CLEVELAND — A few pregame thoughts heading into Sunday’s opener.
Everyone is trying to put a label on this 2011 Bengals locker room without The Ocho and T.O. and it is so easy to say it’s less egocentric, more unselfish, and the chemistry flows like champagne. And without quarterback Carson Palmer, it’s even easier to call them The Young and The Leaderless.
But like all the pundits have already made up their minds on how bad the Bengals are going to be, let’s slow down just a little bit.
One assistant told me on Saturday that while locker room chemistry is extremely important, it takes time to become visible. He wants to see them go through some adversity first.
That’s code for their response to big injuries and tough losses, be it blowouts or of the last-minute variety. Another long-time insider says he’s looking to see how they react “to getting hitting in the mouth. And they will get hit in the mouth.”
That’s going to take a month or so.
And a locker room is like any other workplace. Not everybody agrees on everything. Safety Chris Crocker, one of the team leaders, has always thought the Bengals have had good chemistry since he arrived in the middle of the 2008 season.
“Our locker room has never been an issue. From the outside you think The Ocho was a distraction or whatever. But he was just a good guy that liked to have fun. I don’t think our locker room is any different, it’s just young.”
But another leader, this one on offense in left tackle Andrew Whitworth, thinks the youth has changed the room.
“It’s younger. It’s just a different mindset, different attitude. It brings some life to the locker room and some change,” he said. “There aren’t as many guys that are just playing and thinking we don’t have a chance. We have some young guys that have won and are real good players and they bring some energy. Sometimes you need some new freshness.”
Whitworth says rookie quarterback Andy Dalton isn’t all that different than Palmer when it comes to personality. Both are laid back. Both are quiet. Both talk in the huddle.
And while the offense may be younger (there are just 132 NFL catches at wide receiver and 15 NFL games at tight end), the locker room picked up three seasoned and solid pros in cornerback Nate Clements and linebackers Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard. Plus, guys like Whitworth and defensive linemen Domata Peko and Robert Geathers, already captains of sorts, earned their PhDs in leadership during the lockout. There are some coaches that believe the lockout was a boon for the Bengals in the sense that it forced guys other than the usual leaders—the Crockers and Whitworths and Pekos and Geathers—to step up and police the locker room.
While everyone is scrambling trying to read everything into every clue, Dalton shrugged. Yes, he took the locker Palmer has had since 2006 when Jon Kitna left. The one tucked in a corner, the last locker on the left as players go to the equipment room, practice field and the parking lot.
But Dalton says he wasn’t trying to send a message. It simply came down to a matter of electronics. He pointed to the wall next to the locker.
“That’s why,” Dalton said. “The outlet. It’s in a great spot. It’s easy to charge my phone or plug anything else in … it’s just a locker.”
In the end, his legacy could be that glacial calm that soothes a locker room that was once a tinderbox. But give it some time. Right now, it’s just a locker room.
WEST COAST REUNION: Sunday’s opener marks the return of the Bengals offense to its roots after a 10-year absence. New offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has brought back the version of the West Coast offense he learned under his bother Jon.
What makes it even more intriguing is the Browns are using it in a game between the two teams founded by Paul Brown. And as his son, Bengals president Mike Brown, said this week, it was his father that gave the West Coast its language and numbering system.
It’s an intermarriage of Xs and Os. Jon Gruden broke in at Bill Walsh’s 49ers in the early ‘90s, the former Bengals assistant that created the West Coast in Cincinnati using Paul Brown’s Cleveland offenses of the ‘40s and ’50s as a template in the early days of the Bengals in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.
New Browns head coach Pat Shurmur was hired by club president Mike Holmgren, a Walsh disciple that made major adjustments to the West Coast to suit his strong-armed quarterback in Green Bay, Brett Favre, in the ‘90s. While Walsh preferred the shorter passes and working under center, Holmgren put Favre in the shotgun while keeping intact one of the absolute truths of the West Coast of multiple personnel groups.
Now, Jay Gruden says the West Coast has evolved so much that his brother and Holmgren would have a tough time understanding each other’s playbook.
Mike Brown says Walsh used his father’s numbering system, but he credits the future Hall of Fame coach for creating the genesis of the West Coast in 1970. With 1969 AFC Rookie of the Year Greg Cook suffering what turned out to be a career-ending shoulder injury while winning the AFC passing title, Brown says Walsh went to a shorter passing game to suit the arm of journeyman Virgil Carter that next season and the Bengals made the playoffs.
But Brown believes the zenith of the West Coast didn’t come until the ‘90s, when he says 49ers quarterback Steve Young ran it the best of anyone before and after.
And this is where Bengals fans start to mumble a series of unintelligible what-ifs. Before Walsh died a few years ago, he insisted Cook was the best young quarterback he ever saw. In 1984, Brown went to bed thinking he had a deal for Young as the No. 1 pick in the draft only to wake up to find he had signed with something called the Los Angeles Express.
Sunday it all comes full circle for an offense that started in the rust belt and was named after California. And everyone is waiting to see where Dalton falls among Cook, Young and Carter.
Tags: Andrew Whitworth, Andy Dalton, Bengalls locker room, Bill Walsh, Chris Crocker, Mike Brown, Paul Brown, West Coast offense
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