CINCINNATI -- It was quite telling when, during the Cincinnati Bengals' kickoff luncheon two days before the start of training camp, recently promoted defensive coordinator Paul Guenther railed against those who considered the Bengals' No. 3 overall defensive ranking the past season a true success.
"We've got to understand how to define success around here," Guenther said.
His point: No. 3 defensive rankings don't matter. Neither do No. top-10 total offense rankings, nor high special-teams rankings. The only ranking he believes the Bengals ought to be concerned about is the one that gets decided in Arizona on the final Sunday of this season's football calendar. Winning a Super Bowl is success. Statistical rankings are not.
So far in camp, that belief seems to have spread among the players. It's started with the coaches.
Head coach Marvin Lewis sat his assistants down during the offseason and implored them to get more urgency from their players. To this point in camp, it seems they have worked. Quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese has been among those who has noted a different intensity in the practices, specifically in the types of routes receivers are running for his quarterbacks.
"When there's the amount of detail that they put in and the consistency that they're striving for right now, you can throw with anticipation and you throw better balls," Zampese said.
Better throws have meant better play for Andy Dalton. Better play has helped calm him, and spiked his confidence and helped him be a better leader. When the Bengals signed Dalton to a massive contract extension Monday, they sent a message that said they believe in the quarterback and think he gives them a strong chance to finally get the organization back to the Super Bowl.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. Cincinnati's offense has been a source of angst the past three postseasons. Dalton, who has started all three of those playoff losses, has completed just one touchdown pass in the playoffs, compared to six interceptions. He and the rest of the offense haven't shown much past Week 17. One reason: A now extinct emphasis on passing instead of running. While we haven't seen a complete offensive overhaul to this point in training camp, we are seeing where newly promoted offensive coordinator Hue Jackson's push for a more aggressive and physical offense is taking shape. Tight end Tyler Eifert has gotten involved in the offense, catching more passes from Dalton. It appears the Bengals are going to try to get him and Jermaine Gresham more involved this year. Jackson also promised the offense would be faster and more rhythmic than in years past. Through the first two weeks, the Bengals have incorporated more no-huddle and are playing at a slightly quicker pace than they did under former coordinator Jay Gruden.
2. The Bengals incorporated a two-back scheme last season, when Giovani Bernard was the lightning to BenJarvus Green-Ellis' thunder. While rookie Jeremy Hill appears poised to take Green-Ellis' place in that rotation this year, we haven't seen much from him in that regard. Early in training camp Bernard has regularly been part of one-back sets with the first-team unit. Hill, like Green-Ellis and the other backup running backs, has played more with the second-team. The hope will be that Hill eventually grows into being a regular contributor, but for now, he's just trying to make it through camp. Fumbles have been problems for the first-year player who didn't lose a single ball while in college.
3. While many teams endured near-complete defensive overhauls this offseason, the Bengals have been in the advantageous position of bringing back virtually all of their defensive starters. Defensive end Michael Johnson was the biggest loss, but the Bengals had already prepared for his possible departure when they drafted Margus Hunt in 2013. After spending a year as sort of "redshirt," Hunt appears poised to be a regular contributor in the end rotation this season. He and Wallace Gilberry have traded time at the left defensive end spot all throughout camp. Coaches have remarked, as has Hunt, about how much better he seems to grasp the defense this year. The concepts make much more sense to him now a year into the league.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. Rookie center Russell Bodine has struggled in camp with several snaps flying over Dalton's head. Considering how much Dalton struggles when facing pressure, the exchange between center and quarterback can't be faulty. "It's going to get eliminated," Dalton said. "We can't have that. That's the easiest thing you do on the football field is get the snap." With some injuries on the offensive line, Bodine's quick development will be important.
2. Guenther wasn't happy with the communication process and how quickly plays were being called during the scrimmage. There were good things the defense did, such as filling running lanes, but getting plays in and making pre-snap checks are still works in progress. Even his radio communicator went out during the scrimmage. "That's part of why we do these things, these mock games so to speak," he said. "It's so that we can get the stuff ironed out and that we get it right."
3. Another reason for pessimism? The tight-end gauntlet the Bengals have to go through this year. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Jordan Cameron and Dennis Pitta are just a few of the big-bodied pass-catchers they'll have to defend. Although linebacker Emmanuel Lamur's return from a serious shoulder injury will help the Bengals defend such athletic players, they have struggled in camp matching up with similarly-built players. Eifert has been one of the best players in camp for his ability to get open both from his tight end position flanked off the offensive line, or from a split-out receiver position.
Like we mentioned earlier, Dalton just signed a six-year contract extension that will pay him more than $90 million more than he earned on the first three years of his rookie deal. The deal leaves some room for the Bengals to start figuring out ways to retain receiver A.J. Green, who said earlier this camp he's not worried about his next contract. He believes his "body of work speaks for itself." So far that body of work has looked quite strong. He set the tone for a strong camp when he caught a 50-yard bomb from Dalton near the end of the first day.
Marvin Jones might have emerged as the No. 2 receiver behind Green last season, but be on the lookout for the Mohamed Sanu renaissance. With Jones having nursed an ankle injury the first nine practices of camp, Sanu has been used in a variety of roles alongside Green early in camp. Sanu has passed, caught passes, ran and worked as a Wildcat quarterback in the offense. Jackson believes he's playing with a lot of confidence right now. It will be interesting to see how that changes after Jones' return Monday.
Linebacker Vontaze Burfict might have been the league's leader in tackles the past season, but he's been leading in a different way, according to coaches. Guenther has used him often this camp to teach his defense to teammates who have called Burfict the smartest player on the unit.
The Bengals didn't make many free-agency additions this offseason, but they were smart about who they added. Safety Danieal Manning gives them depth in the secondary and an additional weapon at kick returner. He also provides a measure of knowledge and experience that reminds some of free-agent Chris Crocker, who signed with the Vikings on Monday. Manning told me he likes the gesture but isn't a fan of being compared to anybody. His versatility has paid off so far. In addition to lining up at safety, he also has returned kicks and been a voice of reason for younger teammates willing to listen.