CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton and the rest of the Bengals took the field for their first training camp practice, applauded by several hundred fans in the metal, temporary bleachers.
Not far away, a couple of fans on a public bridge that overlooks the practice fields were unfurling two white sheets with printed messages.
"Don't Sign Dalton," the first banner said, adding a derogatory comment about the quarterback.
"A.J. to A.J., The Future Is Now," said the other banner.
They were soon taken down, but the sentiment will linger with some fans until the fourth-year quarterback gets the final breakthrough in a so-far stellar career. He not only has to get the Bengals to the playoffs for a fourth straight season — something they've never done — but he has to get them deep into the postseason.
Anything less will keep those banners coming.
Nobody on the defending AFC North champions is under more pressure than Dalton, who is entering the final season on his contract. He and the Bengals have been negotiating a long-term extension, but remain apart on terms.
Owner Mike Brown said this week that if no deal is made, the team could let Dalton play out his contract and then use its franchise tag on him for 2015, so he'll be around for at least two more seasons.
Brown raves about Dalton, who has led the Bengals to a better record each season in Cincinnati. He calls him a "steady Eddie" on the field and a leader in the locker room.
"I think he is an exceptional person," Brown said. "Nobody has more respect in our building than he. I would tell you of all the quarterbacks we have had, he is respected by his teammates as much as any of them.
"We judge quarterbacks by different standards. How do they throw? How do they run? How do they lead? People will put him at different levels on those standards. I think that the one standard that counts much is: Did he win? So far around here he's won nine, he's won 10, he's won 11. That's pretty good."
Dalton was grateful that Brown spoke up.
"That's exactly what you want to hear from the owner," Dalton said. "It shows what this organization thinks of me, and it's great for him to come out and say that. I was very thankful for that."
The Bengals have lost in the first round each of the past three seasons, tying the league record for early exits. They're the ninth team in history to drop three straight in the opening round. They haven't won a playoff game since the 1990 season, which matches the sixth-longest streak of playoff futility in NFL history.
Dalton had a fumble and two interceptions in the second half of a 27-10 loss to San Diego at Paul Brown Stadium that ended last season. He has watched video of the playoff loss several times.
"I'll be the first guy to say when I did wrong," Dalton said. "Obviously the turnovers were my fault, that's what it comes down to."
Lewis has seen Dalton assume a bigger role with the team in each of his three seasons.
"He was the starting quarterback, then he became the leader of the offense, and last year he became the leader of the football team," Lewis said. "Now he understands what all comes with that, and I think he's very confident with that."
The Bengals drafted quarterback AJ McCarron in the fifth round, but he'll be limited to throwing to A.J. Green in practice — the reference point for one of those two banners. Barring an injury to Dalton, McCarron is relegated to a backup role for at least the next two years.
Regardless of what happens with his contract, Dalton will get a chance for his final breakthrough.
"Everybody knows we didn't win in the playoffs," Brown said. "We have to get over that hump. First we have to win the opportunity to have another crack at it. That is going to be difficult, but we are counting on him to get us to that point."