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Monday quick hits: Rey steps it up vs. Giants

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on November 12, 2012 – 12:35 pm

While the Bengals are extolled for their finest all-around performance of the season in Sunday’s 31-13 victory over the Giants at Paul Brown Stadium, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga is hearing the same thing.

Gone were the defense’s wide open receivers across the middle and the missed tackles that turned three-yard gains into eight and nine. Maualuga’s game-high 12 tackles were of the sure variety and he made certain his defense covered close enough to the receiver that the Bengals virtually eliminated yards after catch.

While cornerback Leon Hall shadowed Giants leading receiver Victor Cruz for much of the game, he had some help in holding him to three catches for 26 yards.

“Everything was similar from last week’s offense to this week’s offense,” Maualuga said. “We knew that Victor Cruz was such a big part of their offense and is a great weapon. Most of our plays were based on doubling him and making sure where he aligned on every play. We wanted to execute him out of the game plan and then stop the run and I think we did a good job.”

THIRD DOWN THRILLS: Talk about what a win can do for the locker room. It doesn’t hurt the stat sheet, either.

Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton came into the game next to last in the NFL in third-down passing ahead of only Arizona’s John Skelton with a 57.6 passer rating in 32nd place. But three of Sunday’s four touchdown passes came on third down, launching him 10 spots to No. 22 with a 74. 3 that is a rung ahead of Colts rookie Andrew Luck.

With a 91.1 passer rating, Dalton is 11th in the league and his 18 touchdown passes are tied for fifth behind co-leaders Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees with 25.

With 820 yards receiving, Bengals wide receiver A.J. Green has moved into sixth in the NFL. Dalton is three TD passes away from eclipsing his rookie total and Green is 238 yards away from passing his rookie total.

RUN GAME: The Bengals are still looking for their first 100-yard rusher of the season after nine games, the longest drought to open a season since the Bengals didn’t get any 100-yard rushing game during the 1993-96 seasons. Running back Cedric Benson got the first 100-yard game of 2008 in the ninth game when his 104 yards against Jacksonville became the first of his 15 100-yarders with the Bengals.

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis didn’t get his first 100-yard rusher until the eighth game of his first season, when Rudi Johnson got the first 100-yard game of his career with 101 in a PBS victory over Seattle in 2003.


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Dalton’s arm survives Jaws

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on June 22, 2012 – 5:40 pm

Andy Dalton

It was the only sliver of controversy in the Bengals Camp Calm and even then it didn’t raise much more than an eyebrow on the national Geiger counter this spring when Greg Cosell of NFL Films questioned quarterback Andy Dalton’s arm strength.

Cosell wasn’t trashing him, but after Dalton made a couple of perfect throws of 50 and 60 yards in the spring camps and offensive coordinator Jay Gruden offered several impassioned defenses, it died even before it started.

And on Friday, ESPN QB guru Ron Jaworski defended Dalton in his own way when he ranked him No. 19 in his survey of the NFL’s 29  veteran starting quarterbacks and Jets backup Tim Tebow, ranked last at No. 30.

Also in with his take on the Jaws rankings is Bengals radio play-by-play man Dan Hoard in his Bengals.com blog.

“The more I evaluated Dalton, the more I liked him,” Jaworski said in one of his three-minute segments. “He does have some arm strength limitations, but he compensates very well with his anticipation and his accuracy. That was particularly evident in the red zone. And that is an absolutely critical measure of a quarterback. The numbers were exceptional: 15 touchdowns, no interceptions. Dalton was very effective in the boot-action pass game. He did that well at TCU, and his ability to throw accurately on the run transitioned well to the NFL.”

Jaworski predicts Dalton is going to be near his top 10 after this season, citing his anticipation and accuracy, and one more year in Gruden’s system.

“Anticipation is an essential attribute to play at a high level. It is more important if you are not a power thrower,” he said. “Dalton was an outstanding anticipation passer. … What must supplement anticipation is pinpoint ball location. Dalton was consistently accurate in the short to intermediate areas. He put the ball right in his receiver’s hands. As my good friend quarterback coach Terry Shea says, he hits the strike point. Remember, it is the quarterback who is most responsible for run after catch.”

Jaworski also loved the way Dalton  stood in the pocket: “Overall, Dalton threw with great touch. What also stood out was his willingness to look down the gun barrel, to deliver the football in the face of pressure. You have to do that in the NFL. You will get hit. You still have to make the throws. “

Jaworski rated two quarterbacks drafted ahead of Dalton, Blaine Gabbert of Jacksonville, and Christian Ponder of Minnesota, No. 29 and 28, respectively.

