July 2012

New Season But Old Question For Dalton

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.”

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Paul Brown’s Words Ring True Four Decades Later

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 team 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.

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Highly-Touted LB Luc Joins Bearcat Family

When linebacker Jeff Luc was still in high school, the parade of coaches that came to visit him in Port St. Lucie, Florida was a “Who’s Who” of head coaches and assistants from several of the top college programs in the country.

“Pete Carroll and Ken Norton (USC),” recalled Luc.  “Jimbo Fisher and James Coley (Florida State).  Bobby Williams from Alabama.  Lane Kiffin from Tennessee.  Coaches from the University of Miami.  My parents had to change our home phone number because schools used to call like crazy.

“I still have the mail in my old room.  If I had to estimate, I would probably say well over 1,000 pieces of mail and that’s no lie.  I guess it will be something to show my kids someday.  It was a lot of pressure, but there are pros and cons to everything.  I enjoyed the experience and I think it was a blessing from God that I got to have that opportunity.”

Luc, a First Team USA Today All-American who was rated as the top middle linebacker recruit in the country by Rivals, eventually signed with Florida State.  But after battling injuries and seeing limited playing time in two years with the Seminoles, Luc decided to transfer.

“When I first got my release, I didn’t really want to talk to any reporters because no matter what I said about the situation, somebody would have taken it the wrong way,” Luc told me.  “I guess I didn’t fit their scheme or wasn’t what they were looking for, but it wasn’t anything personal.  I can still call the coach and see how they’re doing.  I was a good kid and that’s why they didn’t take it personally.  It was strictly business.”

Fortunately for Cincinnati, another coach that had visited Jeff at Treasure Coast H.S. was John Jancek when he was the linebackers coach at Georgia.  John is now the co-defensive coordinator under Butch Jones at UC.

“Coach Jancek has been recruiting me since high school and he’s a good guy,” said Luc.  “I’d love to play for him.  That was a huge part of it.”

The Jancek connection helped Cincinnati get a foot in the door, and Luc says that the program’s “family atmosphere” convinced him to transfer to UC.

“I saw what kind of guys Coach Jones and Coach Jancek were,” said Luc.  “When they were recruiting me, they talked about how it’s a family – everybody talks about that but Cincinnati really showed it.  It feels like home.  Everybody has taken care of me and they’re helping me out with everything that I need.  Basically, they’ve welcomed me into the family.”

“When he decided to transfer, the recruiting process started all over again and we were competing against high-profile institutions,” said head coach Butch Jones.  “At the end of the day, what it proves is that we’re recruiting on a national stage and people want to come here.  They want to be a part of our football family.  They can feel the excitement, they can see the vision, and I really believe that we have a tremendous product to sell.”

Luc is 6’1”, 245 pounds and says he’s been timed at 4.6 in the 40 yard dash.  Jeff has already enrolled at Cincinnati and is taking part in summer workouts.  He’ll redshirt this season and then have two years of eligibility remaining.

“To tell you the truth, I wanted to redshirt,” said Luc.  “I think it’s going to make me a lot better by helping me pick up the scheme.  I think it’s going to make me a better person as well by being patient and knowing that everything happens for a reason.”

“He’ll have a full year without any pressure to come in and play right away and that will allow him to fully develop,” said Coach Jones.  “We lose some linebackers after this year, so to have an individual who has experience, who has been in a big-time program, and who understands everything that goes into playing at a high-profile institution – I’m encouraged that we’re going to have him the following year.”

Luc will become one of the most highly-touted recruits to ever play for Cincinnati, but does he expect to be the starting middle linebacker in 2013?

“I’m not going to say that I see myself as the starting middle linebacker – that’s really up to the coaches,” said Luc.  “I see myself as someone who is going to help this program and give them what they’re looking for in me.”

“We’re really excited about this young man,” said Coach Jones.  “I think he has a hunger to prove himself and is very, very driven.  Even though he can’t play this year, he’ll be on the scout teams and will work on his craft each and every day.”

“I want to help motivate the team and be some type of leader,” Luc told me.  “I came out of high school with that ‘big time’ label, but I just want to win to tell you the truth.  I want to help out as much as I can.”

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Zac Robinson Looks To Secure NFL Home

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.”

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Hawkins Ready For Training Camp Battle

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.

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