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Veteran Wharton Adjusting To New Surroundings

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 28, 2012 – 1:49 pm

Travelle Wharton has eight years of NFL experience under his belt including 99 starts as a member of the Carolina Panthers.  But before taking the field on Friday for his first training camp practice as a member of the Bengals, Wharton was a bit nervous.

“I don’t know if I slept the night before because I was just ready to get to work,” said Wharton.   “I woke up every hour checking the clock to make sure I wouldn’t be late.  Coming into a new team, it’s a mix of everything – different schedule, different everything – and I’m coming in and just taking it all in.”

Unfortunately for Travelle, his practice debut with his new team ended early as he was one of three players who had to exit due to heat and hydration issues.

“It got me at the end,” said Wharton.  “That surprised me because I’ve been down in the Carolinas my whole life and it’s really humid, but it was a hot one yesterday.  I’m taking in my fluids and I’ll have a great day today.”

“With the humidity and heat the way it was yesterday and with the storms rolling around us the last couple of days, it zapped some of the guys,” said head coach Marvin Lewis.  “But everybody this morning seems to be back and ready to go.”

Wharton is expected to be the Bengals starting left guard this year after signing a reported 3 year/$10 million contract as a free agent on March 17th.  He brings a reputation for being an outstanding run blocker after starting at both guard and tackle for Carolina.

“I can learn a lot from him,” said Bengals rookie Kevin Zeitler.  “You can only learn certain things from experience, and just watching him on film and talking to him about certain techniques – there’s a whole wealth of knowledge there.”

“My job is to come in here and be a great teammate and make my blocks,” said Wharton.  “I really can’t control anything else.  I just want to come in here and play the best football of my career.”

With the Panthers last year, Wharton helped rookie QB Cam Newton compile 4051 passing yards with 21 TD and 706 rushing yards with 14 TD.  Now he’s eager to work with the other rookie quarterback that went to the Pro Bowl last season Andy Dalton.

“Man, it seems like he’s been around for years,” Wharton said of Dalton.  “His poise, his mannerisms, and the way he carries himself – he’s going to be a pro for a very long time.  The way he comes in and works and pays attention to details – it’s no secret why he is as good as he is.  He has great leadership qualities.”

The Bengals are high on Wharton’s leadership ability as well, and now that he has that first practice behind him, Travelle is ready to settle in with his new team.

“You get the nerves out on day one,” said Wharton.  “Everybody is anxious to get on the field, but once you’re out there and get everything going, it settles down and you’re like, ‘Alright, it’s time to play football and get after it.’”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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New Season But Old Question For Andy Dalton

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 28, 2012 – 9:26 am

Last year, Andy Dalton became the fifth rookie in NFL history to throw for more than 3000 yards in a season and tossed a pair of touchdown passes in the Pro Bowl.  He’s the only rookie quarterback to lead his team to at least eight wins and throw as many as 20 TD passes.

Not too shabby.

But since late May when a producer for NFL Films questioned Dalton’s upside due to “arm strength limitations,” it seems that nearly every story about the Bengals starting quarterback has included the same rationale.

“I think one person said it so everybody decided to hop on the bandwagon,” Dalton told me.  “I didn’t seem to have very many issues with it last year and nobody said much about it.  Now everybody wants to comment on it.  They can say whatever they want – it’s not going to affect me.”

“If there was a question about him coming out of college it was probably his arm strength and that’s why he didn’t get drafted in front of the quarterbacks that got drafted, but the way I see it, his arm is plenty strong enough,” said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “I’ve seen some of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL play, and his arm is a lot stronger than theirs.  I’m not even concerned about that.  Whoever is writing that and saying that doesn’t understand the position.”

“Peyton Manning doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he’s probably one of the best quarterbacks that ever played,” said A.J. Green.  “Andy’s accurate, he has his timing down, and he has great ball placement.”

Prior to Cincinnati choosing him with the 35th overall pick in last year’s draft, Gruden made the case that Dalton should be the number one quarterback on the Bengals draft board – ahead of the four QBs that were selected before him:  Cam Newton, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, and Christian Ponder.

“Jay said that I’ve looked at them all and he’s the best one for me and what I do,” said Bengals president Mike Brown.  “Being me I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’  But we were fortunate that we came up with him at the top of the second round and I’m glad that we did.”

