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Can Andy Dalton keep thriving for Bengals without Hue Jackson?

CINCINNATI -- When he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, Hue Jackson wore many different hats.

Coach, confidant, mentor, adviser, drill sergeant and friend.

For quarterback Andy Dalton, he was all of the above.

Jackson was the one who got Dalton to feed off the rage he felt after more than half of Great American Ballpark booed him ahead of a celebrity softball game during last July's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Jackson was also the coach who gave Dalton free reign to openly, yet smartly, criticize his offensive teammates when they screwed up, and to also bestow upon them heaps of praise when they did things well. Jackson was the one who got him to loosen up and enjoy playing football.

It was under Jackson that Dalton became a more complete quarterback; a player who was legitimately in this year's MVP discussion, and who led his team to its best start (an 8-0 record) in franchise history. So now that Jackson is gone, having accepted Wednesday the Cleveland Browns' head-coaching position, what will that mean for Dalton? Can he keep thriving underneath a new offensive coordinator?

Until a fully healthy Dalton gets behind center for the first time in a regular-season game next season, that will be a question that looms over the Bengals.

"I would say there's a lot of guys around here playing their best," Bengals veteran Andrew Whitworth told reporters a couple days before Cincinnati's regular-season finale two weeks ago. "It's from Hue doing that. Week in and week out, as I always say, the greatest thing you can mark out of a coach is consistency. Coaches are consistent in how they teach and how they do things that are always the most successful, even if that drives media people crazy and even if that drives the people around them crazy.

"The reality is consistency is the greatest attribute a coach can have. To me, that's what Hue is. Every week it's a challenge. Every week he's pushing us hard. Every week it's not good enough. He continues to push that even when sometimes you are tired of hearing that."

What to know why Dalton was so much better this year? Whitworth just explained it.

Whichever direction the Bengals turn for their next offensive coordinator -- whether it is an internal hire with quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese and receivers coach James Urban as possibilities, or if it's from the outside -- they must make sure he continues pushing Dalton the same way Jackson did.

But even if the next coordinator isn't a pusher like Jackson, Whitworth rightly believes it's on the players to pick up where Jackson left off. If there is a lesson their former coach taught them, that has to be it if 2016 is to be an even greater year than 2015.

"That's the leadership of this football team. That's where we get to step in and continue to lead this locker room," Whitworth said. "Guys like Domata [Peko] and myself that have been here 10 years, we take pride in that. What we've built and the way we do things you would hope we are going to do everything we can to continue that no matter who is here."