He also put Dalton ahead of two former Bengals quarterbacks, Ryan Fitzpatrick (24) and Carson Palmer (21), as well as a pair of top 10 picks in the Jets’ Mark Sanchez (No. 23) and the Rams’ Sam Bradford (No. 20).

For what it’s worth, Dalton had a much better first full season as a starter than Jaws did, but he was also asked to do a lot more. In Jaworski’s fourth year in 1977, the Eagles went 5-9 in his 14 starts and he had 18 TDs and 21 interceptions for 6.3 yards per throw and a 60.4 passer rating on 116 completions of 346 throws.

Dalton went 9-7 with 20 TDs and 13 interceptions for 6.6 yards per throw and an 80.4 rating on 300 completions of 516 throws.

Jaws’s No. 1 pick is unveiled Tuesday, July 10 on SportsCenter, NFL Live (4 p.m. on ESPN) and NFL32 (6 p.m. on ESPN2).


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Pulling The Trigger

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on January 9, 2012 – 9:23 am

Courtesy of Associated Press

Tim Tebow’s 316 passing yards in Sunday’s AFC Wild Card Game against the Steelers in the wake of Denver boss John Elway’s “Pull The Trigger” plea earlier in the week may be a harbinger for Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s sophomore season.

While Cincinnati lost six of its last nine games, offensive coordinator Jay Gruden often talked about the fine line between being careful with the ball and taking risks with it in order to make big plays. He even admitted there were times he wanted Dalton to take some chances rather than checking it down or throwing it away after his QB opted for the more conservative route.

First of all, Gruden should be named the NFL’s assistant coach of the year for getting an offense with a rookie QB and rookie No. 1 receiver to the playoffs without the benefit of OTAs. He did it by keeping things sane, simple and vanilla for Dalton. And it is exactly what he had to do against a schedule that in those last nine games featured six against the top five defenses of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Houston.

But even before Tebow stunned Charles Richard LeBeau and his Steelers, Gruden showed signs on Saturday he was beginning to take the wraps off Dalton. In a road playoff game he had him throwing 18 times in the first half and it worked for the most part. If not for J.J. Watt’s vertical show and a missed field goal, he easily could have walked out of there with a 13-10 halftime lead against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

But what Tebow did to the Steelers No. 1 defense is mind-boggling. Here is a guy that had a worst completion percentage this season than Akili Smith had as a rookie (52-45) completing four throws of at least 40 yards against a defense that allowed just two plus-40s all year.

Dalton and A.J. Green had one of those against the Steelers, a 43-yarder in the 35-7 loss in Pittsburgh. That, their 36-yard TD connection in the first game, and a 25-yard throw to Andrew Hawkins were the only balls of at least 20 yards caught by the Bengals wide receivers in two games against Pittsburgh.

Of course, Tebow was going up against a much more diminished defense than Dalton. On Sunday the Steelers didn’t have safety Ryan Clark all day and defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel for much of it.

And maybe the biggest reason of all the Broncos were able to chuck it is that they ran it for 131 yards (Tebow only had 50 of them) even with the Steelers daring Tebow to beat them. Until the Bengals get their running game straightened away, Dalton won’t be able to do much more than he has in the AFC North.

There is that one big looming question. If Gruden gets the head coaching job in Jacksonville (and that is looking like a longshot), what happens to Dalton’s development? Do they promote from within? Do they keep Gruden’s West Coast offense?

But what we do know is that, at least for one day, pulling the trigger paid off. With 17 games under his belt and after watching what Tebow did to their rival, you know Dalton and his coaches must have an itchy finger.


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A few wild thoughts

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on January 7, 2012 – 1:08 pm

Andy Dalton

HOUSTON — A few thoughts heading into Saturday’s Wild Card Game (4:30 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 5) in Houston:

No doubt about it. This is Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s show.

Starting from when the Bengals knew they were in the playoffs coming off the Paul Brown Stadium field last Sunday with a game in Dalton’s hometown. Then the Wednesday practice he missed with a 24-hour bug. The scene Friday night in the hotel lobby with his family before he went into meetings.

(They were all business this week. Dalton put the word out. No media interviews for his family, which, really, was smart because they would have been swamped. They know what a big game means. Both Dalton and dad Greg quarterbacked high school playoff wins in the Astrodome.)