“I just thought that the way that his mindset was, his toughness, and his credentials coming in here with a record of 42-7 at TCU, that he could come in and play right away,” said Gruden.  “Now, it’s a matter of how much will he improve?  I think everybody knows that he could do some of the things that he did last year; now what he has to do is take that next step and become one of the top quarterbacks.”

Despite limited offseason training due to last year’s lockout, Dalton completed 58% of his passes as a rookie with 20 TD and 13 INT for a QB rating of 80.4.  Now with a year of experience under his belt and a normal schedule of OTAs and minicamp, Andy sounds confident as he begins his second training camp.

“Last year I was trying to learn an offense, trying to meet new people, and trying to figure out where I was going,” said Dalton.  “Now I have a good understanding of everything and I’m really comfortable out there.”

“He’s going to be much better,” said Green.  “He’s more in control of the offense and everybody listens to him.  This is his team and his offense.”

“Things will surprise him less,” said Brown.  “He’ll find guys quicker and easier.  He’ll just feel more confident and I think it will reflect in his play.”

“He’s the type of guy that’s going to get better and the more he sees, the better he gets,” said Gruden.  “He was thrown into the fire last year and hopefully he learned from everything that he saw.  I think he has a good basis of understanding of how fast the game is and the different blitzes and coverages that he’ll see.”

And there’s one other thing that could help Dalton improve in his second season – all of those stories about his arm strength.

“Maybe it fuels him a little bit,” said Gruden.  “I think his deep ball accuracy has to get better – not so much his arm strength but his accuracy.  He did throw some balls out of bounds or maybe threw some with the wrong trajectory so I think he can work on that.  But I don’t think it’s strength; I think it’s timing and accuracy.”

Gruden has certainly been right about his quarterback before.

“He as much as anyone is responsible for us going after Andy Dalton,” said Brown.  “I don’t know anyone that doesn’t think he was on target there.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Paul Brown’s Words Ring True Nearly Four Decades Later

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 25, 2012 – 5:37 pm

This week, SI.com’s Peter King has a gem for Bengals fans in his Monday Morning Quarterback column – the transcript of the speech that Bengals founder Paul Brown gave to the team at the start of training camp in 1973.

On Tuesday, I asked Marvin Lewis if he had had the opportunity to read the transcript.

“I’ve had a copy of that speech since I came here so I’ve heard it many times,” Lewis told me with a grin.  “It was a different era because that was the first time that they saw the guys – they hadn’t seen them since the previous December.  We see these guys all of the time, but I think that some of the things in the speech are great.  I think the best part of Paul’s speeches was that he was so matter-of-fact and everything was so direct.”

Peter King first listened to the recording when he covered the Bengals for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1984.  This summer he searched for his old cassette recording of Paul Brown’s speech and couldn’t find it so he contacted the Bengals.  The audio on the team’s copy had started to fade in spots, but the club was able to have the sound quality restored and provided King with a new copy.

The transcription of the speech is roughly 14,000 words long, and while the fine amounts are outdated for today’s salary structure (a mere $50 for being late to practice), the major themes ring true nearly 40 years later.

Here are a few examples.

Paul Brown on accepting criticism from the coaching staff:

When we happen to single you out, once in a while when I say something to you in an open meeting like this, it isn’t done to hurt your feelings. I don’t want you to start feeling sorry for yourself. Be a man about your errors. Do something about it. If you make a boo-boo, you’re sorry about it, we all are. It hurts us all. Coaches won’t be swearing at you. We’re not this shouting, haranguing type. They’ll treat you high class, but they aren’t really working for a popularity contest either. Your respect we want. Other than that, we want to make sense to you. Don’t misconstrue this kind of relationship as weakness. There has got to be mutual respect.

Paul Brown on the demands of playing for the Bengals:

While football is in session, we’re paying for you full time. We’re paying you to practice, to know our plans, to pay strict attention in all meetings. Football careers are ended mentally, not physically. Most of the good ones I’ve known, they can’t stay up to it mentally. You’ve got to enjoy the life that is pro football. You just don’t fool anybody if you don’t. If you aren’t this style and if it doesn’t mean this much to you, we’ll just have to get rid of you and it’ll probably shock you how well the sport will go on without you. As far as I’m concerned, the selfish fellow is the worst person of them all.

