Georgetown, Ky. — One of the stories floating around Bengals' training camp has been head coach Marvin Lewis' attempt to bring a symbolic close to an era of Bengals football known more for self-aggrandizing theatrics than on-field success. With the departure of the obtrusive antics of Chad Ochocinco, Lewis – entering his ninth season as Bengals' coach – seized the opportunity to forge a new team identity simply by not allowing the past to repeat itself.
Before the Bengals' first offseason walkthrough began, Lewis spotted fourth-year wide receiver Andre Caldwell wearing orange shorts instead of the team's traditional black variety. In a flashback to Ochocinco wearing different color cleats or tear away pants in the past in an attempt to draw attention, Lewis ordered Caldwell back to the locker room for a quick change.
While seemingly a trivial detail, Lewis' actions speak volumes regarding his role in guiding both a suddenly younger roster as well as serving as a defacto team executive. At times over the past several seasons, it appeared that Lewis was lost amongst a roster that was filled with veteran castoffs and extraordinary personalities. In lieu of traditional advance scouting methods, the Bengals of past seasons have collected high profile free agents who have fallen on NFL hard times.
And while this approach has yielded occasional success, the Bengals as a whole have been rife with both off-field drama and on-field limitations. Because of the high-profile nature of such veterans as Cedric Benson, Adam Jones, Tank Johnson and others, the Bengals have been savagely characterized as a haven for the league's unwanted. However, a more tangible product of this approach has left the Bengals with an aging and frayed roster – one unable to adapt to the rugged AFC North.
After winning the AFC North divisional title in 2009 by exhibiting a physical defense and pounding running game, the Bengals relapsed in 2010 under the weight of expectations. The Mike Zimmer-led defense, which ranked in the league's top ten in 2009, slipped last season because of a combination of age and injuries. The drop in defensive production strained the offense, which led to an overreliance on Carson Palmer's suddenly shaky right arm.
A 4-12 finish followed, along with the departures of Ochocinco and Terrell Owens. In the first several days of training camp, the free agent loss of cornerback Johnathan Joseph caught the Bengals by surprise. However, the biggest story of the Bengals' 2011 season so far has been the continued absence of franchise quarterback Carson Palmer. For all intents, Palmer is unofficially retired – as his prior trade request was denied by Bengals' owner and pseudo-GM Mike Brown.
Yet during an evening practice at the Bengals' Georgetown, Ky. training camp, it appeared that Lewis and the rest of the Bengals had already moved on. In a remarkable departure from past training camps, the air of uncertainty that could have been exposed by the likes of Ochocinco was non-existent. Despite the fact that Lewis is pushing ahead with the prospect of relying on a rookie starting quarterback, the eternally popular veteran coach almost seemed relieved by the positive tone of his latest camp.
Of course, at the moment one of the bigger team concerns is Andy Dalton merely trying to master the basic fundamentals of playing quarterback in the NFL. According to Lewis, progress was measured in incremental amounts.
"They're getting there. Last night the two new guys (Dalton and Bruce Gradkowski) were rusty. Tonight they settled down and got in and out of the huddle. They settled down and delivered the ball on time."
At first glance, it would appear that the Bengals are taking a major step backwards in starting Dalton – especially after seven seasons with Palmer. However, even the smallest of on-field moments represents progress for Lewis – who throughout the past several years of franchise turmoil has remained a gifted and highly respected teacher. Now, the authority that was sometimes swallowed up in years past has returned.
And in an odd sort of football logic, mastering the huddle could be quite the welcome departure from off the field disputes and distractions.
With Dalton, first-round draft pick A.J. Green and new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, Lewis will certainly get his chance to affirm his standing as the league's third-longest tenured head coach. While a huge amount of work remains to prepare the offense for September, the Bengals may have found a couple building blocks in April's draft.
Dalton is one of the more serious looking rookies one can come across in an NFL training camp. The uninitiated could have easily mistaken Dalton for a capable veteran – simply based on his body language and smooth movements. As for Green, the fourth overall pick in April's draft, the Georgia wide receiver is a big target who has already flashed bigger potential.
Green delivered what was easily the highlight of a camp scrimmage on Aug. 5 by running under and hauling in a lofty Dalton sideline pass. Green's body was nearly in full extension as he dove to bring in the ball. However, leading up to this highlight moment were several more catches of routine variety. In virtually no time at all, Green has ascended to a focal point of the Bengals' passing game.
"He does what's advertised," Lewis said. "He's a big man with great speed, great body control. He can run every route and make every catch. He can make the quarterback look good."
Like Dalton, Green seemingly carries the weight of a more seasoned veteran. Throughout the team'S Friday night scrimmage, the rookie wideout appeared unfazed in processing the team's new West Coast offense. After practice, Green effortlessly embraced a flood of autographing-seeking fans and buggy-eyed local sports writers.
For Lewis, Dalton and Green represent a sense of coming full circle for the 52-year old coach. In some respects, the Bengals are indeed starting over – at least offensively. Yet, for a coach who has become a sort of paternal caretaker to the Bengal franchise, a fresh start could be considered mandatory. As Lewis paused mid-interview to reprimand a few stray players for not "getting on the fence" to sign autographs, another significant message was being sent.
For better or worse, the Bengals are once again Lewis' team.