All the while he has shown that signature unflappability and, why not? This is his fourth game in Reliant Stadium, going back to when he became the first high-schooler to throw a touchdown pass in the place as a junior for Katy High School head coach Gary Joseph.

“Very poised. He executed as a junior but the real pressure was when he was a senior,” Joseph said earlier this week. “That’s when you have to really perform, when you’re a senior and you’re one of the leaders.”

Dalton executed in both seasons and raised his record to 3-0 in Reliant when he led Texas Christian to a win in the Texas Bowl over Houston.

With indications that Texans coach Gary Kubiak is going to keep the roof closed to emphasize the homefield advantage, this one is going to be a lot tougher with the noise factor and a defense that held Dalton to a second-half field goal the last time the Bengals and Texans met.

“There’s a lot of excitement around here; tickets are scarce,” Joseph said. “People are excited about Andy. They want to see him do well. He’s kept in touch and been around our guys before the season.”

The week after the Bengals took him in the second round Dalton went to the school and threw to receivers as well as talked to the team. The Bengals expect that cool kid next door to show up Saturday.

“I have all the confidence in Andy. Andy is a real composed guy, he (doesn’t) get rattled by too much. He loves to win and he likes the pressure. So that’s a good thing. I think Andy will hold up real good,” said cornerback Adam Jones. “I’ve been playing with him for 17, 18 weeks, and I was here with him the whole summer. Just being around the guy. I talk to him, and the way he carries himself, he’s a winner. He’s not a flashy guy, but he loves to play football.”

Or as left tackle Andrew Whitworth observed, “Pressure isn’t really an issue for him. The greatest competitors are the ones that want to win. They want the heat. Pressure is a good thing. It only drives them to be better. I think Andy is one of those guys.”

WALKING THE LINE: Dalton is walking the line here. Since throwing three interceptions against the Ravens Nov. 20, he’s thrown just one interception in the last six games. He’s taken to heart in the stretch run to make sure he doesn’t lose a game.

But there’s also the growing sense after these slew of close games that he may have to start taking more chances. Under most circumstances the quarterbacks that win in the playoffs take shots. Dalton has taken shots, but in those six games his yards per attempt is just 6.3 yards per game and that’s not going to win a road playoff game. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden has been talking about how there are times he’s wished Dalton has tried some throws when he’s taken a checkdown instead. But he also appreciates Dalton trying to avoid the big mistake.

Walking the line.

The health of Pro Bowl wide receiver A.J. Green is related. Since he sprained his shoulder against St. Louis 10 quarters ago, Green has caught six balls with the longest of them just 18 yards. He told ESPN Friday night his range of catching the ball has been limited since the injury, but he also has been saying for the last couple of week it feels better than when it first happened.

Texans safety Danieal Manning told ESPN that his defense was surprised when it went back and looked at film of last month’s game. He said they were surprised at how many wrong reads Dalton made and the indications were that the Texans were going to try and confuse him.

Dalton was certainly lucid in the first half while running back Cedric Benson was running for 92 yards. He completed nine of 17 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown for a 93.3 passer rating.

The TD came in the red zone on a 17-yard laser to wide receiver Jerome Simpson, where Dalton has really avoided the big mistakes. Inside the 20 he’s got 15 touchdowns and no interceptions. But the Bengals are 26th in the league scoring red-zone TDs.

Walking the line.

Ironically, it was the red-zone work that Dalton missed on Wednesday. But given that the Bengals already have a game plan against the Texans from 27 days ago and the work he put in the other five days of the week, they don’t expect a problem.

YET ANOTHER MATCHUP: The Bengals haven’t been able to stop Texans tight end Owen Daniels in their two games against Houston. He had two TDs in ’09 and 100 yards last month and Bengals radio analyst Dave Lapham says Bengals outside linebackers like Thomas Howard are going to have to be on their game. Safety Taylor Mays played well against Daniels in the second half last month but he’s probably not going to play with a hamstring injury.

Lapham noticed the Bengals played a lot of man under, which means there was man-to-man coverage under the zone and wonders if defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is going to change it up on them.

BIG PLAYS: The last game against the Texans was defined by two plays in the last 45 seconds. Texans quarterback T.J. Yates scrambled on third-and-15 for 17 yards, and then he threw a six-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

The scramble hurt the Bengals even more because right end Michael Johnson led a charge that had Yates sacked, but with the secondary’s back turned, Yates was off.