Paul Brown on what it takes to make the team:

Everything you do from now on will have a bearing on making it. It helps us make up our minds. Your general person, your conduct, your previous record, your attitude, how you take your warm-up routine, your calisthenics, how you take coaching, and above all, how you block and tackle. Enter into the tryout spirit. It will be tough, but be friends with the guys you’re competing with. One kind of guy, we always get a certain number of, is the fellow who figures out, ‘Oh boy, there’s three people at this position, three people too many at this position, they can only keep this, I’m in this kind of a predicament.’ Divorce this kind of thing from your mind. Just say to yourself, ‘I’m going to do the best I can do,’ and it will handle itself. If you’re good enough, there will be a place found for you somewhere. Don’t do our thinking for us. Just concentrate on the job and you’ll never have any regrets.

“I think his foundation was good and he had his sights on the right things,” said Bengals president Mike Brown.  “He wanted dedicated players that gave their full effort and he wanted them to behave off the field and reflect well on themselves and the club.  He wanted them to be healthy and successful as individuals.  He had his priorities in order and I think those priorities are still right in line.”

And still will be 40 years from now.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

If you Twitter, you can follow my tweets at http://twitter.com/Dan_Hoard


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A timeout for Larkin

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on July 23, 2012 – 2:40 pm

A baseball timeout before football breaks the huddle this Friday:

The kid with his mother’s blue eyes lives and works in a new town now.

But somehow he’s kept more stuff in the 5-1-3 than he brought with him. Part of the mass is the framed autograph poster still hanging at the head of the bed. Too precious to travel 1,000 miles and shove into an apartment.

If you were nine years old and you could go to sleep only if you were listening to Marty and Joe and you were always the Reds on the 1994 version of Ken Griffey Jr.  Baseball, then Barry Louis Larkin, fellow Cincinnatian, is your man.

When his man went into Cooperstown Sunday, the kid with his mother’s blue eyes was also back east. Somewhere on a beach listening to Marty and Jeff on the phone app, the runs, hits, and errors slapping against the waves.

“Sure, I remember,” the kid is saying Monday morning from his office. “It was over at Eastgate. It was the year after he was MVP and the year he went 30-30.”

Right. 1996. It was at Biggs and Larkin was signing about 200 or so of the MVP posters, a nice drawing with his stat line at the bottom that wasn’t nearly as impressive as watching him play night in and night out in the middle of the diamond with a frosty grace.

The kid’s father knew Larkin through his job as a sportswriter. The father liked him because he always took a call or was in front of his locker no matter the sensitivity of the topic. And if you were a Cincinnati Red in the early ’90s, there was no shortage of sensitive topics.

From race to stadiums to suspensions. The kid’s father always admired Larkin for how handled the enormous pressure of that daily tinderbox with unflappable class, heaped on the fact he was doing it in his hometown.

The kid showed up with his father at the back of the line as Larkin began signing the poster. When it was his turn and Larkin saw the father standing there as if he were waiting in front of his locker with a notepad and tape recorder, he smiled the Larkin smile.

“What are you doing waiting?” Larkin asked. “Why didn’t you come up to the front of the line?”

“Nope,” I told him. “If I waited with my father in line for Yaz, he’s waiting for you.”

Carl Michael Yastrzemski. Hynes Auditorium. Downtown Boston. 1968. The winter after the Year of the Yaz. Triple Crown. MVP. The line was longer than the Impossible Dream Red Sox’ 100-1 shot.

Larkin laughed and the father introduced him to the kid with his mother’s blue eyes. The kid reached out his hand.

“I think it surprised him I shook his hand,” said the kid, who still remembers the inscription.

There has been the furious stampede of the intervening 16 years. High school. Football games. Baseball games. Girls. Two college degrees. Two beat-up cars. A first paycheck. Yet the inscription is as fresh as that day in the spring.

“He put my name,” the kid recalled Monday. “Best wishes. Barry Larkin. 11.”

A few months later, they were at Riverfront. Sept. 22, 1996, when Larkin hit the deep fly against the Cards to become the first 30-30 shortstop in history. Whoops. High fives. Only then did the kid who always keeps score when he goes to a Reds game carefully fill in the pencil diamond.

“I bet when that room is finally cleaned out,” the kid said, “we’ll find that scorecard. We’ll find a lot of scorecards.”

But that’s the nice thing about a boyhood hero, isn’t it? You don’t need the scorecard to remember a smile and a handshake, or an autograph, or a simple nod.

The kid still keeps a scorecard when he goes to a Reds game in his new town. And he’ll go once a series. Someday, the Larkin poster is going to catch up with him.

