The 2014 offseason brought with it a great deal of change to the Cincinnati Bengals' coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer became the Minnesota Vikings' head coach while offensive coordinator became the head coach in Washington.
If the preseason is any indication, however, the transition from Gruden to new coordinator Hue Jackson has been a very good one for Cincinnati's offense and quarterback Andy Dalton.
Gruden's play-calling did the Bengals few favors since he took the job in 2011, Dalton's rookie year. From abandoning the run game to not doing much to help Dalton mature and evolve as a quarterback, Gruden held his former team back.
The Bengals offense was certainly serviceable during Gruden's tenure, with the Bengals reaching the postseason in each of the previous three years. But it lacked a bite, an aggressiveness that didn't match the incredible amount of talent the Bengals had amassed on the offensive side of the ball.
Now, the Bengals seem to have their confidence—dare I say, their swagger—back under Jackson.
Jackson is a very vocal, passionate coach who requires the same kind of passion from his players. As long as they buy into what he is selling, Cincinnati's offense could see a degree of renewal this season.
Based on the Bengals' last two preseason games—their Week 2 contest against the New York Jets and Sunday night's Week 3 dress rehearsal against the Arizona Cardinals—it appears the Bengals have developed the appropriate edge to match the coordinator's zeal.
Look no further than Dalton as an example.
Last week against the Jets, Dalton was excellent, completing eight of eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown and ending his day with a 158.3 passer rating.
He wasn't flawless against the Cardinals, going 13-of-21 for 157 yards and no touchdowns, but he threw no picks and was not sacked once, despite repeated attempts to pressure him by Arizona's defense.
In particular, Dalton had one completion that seems to indicate a degree of transformation. While facing an all-out blitz, Dalton stood in the pocket and connected with receiver Mohamed Sanu, converting on a 3rd-and-10.
Where Dalton may have shrunk away, taken the sack or thrown a nervous, inaccurate pass just a year ago, on Sunday he stood tall while knowing a big hit was on its way.
This hasn't just been a preseason fluke, either. ESPN.com's Coley Harvey noticed the difference in Dalton when attending Bengals training camp at the beginning of August. When Harvey asked Jackson how Dalton has been looking, Jackson offered up one word: "Sensational."
And it wasn't hyperbole.
[Dalton's] really starting to buy into the urgency, getting the ball out of his hands and he's making great decisions. ...
A quarterback's got to be poised.
He's been very in control of when things have gone really good and when things have gone really bad. That's a good sign.
Harvey agreed, suggesting that Dalton "looked like the quarterback of his team."
Jackson has been trying to hammer these points into Dalton since taking over as coordinator in January. He has wanted—no, needed—Dalton to ramp up his aggressiveness and be more vocal as a leader, literally.
Jackson spoke with NFL Network's Mike Silver in July about Dalton and leadership. "I'm not trying to make Andy me, or make him anybody else. He has to do it within his own personality, or else it will be seen as phony. But I think inside of him is a tiger. I think there's a guy that has a burning desire to be the best at what he's doing," he said.
He also added that he and Dalton "are tethered together."
That tethering, albeit brief and with a small sample size, appears to have done Dalton good. Dalton appears to have assimilated the idea that Jackson has been repeating over and over (via Peter King of MMQB.com):
What I've tried to do is change the mindset a little bit. I think he understands that now, playing quarterback, every defensive coordinator is trying to defeat you. They're not trying to defeat the offensive football team—they're coming after you. He saw it last year. That's my job, to have him understand defenses are now about defeating the other guys; it's about hitting the quarterback from the time he hits the stadium to the time he leaves. He has to welcome that challenge.
So far, it appears that Dalton has. But it's not the only positive change that Jackson has brought to the offense. There's also the run game, which has long been considered his strength as a coach.
As King notes, prior to Gruden joining the coaching staff, the Bengals split their offensive snaps 50-50 between the run and the pass. During Gruden's three years, however, the Bengals ran the ball under 45 percent of the time.
Though the run game hasn't been particularly productive for the Bengals over the last two games, Jackson isn't shying away from it as Gruden did.
Against the Jets, Dalton attempted eight passes, while running backs Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill combined for 10 rushes. Though the ground game netted only 38 yards (and a touchdown), it doesn't matter. A proper balance between the run and pass keeps opposing defenses honest and helps Dalton, especially in a short passing game.
Again, the starters struggled in the run game on Sunday night.
In the first half, the Bengals rushed 15 times but gained only 41 yards—an average of 2.7 yards per carry. Bernard had only 17 yards on his 10 carries. Hill did better, rushing four times for 23 yards in the half and ending the game with 38 yards on 10 carries.
The lack of productivity could become a cause for concern once the regular season begins.
What isn't a cause for concern, though, is Jackson's approach to the run. He's not going to abandon it, as Gruden did, when the going gets tough.
Often, when a team is forced to replace a coordinator, there is a bit of a transition period during which the subtraction feels like just that—a subtraction, a loss of continuity. With Jackson, who was promoted from running backs coach and has a fiery style his players have positively responded to, it feels like addition by subtraction.
By losing Gruden, the Bengals offense has gained an edge.
Dalton has gained confidence while being asked to do more than his former coordinator did. There is not only accountability but someone who commands that accountability by his mere presence on a practice field.
Jackson's promotion could be the best thing to happen to the Bengals since drafting Dalton in 2011.