“I mean, we had the guy sacked, he got out of it,” Zimmer said. “This is going to be a different game and I anticipate plays like that will win the game for one or the other.”

ESPN analyst Eric Mangini isolated the last play to show that the Bengals got beat when they covered the multiple Texans receivers that went vertical into the end zone but didn’t cover Kevin Walter’s crossing route.


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Notes and quotes

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on December 4, 2011 – 9:25 am

A.J. Green

PITTSBURGH — With five games left and already at 745 yards, wide receiver A.J. Green looks to be a lock to break Cris Collinsworth’s 30-year-old rookie club record of 1,009 and to become the first NFL rookie to grab 1,000 yards in five years since Marques Colston.

He’s just 122 yards from the Bengals’ best rookie year in 17 years when Darnay Scott went for 866 and with 74.5 yards per game, he’ll pass the great Isaac Curtis (843) against Houston at Paul Brown Stadium next week, Eddie Brown (942) the week after in St. Louis and Collinsworth against Arizona on Christmas Eve at PBS.

It’s amazing given that Green is doing it with a rookie quarterback and neither had access to coaching or practice until training camp. Collinsworth had both, as well as an 11-year veteran in Ken Anderson’s MVP season. Curtis had Anderson in his third season. Brown had Boomer Esiason in his second season. Scott did most of his damage in Jeff Blake’s first nine starts, but it was Blake’s third year in offensive coordinator Bruce Coslet’s system.

So in any era it has been tough for even the great receivers to make the jump to the NFL so quickly. A few reasons why Green is an exception from offensive coordinator Jay Gruden:

“He’s got a good feel for the game. And he takes a lot of pride in work,” Gruden last week of Green. “When you’ve got a guy with the demeanor that he has and a guy willing to work hard to get better every day and has the talent he has, he’s got all the makings to be one of the great receivers to play.”

While most everyone believes that Gruden has kept his versatile scheme relatively vanilla for the kids, Gruden has enormous confidence in them.

“They’re great players, that’s why,” Gruden said. “There’s a lot of plays you can run for those guys to be successful. Andy’s a great competitor. He knows what he likes; he knows what plays work against certain things. And of course A.J. is one of the most talented people around.

“It’s exciting to have those two guys here. To know they’re going to be here for a while is even more exciting. And to know what type of people they are makes it even more fun to come to work. That’s the thing about those two guys: you know you’re going to get the best out of them every day and they’re going to learn and be pleasant and want to learn and want to improve.”

Gruden sees Green having no shot of becoming a diva receiver. This isn’t a guy who is huffing and puffing after every series about not getting the ball.

“You have to talk to him and ask him what he likes; he’s not going to tell you,” Gruden said. “He just wants to win and he’s going to do what he’s asked to do and when the game is over he’s going to give it all he’s got. Usually when the game’s over, I’ll be kicking myself as the coordinator, ‘Why didn’t we go to him more often?’ We’ve got other good players. It’s worked out so far.”

If Green ever does start calling for the ball, “he’ll probably have a reason,” Gruden said with a laugh.

But that’s not to say Gruden and receivers coach James Urban aren’t coaching up Green. There are things he needs to develop. He’ll get a big test Sunday against Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor, a guy Gruden calls one of the league’s best technicians that exploits bad routes.

“Sometimes his releases might be too quick, or too predictable, or he doesn’t work the corner at all. He rounds (some routes) or he’s short on some depths,” Gruden said. “Just a little too impatient. He has to get open so quick and maybe the ball’s not there by a second but the quarterback isn’t ready to throw it and the corner closes in on him. Timing and working the corner is every bit as important as athleticism and talent.

“Sometimes you really have to be patient, work the corner, push him up to a certain depth, use your head, use your shoulders. Stick him. Be physical some times.”

Gruden admits that anybody with that much natural ability can get away with bad habits but like he said, “He still runs good routes; he can get a lot better. That’s all I’m saying.”

Which is a bit frightening.

UP FRONT TALK: Look at how much defensive tackle Geno Atkins has improved over his rookie season. He’s leading all NFL defensive tackles in sacks with 6.5, but line coach Jay Hayes says his biggest improvement has come stopping the run.

“He’s just learning the little intricacies of playing it, studying it and using what he has to his advantage,” Hayes said. “His strength, his quickness, his leverage, his foot speed. He understands the game very well. When you point out to him what to do when they do this, he gets it.”

