|Jay Gruden has a rising profile as a head-coaching candidate but is happy as Bengals OC. (US Presswire)|
CINCINNATI -- There was one occasion in Jay Gruden's rookie season as an NFL coordinator when he did the inevitable. With Andy Dalton shining as a rookie quarterback, and A.J. Green rounding into a sometimes-unstoppable receiver as a rookie, he called a play that was more or less, just throw it up for A.J. and let him get it.
"That was actually a play call, one time," Gruden joked. "It didn't work out too good. But I have to admit we called 'Two Jet All Go Throw It To A.J.' Not, 'Throw it up to A.J.,' but get it to him. It didn't work out too good."
That was a mere anomaly. For most of last season, Gruden had a golden touch orchestrating the Cincinnati Bengals gifted but oh-so-inexperienced offense, helping guide Dalton and Green to immediate success and culminating in a playoff appearance. Gruden went from being better known as Jon Gruden's younger brother and a guy who had come from the Arena and United football leagues, to a viable head coaching candidate by the end of what was a lockout-complicated season. This was no normal rise.
|NFL coverage on the go|
Now, Gruden, 45, faces the burden of much greater expectations and the same challenge as this long-suffering franchise: Do it again. Prove you weren't a one-year wonder. The Bengals haven't posted consecutive winning seasons since 1975-77, with none other than Paul Brown himself coaching one of those teams. Of course, Gruden also gets a shot now with a normal offense and OTAs and a full training camp, while a year ago he wasn't able to really start working with Dalton and Green until this time. Having an impressive 2011 to build on has only boosted confidence on the staff and in the locker room.
"We have some new players, so it's not like we're going to go hog wild," Gruden said, in comparing this summer to last. "But it has been nice to have everyone in here. I think every offensive player here now was here for the OTAs, so they have a general understanding of the terminology and the run schemes and the pass concepts. So that's been nice. There are very few mental mistakes as opposed to last year."
In general, Gruden doesn't expect the look of this offense to change drastically. Some volume will expand and new wrinkles will emerge, but the focus is on honing fundamentals and continuing to refine the hallmarks of the scheme.
"We can go back and hone all the little details now," said backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who knows the system well -- having played for both Jon and Jay Gruden in Tampa Bay. "And last year, with the lockout and all the new guys here, we couldn't really do that during camp because we had to work on putting everything in."
It's also different in that now, Jay Gruden already has a rapport with his key charges, and youngsters like Dalton are already developing as an extension of him. The trust and respect is already forged.
"We have a great relationship," Dalton said. "It's special to be at a place where we have not only a great coach and player relationship, but it's also like a friendship."
Emerging tight end Jermaine Gresham agrees: "[Gruden] let's you play. The only thing he asks you to do is to work hard. That's why you see such an improvement in my play from previous years to last year. I attribute a lot of it to him. Most definitely."
Gruden remains a football sponge, soaking up tactics, concepts, and communication styles. Gradkowski believes Gruden, like his older brother, is a rock star coach in the making. He embodies his brother's focus and intensity, but tempers it with a more amicable, less-combative approach.
"They're both intense, they both love the game and they're both very knowledgeable," Gradkowski said. "But Jay is a little more easygoing, a little more laid back, and will let some things go. The guys here love him. Andy and A.J. can just play free. He's a great communicator with the guys. And then when you see him get mad, you know you'd better correct that. He's intense and loves the game of football, but he also jokes around."
The brothers Gruden will be reunited at Bengals camp soon enough. Jon will also get an up-close look at his brother's development in Week 1, when the Bengals face the AFC North winning Ravens on Monday Night Football.
"We'll try to get him up here pretty soon so he can watch practice and install some plays for us," Jay Gruden said. "But he's excited for the season, and we've got him Week 1. That will be fun."
Head coach Marvin Lewis, who signed a two-year extension Tuesday, saw Gruden's ability to absorb ideas firsthand during the lockout. With the coaches unable to work with players, the offensive staff dissected West Coast offenses like Philadelphia, Tampa, Green Bay, plucking certain things, tailoring them to the Bengals' roster. As Lewis puts it, the Bengals inserted "very small portions" of their own offense last year, but that continues to grow through Gruden.
"Jay has a great strength of really seeing the offense through the quarterback's eyes," Lewis said, "and being able to be a visonary in that way, and then go out and coach all 11 guys through how he expects the protections to work, or the run scheme to work to all the skill players. And that's a real gift."
Last year, Gruden and Dalton figured out that even a covered Green can be an open Green -- that one play call aside -- and in this constant strategic chess match, Gruden also knows that opposing coordinators have more of a feel for him now, and he must continue adapting without abandoning the team's core strengths.
"As an offensive coach you sit up at night and probably think a little too much, and put a little too much on their plates," Gruden said. "But anytime have a chance to get a player in a favorable matchup, you have to do that. That's your job. And we're trying to come up with unique ways to move guys around and get them in certain spots."
It took considerably less contemplation for Gruden to decide to stay with the Bengals, The allure to be a head coach, at this stage of his career, was not nearly as strong as the desire to continue to improve. No doubt, if Gruden continues on this track he will be running an organization -- if the Bengals fulfill their promise then many execs believe Gruden could The "It" guy this offseason, in fact -- but there's still many more plays to call for Dalton and Green before Gruden entertains that possibility.
"And it takes some time, obviously, to get acclimated and see this thing through. We've got some great players and we've made some serious strides. We've got a great group and the bottom line is, I like Cincinnati and the kids like Cincinnati, and if you're happy where you're at, I don't know why it's so important to look elsewhere."
Camp Rumblings: With Lewis signed, the staff is essentially tied up for the next few years. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has interviewed for many head coaching jobs, of course, and as noted Gruden could be coveted, too.
• The search for who becomes the second and third receiver is up for grabs.
• Gruden spoke highly of new running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, especially the ability to get tough yards and hold on to the football.
"He protects it in practice like it's the last play of the Super Bowl," Gruden said.
• Dalton on Green: "I've never been able to throw to a guy who is covered and know he's going to make a play on it," Dalton said.
• Can't remember too many times when the Bengals were openly talking about Super Bowl aspirations, but that's been the chatter around here.