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The Bengals' locker room is festooned with football mottoes. DO YOUR JOB! reads a sign by the door leading to the practice field. FIND A WAY, implores the message on television monitors hovering above the room. "Success doesn't discriminate," says cornerback Nate Clements, getting into the spirit after a recent practice. Maybe the Bengals should change their name to the Believers.
Despite the imposing obstacles—the ostensible retirement of quarterback Carson Palmer (after his trade request was refused by owner Mike Brown), the departures of veteran wideouts Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco, and the expected elevation of rookie Andy Dalton to the starting quarterback job—the Bengals aren't reading much significance into last season's 4--12 record. They're more apt to point to their AFC North title of 2009 as a better indicator of what they can do.
"Two years ago this team swept the division," says Clements, who signed as a free agent after stops in Buffalo and San Francisco. "We have what it takes. It's been proven, and guys realize that. With winning comes confidence. That's the key, to start fast and win games. That breeds confidence within the group. This is a young, talented team."
Says center Kyle Cook, "This is a new year and we've got to move on. We still have a good locker room and good players. We still have the guys like [guard] Bobbie Williams and [tackle] Andrew Whitworth and [running back] Ced [Benson]."
All the positive thinking in the world won't amount to much if Cincinnati doesn't figure out a way to score. The offense ranked 22nd in the league in points last year, with 20.1 per game, prompting coach Marvin Lewis to fire longtime coordinator Bob Bratkowski. His replacement, Jay Gruden, is a disciple of the West Coast offense, but for his schemes to work it's essential that the 28-year-old Benson rediscover the battering form he had in 2009, his best pro season, when he gained nearly 100 yards per game. Last year that mark dropped to below 70, and his per-carry average fell from 4.2 to 3.5. "It opens up the play action and bootlegs," Gruden says of the run game. "Without it, our playbook diminishes considerably." And the pressure on Dalton increases.
One of the major questions facing Gruden will be how much manpower to devote to protecting Dalton, which will affect how many options the young QB will have downfield. "Especially with the exotic blitzes you see on second-and-long and third down, when you max protect you hardly get anybody out [on routes]," says Gruden. "But if [the defense] plays Cover Two man or drops eight [defenders], you've also got problems. We have to have a good combination of both."
The 35th pick in the draft out of TCU, Dalton took a beating in the preseason opener, absorbing a late shot from Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh for which Suh was fined $20,000. In practices Cincinnati defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has been disguising coverages to give Dalton a better idea of what he will face in the regular season. "Let's see worst-case scenarios for him and prepare and show him what it's going to be like," says Gruden, who was a Bucs assistant under his brother, Jon, and coached in the UFL the last two years. "It's not going to be easy any week, any game that we play. He's going to see some things, take his licks, get up and come back at 'em."
Dalton is savvy enough to understand that there are advantages both to playing right away and to sitting behind an established veteran. "You see what Sam Bradford did last year, came in and played really well as a rookie," Dalton says. "But then you see the whole Aaron Rodgers situation, where he sat back for a while. I prepared myself like a starter. If they want me to be the starter, I'll be ready to go. Obviously the speed [of the game] is different, but football is football. It's just going out and playing and getting used to the little adjustments that they do in the NFL that they don't do in college."
That Dalton must overcome doubters is nothing new. He recalled his experience at Katy (Texas) High. "I wasn't sure I was going to play college ball," Dalton says. "I felt I had the ability, but I didn't play much my junior year." In his senior season he starred for Katy and committed to TCU, where he became a three-year starter and led the Horned Frogs to an undefeated season and the No. 2 ranking in 2010.
Now with the Bengals, he carries their hopes on his right arm. "This team is hungry," Dalton says. "All of us working together can do good things." Sounds like another locker room sign.