Although Frostee Rucker has moved ahead of Michael Johnson at right end on the depth chart, Hayes is hesitant to call him the starter because he says Rucker is the starter in base and Johnson is the starter in nickel and the individual game depends on who plays the most. But with nickel rusher Carlos Dunlap out again this Sunday against the Steelers, both figure to get a lot of snaps in nickel because Rucker can play left end and inside on nickel if need be. Plus, Johnson can stand up on some snaps.

In his sixth season, Rucker is having a career year with four sacks, more than he had combined in his five previous seasons. Besides the maturity Hayes talks about, there is the health former Bengals defensive tackle John Thornton talks about. By playing Sunday, it will tie his career high for games played at 12.

Thornton, Rucker’s mentor breaking in, also talks about trust gaining him more snaps.

“Veteran coaches like veteran players,” Thornton said. “You have to show them you can stay healthy and be reliable and that takes time. He’s just matured.”

NOT A SNAP: Even though former Browns long snapper Ryan Pontbriand’s rolled field-goal snap was a huge factor last week in the Bengals 23-20 victory, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons couldn’t help but have pangs of sympathy for him.

Simmons has seen it all too often. Solid performers for years, they inexplicably get the yips. Pontbriand had blown a couple before last Sunday, including one on what would have been a game-winning chip shot.

Simmons saw it happen with the Bengals’ own Brad St. Louis in 2009, his 10th season in the league. He says for special-teamers, there is no such thing as an incomplete pass in first down.

“Every down,” he says, “is fourth down.”

He doesn’t expect any meltdowns from the man that has replaced St. Louis so seamlessly. Clark Harris has had 347 straight successful snaps since he arrived.

“It’s a little different with Clark. He’s played in the league as a tight end,” Simmons said.

And…

“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy.”


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Simms praises care and feeding of Dalton

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on December 3, 2011 – 7:57 pm

Andy Dalton

PITTSBURGH — Phil Simms looked a little out of place without his partner Saturday as Jim Nantz called Kentucky’s win over North Carolina to tip off CBS’s college basketball coverage before heading here to join Simms in the booth for Sunday’s Bengals game (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Local 12) against the Steelers for a share of first place in the AFC North.

But Simms, the CBS analyst who took some heat espousing on the relative merits of Andrew Luck a few weeks ago, always feels at home talking about young quarterbacks. Yet when he talks about Bengals rookie Andy Dalton, he starts with his coaches.

Simms, a Super Bowl MVP that enjoyed his best day as an NFL quarterback on the biggest stage, agrees. The NFL is a coach’s league. And he says the Bengals have handled Dalton “almost perfectly” and “borderline great.”

“To me in the NFL the most important people are the coaches,” Simms said Saturday night after he emerged from skull sessions with the Bengals coordinators. “I understand you need players, but I know coaches who have the players and still can’t get it done.”

Count Simms among the growing legion of fans of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, which seems to include certain elements of the Jaguars front office, some college programs, and all of Bengaldom. Thankfully, Gruden’s success has poked holes in a certain inbred arrogance that doesn’t even try to hide in the NFL. Along with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and the rest of his staff, Gruden’s guys have made it look almost easy.

One veteran NFL coach sniffed a few weeks after Gruden’s hire about the Bengals hiring an Arena League coach. But, like Simms says, Gruden’s staff has been brilliant in overseeing Dalton’s development without the benefit of spring practice and classroom sessions.

Coaching is teaching and adjusting. Indoors, outdoors, or on the moon.

“The biggest surprise to me is how the Bengals have handled it. How they’ve run the team. How they’ve organized this new-look team,” Simms said. “They’ve handled Andy Dalton as good or probably better than the Carolina Panthers have handled Cam Newton.

“They’ve surrounded him already with good stuff. The offense is smart. It’s not too complicated. They’re making the transition easy for him. They’ve done the right stuff and I’m sure during the year they’ve added a layer on.”

As for Dalton, Simms is holding off on any pronouncements until “he gets the eye test,” which means after studying him on tape on him and watching him on TV since he was a freshman at TCU, Simms finally gets to see him play a game in person Sunday.

Simms doesn’t have any big questions about Dalton. He’s just curious, the way an expert is curious about another member of the craft. He’s impressed and loves the potential.

“With Andy, it’s easy to see the poise and all that on the field,’ Simms said. “That’s wonderful, but I’m anxious to watch him in person, to see how the football comes out of his hand.”

