• Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, a longtime secondary coach and four-time Pro Bowl defensive back for the Rams in the 1980s.
• Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who at 33 is one of the league's shrewdest defenders
• Mike Leach, the former Texas Tech coach who is highly regarded in NFL circles for his imaginative offensive mind.
• Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, a spread-offense guru who coached Newton last season and helped him become the first pick in the 2011 draft.
• Brian Burke, the former Navy fighter pilot who founded the forward-thinking analytics website Advanced NFL Stats.
One factor became overwhelmingly clear during the discourse: the maturity of quarterbacks who have entered the league in the last two or three years. They've been polished by experience gained from college programs playing the same game the pros play—and by a certain craze going all the way down to middle school that makes football nearly a year-round sport.
"Seven-on-seven summer passing leagues," Dalton said. "When I was in high school I was in a power-I formation. We were handing it off a lot. But in the summer with these passing leagues, it definitely helped quarterbacks out because we were getting five wide receivers every snap. It gave us confidence that we could get in the gun and throw it around successfully."
It makes tremendous sense. Dalton not only had 50 college games and 1,317 college passes on his résumé when the NFL took a close look at him before the draft last spring; he also had several summers of throwing the ball in multiple formations, reading coverages and learning to trust his arm and his head. Earlier this fall Bengals offensive coordinator Jay Gruden told SI one of the things most impressive about Dalton was that "there's not much he hasn't seen." That helps explain why his passer rating through Sunday was higher than that of Philip Rivers, Matt Cassel and Matt Ryan—and why the surprising Bengals (5--2) are in contention in the strong AFC North.
Provoking more thoughts from the think tank:
SI: Why has football become such an aerial game in 2011? Why are there three guys on pace to break Dan Marino's single-season passing record?