten possibly two first-round picks for him, there is suddenly so much for which to look forward.
He thinks of the players who now fill his locker room: the ones who want to be there, who are about football and winning and all the things he always wanted for his team.
"They have something to prove," he says. "We all do."
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