Simms believes quarterbacks have to have some kind of physical trait to set them apart, be it “really big, really fast, or you can really throw it.” He says a quarterback can’t just be “really smart,’ because it doesn’t take all that much to hit the open guy, and Dalton is trying to jack up that completion percentage that now sits at barely 60 percent.

“Andy Dalton right now is in between in all those categories,” Simms said. “What he is to me already is he’s a guy that’s going to stand in there. He’s not a guy quick-footed enough to scramble all the time and get the five yards. He’s going to be a successful quarterback because he can figure out who to throw it to and hit them when they’re open at an unbelievably high rate. And he has the potential to make two or three throws a game that can separate. To me, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”

Don’t get Simms wrong. He likes what he sees on tape and he was particularly impressed with the way the Steelers coaches were surprised this week at how far he was along physically when they played three weeks ago. But he wants to see the guy up close.

“I’m excited for the eye test,” Simms said.

When he was scouting Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming out of college, Simms was able to put No. 1 on his list of likes, “Big. And he’ll play big in the NFL.”

No. 1 on his list for Dalton is his throwing motion.

“He has a beautiful throwing motion. I didn’t say that about Carson Palmer,” Simms said. “Carson has a jerkier motion. Andy’s is smooth and that smooth motion will serve him well and his arm will get stronger as time goes on.”


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Of QBs, comebacks and hope

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on October 2, 2011 – 7:33 am

Andy Dalton

The Bills are here to play the Bengals today and that conjures up the concepts of comebacks and grace under pressure and all the things that make quarterbacks, fans and the endless crusade of hope.

As head coach Marvin Lewis would say, today is a good teaching point for one A. Dalton, the promising Bengals rookie quarterback who two weeks ago came within a yard of pulling off a road fourth-quarter comeback in his first NFL complete game.

But, of course, one team’s comeback is another team’s collapse.

This past week saw all-timers on both fronts when the Red Sox turned baseball into Shakespeare and alternated tragedy with comedy while blowing the biggest lead in the history of their sport to somehow miss the postseason. That was a few days after these Bills, naturally, did in the Patriots to become the first team in NFL history to win two straight weeks after being down 21-0.

If you grew up on the outskirts of Boston in the late 1960s and fell in love with sports because of The Impossible Dream Red Sox and their 1967 season, then watching the biggest collapse of all-time is saying something. While those Sox made comebacks an almost daily occurrence, their unfortunate ancestors never held any kind of a lead that mattered until the new century.

The Septembers of 1974 and 1978 scarred a generation, and a 1986 World Series that featured evaporated leads of 3-2 in games, 5-3 in the 10th inning of Game 6 and 3-0 in the sixth inning of Game 7 altered the brain chemistry forever.

Enough so that on the final day of this season decades and championships removed, when the Red Sox had a one-run lead in a rain delay and the Rays begun to rustle in Tampa, true Sox fans already knew.

“I went to bed during the delay,” admitted Frank Champi from his New England home last week. “You could tell. Maybe because I experienced it myself. They say it’s not over until it’s over, but at some point you know how it’s going to turn out.”

If you grew up on the outskirts of Boston in the late 1960s and were watching TV on the afternoon of Nov. 23, 1968, you fell in love with football because of Frank Champi. Summoned from the bench with unbeaten Harvard down 22-0 to unbeaten Yale late in the first half, Champi, an unknown junior who had completed five passes all season and was best known for throwing the ball 85 yards with his right arm and 50 with his left, threw two touchdown passes in the final 42 seconds and a two-point conversion with no time left to turn a 29-13 deficit into a historic 29-29 finish.

Not as incredible, but just as amazing, Champi has never met Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills quarterback and architect of Buffalo’s last two historic finishes. If Fitzpatrick is the greatest quarterback in Harvard history, then Champi quarterbacked the school’s greatest football moment.

Never mind. Champi is a big fan. They’ll meet some day.

“I agree, I thought he was the greatest quarterback in Harvard history when he was there,” Champi said. “He had all the intangibles, he led by example, he was very well-respected. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for (NFL) teams to realize it. I saw him play a little bit and I thought he was special. I’ve been following his career since he’s been in the pros and he’s been outstanding. I thought all he needed was a chance.”

Champi didn’t do much else on the field after The Tie in The Game, but what else was there? He’s as humble now as he was then when he told Pat Putnam of Sports Illustrated in the locker room, “I was so tired I wasn’t even nervous.”

A product of Everett, Mass., Champi has stayed close to his roots and out of the limelight, but is a pleasant and engaging ambassador for the game and the moment. He had to admit, he was torn last Sunday watching Fitzpatrick come back on his Pats.

