CINCINNATI – Marvin Lewis stood in the locker room, addressing his team, and Andy Dalton could tell his head coach was satisfied, at least for one night.
This was Aug. 9, just minutes after the Cincinnati Bengals’ 30-27 win over the Chicago Bears in their preseason opener, and Dalton had thrown it well with the first-string offense, completing six of eight passes for 103 yards, with four completions going for 20 or more yards, an emphasis throughout training camp.
So the eight-year veteran, sensing a chance to take advantage of a job well done, decided to push it with his coach.
“This means we’re out of the hotel tomorrow, right!” Dalton yelled toward Lewis.
Lewis grinned slightly, and nodded.
“I got ya,” he said.
As Lewis departed the locker room shortly thereafter, he took heart. It was a small moment, maybe few will remember after the Bengals’ return to the team hotel — thanks to the Dalton-inspired two-day reprieve — for the continuation of training camp two days later. But for Lewis, it was the latest example of encouraging growth from his quarterback, the man who essentially holds the Bengals’ 2018 season — and perhaps Lewis’ own future as Cincinnati’s head coach — in his hands.
“In the past, he wouldn’t have been the one to say that,” Lewis told Yahoo Sports. “Someone else would have said it.”
Someone like veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth, for instance. But Whitworth, a strong leader, has been gone now for over a season — he signed with the Los Angeles Rams as a free agent before the 2017 campaign — and since then, Lewis says he has watched the 30-year-old Dalton grow more comfortable being vocal, both among his teammates and even with him.
“I think Andy feels like he can say anything to me now, which is good — he feels that he can be the voice of the players, and he can lay something on me,” Lewis said. “Whether or not I agree, that’s the second step of it. But he’s not afraid to put it out there, and that’s a good thing.”
Dalton might as well be comfortable with Lewis, who has been the Bengals’ head man since 2003. He’s the only NFL head coach Dalton has ever known, one that Bengals owner Mike Brown took plenty of heat for bringing back after a roller coaster 2017 campaign in which the Bengals started 0-3 and suffered two consecutive blowout losses to Chicago and Minnesota in December, only to end the season with two victories against playoff hopefuls (Detroit, Baltimore) and a 7-9 overall record.
Lewis’ overall 125-113-3 career record as Cincinnati’s head coach helped his cause with Brown, as the franchise had not had a winning season for 12 years prior to Lewis’ arrival. So Brown, much to the chagrin of Bengals fans, signed Lewis to a two-year extension in January, citing his comfort with the man who undeniably brought the Bengals back to respectability, but is only 13-18-1 over the past two seasons and 0-7 in the playoffs.
Lewis set about making some tweaks before his 16th season in Cincinnati. For one, he replaced defensive coordinator Paul Guenther — who left for Oakland in January — with former Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who is operating with a Lewis-issued mandate to cause more turnovers and improve on third down. But most of Lewis’ offseason self-scouting was focused on ways to improve the offense, which ranked dead last in 2017 with an average of 280.5 yards per game. And that effort, Lewis says, starts with a deep ball renaissance in Cincinnati, as the Bengals’ long-ball effectiveness plummeted last season after years of being one of the league’s best deep-passing teams.
“If you don’t throw the ball over their head, then [defenses] keep squeezing down on you,” Lewis said.
So Lewis and his staff pored through tape of what they did in the past that worked, and looked closely at how some of the league’s best teams connected on deep balls. From there, they gleaned everything from the micro that needed to improve — like the need for their receivers to be more exact with their splits and alignments — to the macro, like the co-opting of some of the NFL’s most effective deep-passing concepts.
But more than anything, improving in this area will be about pushing Dalton to, well, keep pushing it downfield.
“The thing Andy has been so great at is protecting the football,” Lewis said. “That’s the thing, we don’t want to change that. But if we’ve got an opportunity to make some vertical throws, let’s keep the ball on the table and let’s make those plays.”
To make teams truly pay, Dalton must be more accurate on deep throws. In 2017, he finished 21st out of 22 quarterbacks in deep-ball accuracy among QBs with a minimum of 50 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus.
“The shots we attempted, a lot of them went out of bounds or were underthrown or overthrown,” Lewis said. “We just didn’t give our receivers an opportunity to make a play on the football, and you have to keep it on the table because if you don’t catch it, at least you’ve got a chance for a pass interference. But you’ve got to connect on some.”
Some of the blame for Dalton’s deep-ball accuracy issues falls on the pass protection, as the Bengals surrendered 40 sacks in 2017, tied for 13th-worst in the league. Lewis attempted to rectify those problems by trading for steady, veteran left tackle Cordy Glenn and investing a first-round pick in Billy Price, a powerful, aggressive center from Ohio State.
But at the end of the day, the responsibility for improving the deep ball rests with Dalton, and it’s one he takes seriously.
“I think it just comes with time and reps — that’s part of it,” Dalton said. “And [the receivers] understanding where they need to be and understanding where you need to put the ball.”
The task of keeping Dalton on course, however, falls on offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, who took over for Ken Zampese after the Bengals were shut out 20-0 in the season opener last season.
Lewis hoped Lazor could inject some new life into the offense, but he ended up guiding a group that looked remarkably similar to Zampese’s over the season’s final 15 games. There’s was a ton of passes out of three-wide sets, for example, and the offensive verbiage was still Zampese’s, as well.
“When Bill took over last year, he inherited an offense that wasn’t his,” Dalton explained. “So now, we’re getting to do things exactly how he wants it.”
Lewis and Dalton say Lazor has installed the concepts he feels most comfortable with, all in the name of producing more chunk plays.
“I think Bill understands that the biggest thing is, we have to make explosive plays,” Lewis said. “You’ll have a hard Sunday if you think you’re gonna drive 16 plays against NFL defenses [every time].”
The first glimpse of the Bengals’ new-and-improved offense was promising. In the win over the Bears, the Bengals produced 10-plus plays of 20 yards or more, and while it was just the preseason opener, when the pressure is on to win — as it is in Cincinnati — every positive step, every positive sign, counts.
Dalton knows that, which is why he felt so comfortable speaking up for his teammates and asking for an additional night away from the Bengals’ training camp hotel.
“We got a couple nights off, which was good — I think everybody was kinda loving it,” Dalton said with a laugh. “I think I’m at the point of my career, and I’ve been here long enough, where I like to think I have a little bit of pull.”
He’s got that right. For better or worse, the fate of the Bengals in 2018 — and perhaps, his head coach’s job — falls on Dalton’s shoulders. And he knows that as long as he’s taking care of business — and the Bengals win — Lewis won’t mind if he keeps speaking up, both for himself and his teammates.
“Absolutely,” Dalton said a laugh, when asked if he’ll keep pushing the envelope with his coach following victories. “I’m gonna see what else I can get from him.”
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