“I still remember,” the kid said Monday.

Now when they go see Yaz and Barry Louis Larkin, they won’t have to wait.

There are no lines in front of the plaques at Cooperstown.


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Zac Robinson Looks To Secure NFL Home

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 19, 2012 – 9:32 pm

Imagine being in your twenties and renting a house with five buddies on Hermosa Beach, California for about a month.  The wide, flat beach in the Los Angeles area is known for sunbathing, surfing, and beach volleyball.

Sounds like fun right?

But for Bengals quarterback Zac Robinson and five friends from other NFL teams that share the same agent, the purpose of the house was not fun in the sun.

“We put our money together and got that house and a trainer for six weeks,” Robinson told me.  “We figured that you only get this chance once in a lifetime, so we all had the same mindset to go out there and work.  So that’s basically what we did.  We played a little golf, but for the most part, it was a lot of hard work.”

Robinson hopes that renting that house helps him secure a long-term NFL home.  In two professional seasons, Zac has been employed by four teams – the Patriots, Seahawks, Lions, and Bengals.  Robinson has played in seven preseason games with New England and Detroit, but has not appeared in a regular season game.

“This is my third year and I’ve had maybe 20-something throws in the preseason,” said Robinson.  “In my situation, that’s kind of where you make your mark – in the third and fourth quarter of the preseason games.  Hopefully, I’ll get an opportunity to play in the games and play well.”

The former Oklahoma State star is 15-for-30 for 162 yards with 1 TD and 0 INT in his NFL preseason games.  Perhaps it should be no surprise that the Bengals signed Robinson last September after he was waived by Detroit, since Zac was 2-for-2 with a 28-yard touchdown pass against Cincinnati in last season’s exhibition opener (you can see the TD pass here).

“He’s shown some signs of being pretty good,” said Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden.  “He has the arm to make all the throws, now he has to translate it mentally and make quicker decisions.”

“I thought he was really good in college,” said Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham who saw Robinson play at Oklahoma State.  “He’s a smart guy and has a good football IQ.  I think he’s worth working with – let’s put it that way.”

Robinson spent all of last season on the Bengals practice squad as the third string quarterback behind Andy Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski.

“I think it helped me out a lot,” said Robinson.  “(Quarterbacks coach Ken) Zampese and I stayed after practice every single day for 45 minutes, so we got to work on a lot of footwork stuff.  I tried to observe a lot because the top two guys got most of the reps against the defense, so I tried to absorb everything.”

“Today he got stuck with the ball in his hands way too many times,” said Gruden after one of the Bengals minicamp practices in June.  “He would have been carted off.  He has to pick up the tempo and his decision making has to be quicker.”

When the Bengals open training camp next week, it appears that Robinson will be battling rookie Tyler Hansen to be this season’s third string QB.  How they fare in preseason games could determine who sticks.

“That’s what we’re living for right now,” said Robinson.  “That’s your opportunity to put it on tape.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Hawkins Ready For Training Camp Battle

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 16, 2012 – 8:13 pm

Andrew Hawkins was more than a feel-good story for the Bengals last year – he was a productive NFL rookie with 24 receptions for 271 yards, 5 carries for 25 yards, and 5 special teams tackles in 14 games.

Does the 26-year-old feel like he did enough to clinch a roster spot for the upcoming season?

“No – last year doesn’t matter,” Hawkins told me.  “It’s the nature of the business.  They have to put their best players out there.  I have to come in here and prove it all over again and that’s the name of the game.”

The battle for the anticipated six roster spots among Bengals wide receivers figures to be one of the most intriguing storylines when training camp opens next week.  A.J. Green is an obvious lock for one spot, with the alphabetically listed group of Armon Binns, Hawkins, Vidal Hazelton, Justin Hilton, Marvin Jones, Kashif Moore, Taveon Rogers, Mohamed Sanu, Jordan Shipley, Brandon Tate, and Ryan Whalen fighting for the other five.

“You go to work,” said Hawkins when asked what he’ll do to try to earn a spot.  “Teams are not going to be made in the spring.  They’re going to be made in training camp and they are going to be made in preseason games.  I tell the young guys that everybody is not going to be able to play here, but if you work on becoming a better receiver and put it on film, you’ll have a place to go play.  That’s really what it’s all about.”

The ability to contribute on special teams will be a factor that could help Hawkins make the team.