“I want to see him do well, no question about that. There’s an obvious connection,” said Champi, surprised that no Harvard quarterback completed an NFL pass until Fitzpatrick did six years ago. “But at some point you’re just enjoying the game and want to see the best team that day win. I’m pulling for Fitz, though. I’d love to see him take the Bills to the playoffs.”

Bengals fans aren’t immune to comebacks and collapses. Their own tortured history began on the edge of the ‘90s in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXIII and a 16-13 lead that didn’t hold up in the final three minutes. The kids have experienced it, too.

In 2006, leads as small as 13-7 and as big as 28-7 were blown to knock them out of the playoffs. In 2009, their AFC North champs were nicknamed “The Cardiac Cats,” when they won two division games in the final 22 seconds and another on the final play of overtime in one draining three-week stretch.

And last year Fitzpatrick, the former Bengal, came to Paul Brown Stadium to lead the NFL’s biggest halftime comeback ever when he brought the Bills back from 17 down to win by 18.

Dalton fired a shot for the New Era when he generated 19 second-half points in Denver two weeks ago with two touchdown passes in a rally that fell short with three minutes left at the Broncos 36 on fourth-and-one in a 24-22 loss. Yet he showed all the attributes to be able to pull it off.

Except maybe experience, as evidenced by last week’s two interceptions in the final 4:54 of a one-touchdown game at home against the 49ers.

Champi and Fitzpatrick can help him there.

“I’m enjoying this so much because I’ve been on the other side. I know how quickly it can change in this league,” Fitzpatrick said last week. “I’m a lot more experienced. I feel like those 12 games in Cincinnati were my biggest learning experience and I’ve drawn a lot on them. I’ve improved mentally and physically.”

Champi is a bit uncomfortable talking about comebacks with Fitzpatrick around. “I only had one. Fitzy’s had several.”

But Champi had the greatest. He thinks back to the two-point fast ball over the middle to future White Sox catcher Pete Varney nearly 43 years ago after they cleared the field of marauding fans and the clock of any time.

“It was like it was anti-climactic. It was inevitable. That’s how it felt,” Champi said. “You can tell a lot by body language. People intellectualize sports too much. You can’t define emotion. There are undertones and currents and it’s like you’re riding a wave.”

Not bad advice for one A. Dalton after a historical (or is it hysterical?) week of comebacks.


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Thoughts on the locker room and the West Coast

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on September 11, 2011 – 7:18 am

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.


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Start or no start?

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on May 6, 2011 – 12:57 pm

It sounds more and more like the Bengals aren’t batting an eye about making Andy Dalton a rookie Opening Day quarterback. Which goes to show you when it comes to quarterbacks, like Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden said after they picked him, they are in the eye of the beholder.

The indication is that one of the reasons the Bengals picked Dalton last week is because they felt he was closer to NFL ready than the other guys they were considering. Now the Seahawks are admitting they considered him at No. 25 in the first round before opting for Alabama’s James Carpenter, a guy they think can help them right away.

Via ProFootballTalk.com Seahawks general manager John Schneider told 710 ESPN radio, “I think we all felt like we were at a point in our development where we couldn’t pass on a starting tackle right now. Quite honestly, we’d like to have a (QB), especially a rookie, be more of a developmental type and a guy more like Aaron Rodgers and sit for a year or two. So that was really the only point in the draft where there was a guy where we were like, ‘There he is, that’s a very viable option.’ ”

The question facing the Bengals is what kind of caliber free agent can they get with a quarterback of the future already in place? And, this isn’t exactly the same scenario when Carson Palmer was drafted in 2003 and they developed him for a year behind Jon Kitna.

Kitna had already started 33 games in offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski’s system. This time, the veteran and the rookie would be learning the same system at the same time. That levels the playing field for Dalton (it already sounds like Gruden had a Dalton-type guy in mind) and if he plays now, that means he’ll be getting the growing pains out of the way earlier than Palmer did, when they put up an 8-8 the first year he played.

That said, if it is a shortened training camp, the veteran could be a nice bridge in what could be a very weird first month of the season.


