The men who oversee the Bengals quarterbacks, position coach Ken Zampese and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, appreciate what 49ers rookie Colin Kaepernick brings to the position in Sunday’s Final Four and what Washington’s Robert Griffin III brings to the Rookie of the Year vote. And they see a trend coming out of the colleges featuring a new breed of running/athletic quarterback that is going to challenge the NFL offensive coordinators to implement some of those elements.
But the dropback passer is no extinct species, they say. As Zampese looks around in the conference championship games, he also sees two traditional guys that came out in 2008 in Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan. And there’s also the guy in New England. Thomas Edward Patrick Brady.
This talk of the best of Sunday’s field? “He’s the best of 32. Not the best of four,” Zampese says of New England’s ultimate pocket passer.
“You still have to make a throw. But if you can buy time, you can look for more opportunities to make a throw. I think that’s where some of those guys can really make hay in this league. You still have to throw, and make a good accurate throw. But if athletically you can create more opportunities, that are good. These guys running around are still passers at heart first … all these guys can still do that. That’s why they’re so valuable.”
Gruden has watched how Kaepernick took over the 49ers the last half of the season, culminating with last Sunday’s NFL record for a quarterback with 181 rushing yards.
“They’ve got a stellar offensive line that’s been playing well and Michael Crabtree has emerged as a leading receiver. That’s not taking anything away from Colin because he’s done some great things,” Gruden says. “They’ve had positive down and distance. They’ve not been in any third-and-longs, and if they are, Colin has made some plays with his feet.”
Zampese says the supporting cast has allowed the New Breed to make an immediate impact.
“The thing about the new guys having success is they’re doing it on teams with top five defenses and top five rushing attacks,” Zampese says. “You throw it more than 30 times and all of a sudden guys get exposed because there’s a lot more pressure on the quarterback to make a throw. Keep the attempts closer to 20 and life is good.”
While the Bengals watched TCU’s Andy Dalton play for the South in the 2011 Senior Bowl, they coached Kaepernick for the North and while they liked a lot about him, he didn’t fit what they needed at the time. As Gruden recalls, “We didn’t have a quarterback.” The Bengals needed one right away for Opening Day and even Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers head coach that traded up to get Kaepernick with the 36th pick, knew Kaepernick was at least a year away. The Bengals, thrilled with how Dalton projected into running Gruden’s West Coast scheme, identified him as their top guy from that class and grabbed him at No. 35.
How raw was Kaepernick coming out of Nevada running the Pistol formation? “Extremely raw. Sidearm fastballs. Kent Tekulve,” Zampese says of the great Pirates submarine closer. He was going to take some time and we were in the market where we need something a little different. We highlighted the guy with a ton of experience.” But that doesn’t mean the Bengals didn’t have regard for Kaepernick.
“Fun guy to be around. Very coachable. He doesn’t have an inflated opinion of himself. He just wants to be good,” Zampese says. “He’s young and impressionable in a good way. He’s solid with who he is. He’s got a foundation of personality in the huddle that is electric. You feel like when he’s playing, you’ve got a chance. That’s what jumped out at me that week.”
The Bengals got the same sense of huddle presence from Dalton and both clubs have been rewarded. Dalton is 19-13 as a starter with two playoff berths in two seasons. Kaepernick has his team a game away from the Super Bowl. Zampese loves the way Dalton’s overall stats not only rose from his rookie season this year, but when he made the commitment to cut back on throwing interceptions, the Bengals went 7-1 in the last eight games.
“He’s growing. If his numbers keep improving like that, we’ll win 10-plus games,” Zampese says of 2013. “If his passer rating is in the mid-90s, we’re winning 10-plus games. If the touchdown passes to interceptions are two-to-one, we’re winning 10-plus games.”
Zampese is extremely impressed that in his last eight games, Dalton threw five picks compared to 11 in the first half of the season. He knows improvement is needed after what happened in the last month and the playoff loss in Houston. But …
“That mentality you love to see. We want him to fix it and he does,”‘ Zampese says. “And we played worse offensively, yet we won more games, which is interesting to note. We talked about taking too much risk in some of those decisions and we needed to cut back the risk. It made a difference. It didn’t show up in yards and points, but it made a difference in wins and losses.”
That’s the kind of thinking the Bengals believe gets teams to win playoff games and why they think the moxie of Dalton with his 11-5 road record and two Decembers of stretch pressure is going to be even more valuable as his career progresses. The Bengals aren’t looking for him to be Kaepernick, Flacco, Ryan or Brady. They look at a guy that doesn’t have great speed or a huge deep ball and they see a Drew Brees, a Super Bowl MVP with yet another style.
“It takes all kinds. You see it this weekend. You’ve got everything at quarterback,” Zampese says. “Andy is Andy. He’s not this guy or that guy. The guy is a point guard who can get the ball to all parts of the field. And he’s a fighter. That’s what you want.”
The read option?
“Not even close. Brady is the best in the game,” Gruden says with a laugh. “He can do it all. Except run the read option. Who gives a crap?”
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