Hue Jackson, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu are gone, yet the Bengals remain as confident as ever, thanks in part to what has arguably become the most reliable quarterback-receiver connection in the NFL. If it weren't for Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, the Bengals could still be a cellar dweller, even in 2016. The Bengals, once predicted to go 0-16 in 2011, are now one of the NFL's most dominant clubs, though Cincinnati is still looking for its first playoff win of the millennium.
Recently promoted to offensive coordinator, Ken Zampese marks the third offensive coordinator the duo will play for, despite 2016 being the sixth season of each player's respective careers. 2016 presents a huge obstacle, as Dalton could start the season sans superstar tight end Tyler Eifert, who commands double-teams in the red zone and takes some attention away from Green in the passing game. With newly acquired Brandon LaFell (free agency) and Tyler Boyd (2016 NFL Draft) presumed to be Dalton's number two and three wide receivers in the passing game, the quarterback will rely on Green now more than he ever has.
Pro Bowl corner Adam Jones recognizes the importance of the Dalton-Green connection.
"The chemistry between those two should be like a bolt nut. It should go in every time," Jones said per ESPN's Coley Harvey. Behind Green, eight of Cincinnati's 11 remaining receivers have yet to catch a pass in the NFL.
Entering the sixth season of his career, Green has come to understand his role as a veteran in the receiving corps. Since entering the NFL, Green ranks in the top five of active NFL wide receivers in catches (415), receiving yards (6,171) and touchdowns (45). An added responsibility to producing as an elite NFL pass-catcher, Green will now need to lead his fellow wide receivers and challenge them to be better on a daily basis.
"Just going to go out there and do the things I've been doing these last six years, hope guys come a long for the ride," Green said per the Cincinnati Enquirer's Paul Dehner Jr. "My job is to get them ready to play. As one of the leaders, I lead by example but also I have to be a little more vocal. Tell them about different routes and how corners are going to play them and how you need to be more physical. Little things like that so they can help us."
Rookie wideout Tyler Boyd has quickly come to appreciate Green's leadership by example. Green may be soft-spoken, but his stellar play speaks louder than words.
"That's a great aspect of the young guys coming in, we get to see a vet, one of the greatest in this league to do it being able to get that opportunity to watch him do it daily can help us, sharpen us up how he get open, so crisp in his routes and wins leverage," the second-round pick said per the Enquirer. "It's so great for us to see that instead of somebody telling us."
That's not to say Green will only lead by example this season. He's admitted there are aspects of leadership he will need to work on to help his teammates succeed.
"As one of the leaders, I lead by example. But I also have to be more vocal," Green said per Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson. "Just help them out on different routes. How corners are going to play them and how you need to be more physical or get your body down. Just little things like that."
Dalton and Green seem to understand that they're facing an uphill battle in 2016, especially in the beginning of the season, with Eifert's potential absence and Dalton's limited chemistry with his new wide receivers. Fortunately for the duo, Dalton and Green have each other.
"We've been playing together for a long time," Dalton said of Green per ESPN. "We feel comfortable. I know where he's going to be. I know what to expect from him."
"When I'm on the field, if something doesn't go exactly as it's planned, I'm going to say something before a coach is going to say something," Dalton said. "I'm going to get to it quicker and try to get it corrected.
"A.J.'s to the point where he's not a young guy anymore. He's been around a while; he has all the experience and so he'll be able to help guys out. That's part of the process of the longer you play, you can help the guys around you."
Though Dalton and Green have shared achievements--Dalton is one of two quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards in his first five NFL seasons, and Green is one of two wide receivers to tally 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first five NFL seasons--the two have had their struggles.
Despite the Dalton-to-Green connection yielding 40 touchdowns from 2011-15, it has produced 31 interceptions in the same timespan. Dalton has yet to throw a touchdown pass to his superstar wideout in the playoffs, which can be partially attributed to the fact that the two haven't simultaneously been on the field in a playoff game since 2013 but is still disappointing nonetheless. Dalton has thrown four postseason interceptions when targeting Green, and the wideout has only gained 161 postseason yards in three games with Dalton as the quarterback. Green managed 71 yards and a touchdown in the 2015 playoffs with AJ McCarron at quarterback.
This isn't to say Dalton and Green aren't capable of leading their team to a Super Bowl, let alone a playoff victory. In 2015, Dalton showed that he's capable of being an MVP-caliber quarterback, while Green proved he can get the job done in the playoffs. As previously mentioned, it's been two seasons since the two suited up for the same playoff game.
With all this being said, should Dalton and Green be given the benefit of the doubt? They've clearly stepped up as team leaders, and each player disproved a previous negative notion fans had of them in the 2015 season. Dalton and Green engineered one of the Bengals' greatest seasons in franchise history, but an injury to Dalton's thumb leaves fans wondering what could've been. Is the duo capable of leading the team and finally winning a playoff game? NFL analysts tend to be skeptical when answering that question. The Bengals' unspectacular 0-7 playoff record under Marvin Lewis will continue to affirm negative perceptions of Cincinnati, but does Lewis' playoff record indicate that Dalton and Green can't get the job done?
Personally, I think Dalton and Green should be given the benefit of the doubt. Dalton has proven himself worthy of the franchise quarterback label, while in January, Green proved he can get the job done in the playoffs. The Bengals have evaded the primetime demons that once haunted them, and they nearly ended their playoff drought in January sans Dalton. Many will understandably disagree with me, but I believe that the Dalton-to-Green connection is as reliable a connection as there is in the NFL. Dalton and Green will be more important to the Bengals in 2016 as they've ever been; anything short of a playoff victory will come as a disappointment to the Bengals' players, coaching staff and fans.