|Rookie QB Andy Dalton and Jay Gruden have common bonds as they develop together. (US Presswire)|
CINCINNATI -- Jay Gruden stands in a hallway outside the home locker room in Paul Brown Stadium and can't help but laugh.
The first-year Bengals offensive coordinator, who owns one of the most unlikely paths to that position in NFL history, knows in retrospect it didn't necessarily have to unfurl that way.
In 1997, his older brother, Jon, then the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, offered him a job as an assistant quality control coach. Jay, coming off five seasons as a QB for the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League, had just accepted his first AFL coaching gig as an offensive coordinator with the Nashville Kats.
"I couldn't leave [Nashville] high and dry because the season was getting ready to start, so I stayed," Gruden said. "Sean Payton actually took that job. So, that might not have been the greatest career choice."
If he didn't already know that, watching the Saints' Payton raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 2010 confirmed it.
Gruden spent the next 11 years mired in national obscurity, far from the bright lights of the NFL, as a player and coach for the Orlando Predators. Outside of Orlando, he'd be known as "the other Gruden." Even more in Tampa, where he burned the candle at both ends as an offensive assistant for his brother's Buccaneers teams while still running his Orlando franchise.
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Gruden doesn't regret it, though. Not at all. He loved every minute of his 18 years and six championships in the AFL. He became the face of the league. He felt loyal to it, and to a city that treated himself and his family well.
Most importantly, in a crazy, unpredictable way, his unique journey created an offensive coordinator perfectly fashioned for a rebuild of the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Jay has that attitude that he wants to prove himself because a lot of guys in here have that same mentality that we are out to prove ourselves," said left tackle Andrew Whitworth, one of the locker room leaders. "I think he carries that mentality on the field and in the locker room and the meetings that he is ready to prove himself."
Gruden's first offseason involved drafting Andy Dalton, a quarterback owning a backstory unlikely as his own. The quarterback from Katy, Texas, didn't take the path of Colt McCoy at UT or Sam Bradford at Oklahoma. He toiled at TCU, the forgotten Texas school buried in the Mountain West Conference. When these two unlikely paths merged in Cincinnati, what surfaced was the most unlikely success of them all. They created the combination of a rookie coordinator and rookie quarterback not only surviving the departure of Pro Bowl QB Carson Palmer, but thriving in it.
The proof lies in the numbers. Dalton owns the top passer rating among rookie quarterbacks (84.3). Three times he's led the Bengals from a fourth-quarter deficit to victory. His team is 4-2 and a half game behind the Steelers for first place in the AFC North.
The moment the Bengals drafted Dalton with the third pick in the second round of the draft, Gruden realized his tenure in the NFL would likely be defined by the success of this quarterback. Dalton arrived having played only 10 games against BCS opponents during his four-year college career. "Probably," Gruden said of his success being tied to Dalton. "But I was very confident with the type of guy he was. If you were going to go down with a quarterback, you want to go down with a guy who is going to put out the effort and be able to call plays, be smart and has the mental toughness."
The two are cut from the same mold. Gruden prefers to stay on the sidelines on game day so he can lead with his fiery personality. Dalton roams there in the same fashion, leading with the presence of a veteran.
Surrounded by the star rookie receiver, A.J. Green, a second-year tight end in Jermaine Gresham and receivers Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell, both logging significant snaps for the first time in their careers, everyone has been learning as they go.
Gruden is still learning, too. His comfort with calling games in the NFL is still evolving, however, his leadership and communication skills haven't needed to adapt. Outside of the vast monetary difference, he says motivating players is no different in the NFL than it was in the arena league. At both levels exists a desire to do well and win.
His players have responded, and through six games in Cincinnati, victories have made all the difference for Gruden and anyone skeptical of Marvin Lewis hiring an offensive coordinator who had never been a position coach in the league before.
"Had we been 0-6 right now, they would probably be looking at me like I am crazy," Gruden said. "Go back to where you came from, you idiot. Right now, people are buying in and they are believing and they are playing well."
At the center resides Gruden, Dalton and their improbable paths. And indeed, ignorance is bliss.
"The thing that makes this offense how it is, is the interaction and dialogue between us," Dalton said. "There is a lot of give and take. We don't know anything different. With he and I coming [here] at the same time, we were both going to have new people around us. It has been great."