Rest easy, Bengals fans. For those of you unable to make it down to training camp at Paul Brown Stadium, I’m glad to report that Andy Dalton has really mastered those 2- and 3-yard gains that he’s always struggled with and that we all know could put the team over the edge, Super Bowl-wise.
I’m joking of course. Sort of. Training camp is always a slightly odd affair. The defense is largely unable to do the main thing that they are supposed to do (hit people really, really hard) and even the slightest injury is reason enough for a crucial player to spend the day goofing around with the teenage sons of the coaches or riding a stationary bike very, very slowly. (I must confess, I still don’t think A.J. Green is hurt; Jay Gruden just won’t let him practice with James Harrison.) This year has been no different, although the atmosphere has changed. Where rambunctious Georgetown College fans back in the day would scream, jostle for autographs, and lose control over every completed pass of more than six feet, the audience at the fields next to PBS is subdued, intense, watchful.
So what does this watchful gaze fall upon? The first thing you notice on offense is the sheer size of this crop of tight ends; first round pick Tyler Eifert manages to make Jermaine Gresham look like pre-op Pinnochio, and if the Bengals don’t have the most dominant TE group this side of an Aaron Hernandez homicide, then those head-coaching rumors about Jay Gruden will die pretty quick. Rookie RB Gio Bernard is just as elusive as he looks on TV, and fellow back Rex Burkhead isn’t too far behind him. On defense, the most striking note of the starting group is just how much weight Rey Maualuga has lost. Seriously. It’s hard to tell if this will make him a better linebacker, but I bet he can fit into that pair of jeans he loved at USC. However, swings and roundabouts, the truly eye-catching aspect of the defense is just how much James Harrison’s forearm looks like a giant cobra in the midst of swallowing a whole ham. But yes, after that, it’s skinny Maualuga.
Jokes aside, there is a certain air of seriousness about this young Bengals team. There was one play that stood out, when Bernard broke through the defense and jogged down the field. Cornerback Shaun Prater chased after him, caught him only when the running back slowed down, and then childishly popped the ball out of his hands from behind. It was a rare—and awkward—moment of immaturity in an otherwise business-like camp.
Of course, judging anything by camp atmosphere is a fool’s game. In 2010, it was a T-Ocho filled hive of electric expectation, the huge crowd ooh-ing and aah-ing each time Carson Palmer bombed a 50-yard pass over the defense for a score. Of course, the only part of that sentence that held up in 2010 was “Carson Palmer bombed.” But the sense of quiet efficiency this year (Hue Jackson apart, obviously) was pervasive. The question, as always, is whether that will translate to the regular season. But for now, it seems like these Bengals mean business.
Fringe: Dane Sanzenbacher. With 90 players (not to mention innumerable coaches, assistant coaches, staff, HBO crew-members, mascots, buddies, ball boys, etc) all similarly dressed and all similarly enormous, fast, and physically staggering, it can be hard to stand out. Sanzenbacker, however, is a story the cameras might follow. He had a corking game against Atlanta and during practice he’s held onto everything that has come his way.
In the middle: Vontaze Burfict. Maualuga has lost the weight and Harrison attracts attention by aggressively showing how much he avoids it, but Burfict is the man in the middle who stands out. This time last year he was hopeful. Now he demonstrates what it means to play faster than your stats and stalks the middle of the field, sometimes going as long as five or even 10 minutes without getting into a fight with Jermaine Gresham.
Elite: Leon Hall. Practice must be quite boring for Leon Hall, because none of the QBs throw the ball anywhere near him. On the odd occasion that they are about to, they tend to panic and drop things.
Fringe: Ryan Whalen is still a member of the Bengals receiving corps, as the coaches insist that he works hard and knows the playbook inside out. I can’t be the only one who hopes that those things might be sort of a given, rather than qualities that make a player stand out. Especially if you’re a borderline receiver who doesn’t make the catches that Sanzenbacher and Hamilton do.
In the middle: Josh Johnson. ‘Telegraphing’ is an old-fashioned word. So, perhaps it would be better to say that Josh Johnson emails his passes? Tweets them? I don’t know. But though Johnson may have had a solid outing against the Falcons, on Monday his first two passes were picked off by Prater and safety Shawn Williams, to the surprise of nobody in the crowd, who collectively couldn’t have seen them coming more blatantly if they’d DVR’d the plays, found out what happened and then watched it back in slo-mo anyway.
Elite: Mohamed Sanu. First, the receivers have a competition to see, two at a time, who can run further with a ball attached to a resistance rope. Then Hue Jackson makes fun of Mohamed Sanu for being the worst at it. Or the QBs will take turns throwing to the receivers, and then Hue Jackson will make fun of Mohamed Sanu for being the worst at it. I don’t say this to rip up Sanu—I’m excited to see what he and Marvin Jones do alongside Green and the tight ends, but he certainly hasn’t looked like the standout No. 2 guy of this group.