Andy Dalton got thrown into an uncomfortable role as a rookie in 2011, handed a starting job in a position that calls for leadership. How do you lead a team when you're not yet sure what to do?
"You get in the huddle and there are guys that are 10 years older than you," Dalton said. "It's just a different time. Obviously I'm not the same kind of leader now that I was then, but I feel like I did all right that first year."
It's totally different as Dalton enters his seventh season. Instead of the deer-in-the-headlights look that others noticed that first year, Dalton exudes a veteran's confidence. And he's no longer trying to figure out how he fits in the big picture.
The Bengals are Dalton's team now, and everyone knows it.
"He takes the bull by the horns," coach Marvin Lewis said during the team's mandatory minicamp this week. "That's important. He knows that he's got to be the leader of the football team. He didn't need to do that early on because we needed him to focus on being quarterback and to focus on doing his job."
He's assuming even more of the leadership responsibility this season.
The Bengals had several veteran leaders in the locker room the last few years. Left tackle Andrew Whitworth and defensive tackle Domata Peko arranged and directed the veterans' workouts during the NFL's 2011 lockout. Linebacker Rey Maualuga was a co-captain, along with Dalton.
All three are gone this year, leaving Dalton as one of the team's longest-tenured players.
"It may require a little more of me, but I think of other guys, too, kind of stepping up in those positions," Dalton said. "I felt I was already kind of established in that position."
His last two seasons have established him as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks as well as a team leader.
Dalton had the AFC's top passer rating in 2015 at 106.3 before he broke his right thumb late in the season. He followed that with another impressive season even though he was one of the league's most-sacked QBs. He threw for 18 touchdowns and only eight interceptions in 2016, finishing with a passer rating of 91.8 despite missing receiver A.J. Green for much of the season.
He also expanded his leadership role. Teammates said he was more verbal about getting everything right in practice.
"You start as a rookie, you're obviously in a leadership position, but you haven't done anything yet," Dalton said. "But once you're at the point where I'm at in my career, it's easier to say things, especially to the younger guys. It's easier for them to listen because I've got the experience doing it."
Part of his role now is urging other veterans to move into more of a leadership role.
"Guys talk about it, and I think it kind of happens naturally, too," Dalton said. "As we get to training camp and start playing games and have competition, I think we'll see it more."
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