For a team that went to back-to-back playoffs the past two seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals sure weren't acting like a team coming off of a combined 19 wins in 2011 and 2012--particularly on offense. In free agency and the draft, the Bengals added major additions to tight end, running back and quarterback.
Even though the starting quarterback job is firmly in the hand of third-year man, Andy Dalton, the team wanted more out of the players behind him at the position. Replacing Bruce Gradkowski are the big-armed John Skelton (claimed off of waivers) and the athletic Josh Johnson. Joining incumbent Zac Robinson, the three are entrenched in a battle to win the No.2 job, and all three present some respective aspects that appeal to the coaching staff. They also bring some aspects that could hinder their ability to run away with the gig.
Skelton and Johnson both spoke to the media on Monday, talking about the opportunity, via The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated. Johnson talked about his appreciation for the opportunity to battle for the job in Cincinnati, after spending most of the 2012 season in the UFL:
"I would rather be doing nothing else,'' Johnson said. "I was out of the game - well, not the game completely. I was in the UFL, but that was only for four games. But just to be back on the grass (fields), once you have it taken away from you, you really understand how much you appreciate it. So I'm just excited to be back out here.''
Gruden was an assistant coach at Tampa Bay during Johnson's rookie season, so there's some familiarity with the way he likes things done.
"I spent a good year with Jay,'' Johnson said. "He would interact with the quarterbacks a lot, even though he wasn't our quarterbacks coach. And then with (former Oakland and Tampa Bay coach) Jon (Gruden) being his brother, I learned a lot from him as well. To walk into this situation, it's good to have that comfortability.''
You can see that there's a give-and-take with Johnson latching on with the Bengals. On the negative side, Johnson hasn't had much success in very limited opportunities starting in the NFL. He suited up for one game at the end of the season with the Cleveland Browns after completing his one-year stint in the UFL. However, Johnson has great mobility and athleticism--something that the West Coast Offense likes out of its quarterback--and he is familiar with the system.
Then there is Skelton, who was let go by the Cardinals and subsequently claimed by Cincinnati. Looking for a second chance, he did prove that he could win in this league--even with a roster with minimal talent. After initially winning and then losing the starting job because of an injury, Skelton could have a leg up on the competition because of his track record as a starter and overall arm strength. However, Jay Gruden's system is completely new to the former Cardinal.
"It was just a roller coaster the whole season,'' Skelton said. "We never got any stability. And you have those seasons sometimes in the NFL, and a lot of it is how you come back and how you respond from a season like that.''
Unlike Johnson, Skelton has little familiarity with Cincinnati's offense.
"It's a completely new offense for me, the first time I've been in any West Coast system,'' he said. "The terminology (is) a little different, but the freedom that the quarterback gets to play with is enormous in this offense. Once you learn everything and learn the ins-and-outs of the offense, it's very user-friendly for a quarterback and for the offense as a whole.''
Learning those "ins-and-outs of the offense" could prove costly for Skelton in the competition. Robinson is also hanging around, but his inability to climb out of the No.3 role and the acquisition of two bigger names at the position could be signaling his departure.
The Bengals brought in Skelton and Johnson after allowing Gradkowski to sign with their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's fairly obvious that both new faces bring an improvement in physical tools, but Gradkowski's familiarity in Gruden's system and willingness to mentor Dalton is something that shouldn't be overlooked. If there's one concerning thing about the backup quarterback situation, it's Gradkowski's impact on Dalton in his first two years in the league.
"He'd been in the league for a while and he understood the game,'' Dalton said. "To come to the sideline and talk to him about things of what he saw and talk through some of those things, it was good to have Bruce here. I think he definitely helped me out.''
Sound familiar? It should, as it is echoing a sentiment shared by Carson Palmer when he was under the tutelage of Jon Kitna in his first few years in the NFL. Let's hope that Dalton can continue to ride the wave of success and lead the team into and through the playoffs in 2013.
So, what is it that head coach Marvin Lewis and Gruden are looking for in their backup quarterback? "We're going to have to see the efficiency of it and the ability to handle the football team. To play unnerved and to play where we have confidence.''
May the best man win. For the team's sake, let's hope that they remain the backup throughout 2013 and won't be needed as a starter.