“I’m hoping to do whatever they ask me to do,” Andrew told me.  “If they want me to return punts or kickoffs, or run down on coverage, that’s what a football player does.  I’m trying to get better at everything.”

The 5’7” former Canadian Football League player was considered a long-shot to make the squad last year when he was acquired during the first week of training camp after being cut by the Rams.  The younger brother of former Bengals cornerback Artrell Hawkins proved to be a quick and shifty weapon as a slot receiver, but is determined to show that he can be a more frequent target for Andy Dalton.

“As a professional, it’s the most minute details that take you to the next level,” said Hawkins.  “Whether you’re working on releases or getting the right depth on certain routes, you’re trying to get on the same page as the quarterback.  That’s the biggest thing as a wide receiver – you have to see the same thing as the quarterback from a different perspective.  That’s one of the things that I’ve focused on and hopefully it helps elevate my game a little bit.”

Andrew enjoyed an eventful offseason, highlighted by the birth of his son Austin Wayne Hawkins on February 15th.  When he wasn’t spending time with his own child, Andrew took the opportunity to share his story of overcoming the odds with other kids.

“I did a lot of speaking at camps and schools,” said Hawkins.  “I remember a time when they didn’t care to hear me speak and it will come again.  Hopefully while I’m playing in the NFL, kids get excited and I’m able to tell my story.  If it can help somebody, that’s the biggest thing for me.”

And what is the crux of his message to children?

“Perseverance and hard work man,” said Hawkins.  “That’s the name of the game.  You have to believe in yourself and you have to put in the work to back it up.”

That’s exactly what he plans to do when camp opens on July 27th.

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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Howard Preps For 2nd Bengals Season With Eye On Future

Posted by Dan Hoard on July 7, 2012 – 3:11 am

Adam Jones is not the only player on the Bengals roster who would have made a good speaker at the NFL’s recent rookie symposium.  Perhaps next time the league should invite Thomas Howard too.

While Jones shared embarrassing details about his checkered past and delivered a heartfelt message on how not to behave, Howard could provide a good example of a professional athlete who entered the league realizing that fame and fortune are usually fleeting.

“The misconception is that once you’re done playing, you’re going to retire,” said Howard.  “That generally doesn’t happen unless you’re making a boatload of money and you’ve managed it well.  The best thing that I’ve learned is that you have to learn about money and how to manage it.  We’re football players – we’re not accountants or CPAs – and every day it’s football, football, football.  When you read about guys who go broke or declare bankruptcy it’s sad.  You need to manage your risks, do your due diligence, and don’t rush into anything.”

Although he’s only 28 years old, the Bengals linebacker is already preparing for life after football.  In February, Thomas took advantage of a job-shadowing opportunity at NFL headquarters in New York (you can see video here).

“I went to the league office and spent three days there, and I saw some things that I can transfer from the football field to an everyday job,” said Howard.  “I was there from eight to five, and I really gained an appreciation for what they do.  I went everywhere from sales, to human resources, to player discipline, to game day operations, to public relations, and to community relations.  I learned a lot and it narrowed down what I think that I could possibly do when I’m done playing.

“The NFL also offers the BM & E which is a business, management, entrepreneurial program at different business schools.  Last year, I was among a group of guys including Bruce Gradkowski that attended the one at Harvard.  I try to feed my brain.”

While Howard is preparing for his future, he isn’t ignoring the present.  After leading the Bengals in tackles in his first year on Mike Zimmer’s defense, Thomas expects to be even more productive in 2012.

“After being here for a year, you get a little more comfortable and play with a little more confidence,” said Howard.  “You get a better feel for where everybody is and you understand Zim’s system better.  Your communication is better and it’s all about communication on defense.”

“He took a lot of snaps last year and was learning as he went along, but now he’s fine-tuning everything and you can see that it’s starting to pay off,” said linebackers coach Paul Guenther.  “He really understands the details now.”

“When I’m playing behind guys like Geno Atkins, Robert Gathers, and Domata Peko, I should have a good year because those guys are phenomenal and they make my job easy…or at least easier,” said Howard.

The Bengals went 9-7 in Howard’s first year in Cincinnati and Thomas says the team is setting the bar higher this season.

“We had a decent year and got a taste of the playoffs, but we want more,” said Howard.  “Everyone plays this game to win the Lombardi Trophy and that’s our goal.  We have high standards and if we don’t win it all, that’s a failed year.”

I’d love to hear from you at Dan.Hoard@Bengals.nfl.net

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