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Five takes

Posted by hobsonschoice1 on May 2, 2011 – 7:16 pm

Five takes from NFL Draft weekend:

GOOD OPENING KARMA: Here’s some good vibes for second-round pick Andy Dalton, quarterback, and first-round pick A.J. Green, wide receiver. In the only Opening Day game ever started by a Bengals rookie quarterback, Greg Cook engineered a 27-14 win over Miami at Nippert Stadium on Sept. 14, 1969. Cook outdueled Bob Griese’s 327-yard day when two of his 11 completions went for 69- and 25-yard touchdown passes to wide receiver Eric Crabtree, also making his Bengals debut. Crabtree had played the previous three seasons for the Broncos, but you get the idea.

The opener is in Cleveland, scene of the last road win by a Bengals rookie QB when Akili Smith beat the Browns on a last second two-pointer to Carl Pickens in 1999 in his first NFL start.

BEST NON-DRAFT NEWS: The one day Bengals kicker Mike Nugent was able to come into the facility last week, he was able to kick a football and make all of his handful of field-goal tries. And that’s just five months after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his kicking knee.

TEA LEAVES: Trying to read the tea leaves on Chad Ochocinco, although the rhetoric from both The Ocho and head coach Marvin Lewis seems to make it pretty clear cut. But when the Bengals take two wide receivers in the same draft (Green and Stanford’s Ryan Whalen in the sixth round), it usually means at least one major move.

» In 2010, the Bengals drafted Jordan Shipley (3) and Dez Briscoe (6) after they let loose Laveranues Coles, second in yards in ’09.
» In 2008, the Bengals drafted Jerome Simpson (2) and Andre Caldwell (3) before ’08 leading receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh left in free agency.
» We won’t count 2006 with Reggie McNeal and Bennie Brazell. McNeal was a college quarterback and Brazell was an Olympic sprinter.
» In 2005, they took Chris Henry (3) and Tab Perry (6), and 2004 turned out to be the last year for former No. 1 pick Peter Warrick.
» In 2001 they drafted The Ocho (2) and Houshmandzadeh (7) and their second-leading wide receiver, Craig Yeast, was gone for the next season.

So the past 10 years would tell you there’s going to be some sea change after a two-receiver draft.

WHICH FREE AGENTS? Unclear when the word is going to come on a permanent stay of the lockout, the Bengals spent Monday prioritizing their list of undrafted players. And, as head coach Marvin Lewis wondered on Saturday, if the free-agent gates open at the same time, which ones do you pursue first?
The Bengals already have Kyle Cook and Reggie Stephens at center, so that’s probably not a need, but NFL.com draft titan Gil Brandt says Dalton’s center at TCU, Jake Kirkpatrick, is better than some of the guys that got drafted.

And if they think they need another running back, Brandt likes Auburn’s Mario Fannin. The 5-10, 231-pounder led the SEC with quality runs, converting 70.5 percent of the time for four yards per carry, third-down conversions, and touchdowns. And they watched Kentucky’s Derrick Locke gouge them in the first half of the Senior Bowl.

Yet the Bengals could have had them ahead of Baylor’s Jake Finley, since they took him with their last pick deep in the seventh round with the mentality of picking the best free agent on the board.

The Bengals coaches had North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney at the Senior Bowl. The best SAM backer on the board, Brandt says, looks to be 6-4, 230-pound Quentin Davie out of Northwestern. The productive-minded Bengals might like his 24 tackles for a loss, nine sacks, and five forced fumbles in 50 games.

Another safety? They had Joe Lefeged of Rutgers at the Senior Bowl and he’s another college producer with 238 tackles and eight forced fumbles in his career.

CARSON UPDATE: Somebody said they read Carson Palmer is one of the big winners of the weekend since the selection of TCU quarterback Andy Dalton allows the Bengals to move on and trade Palmer.

As Sgt. Hulka said in Stripes, ” Lighten up, Francis.”

If anything, the Dalton pick may make sure a trade doesn’t come off. Now the Bengals are not forced to do much of anything, although they are mulling a veteran free agent quarterback for a staff that has all of 14 NFL passes. Draft picks are going to have to be involved if they trade Palmer, so maybe they’re thinking why not wait until next year when a) they actually know what they’re trading for and the things have some value and b) they know what the rules of the draft are actually going to be.

Maybe the pick sparks a compromise. Palmer comes in with the understanding Dalton is the QB of the future, plays for a year, takes the kid under his wing, and they call it even after 2011 and do a deal.

And, of course, maybe not.

But their best short to contend is with No. 9; no one debates that.

“The Bengals are a good team,” says Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com. “If Palmer is there, they’re in the mix. If he’s not, you have to scale that back. But they’re a team on the verge.”


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