Andy Dalton is a good quarterback. The only exception is when he’s a bad quarterback. He does certain things exceptionally well, like find A.J. Green 40 yards down field, and other things mind-bogglingly poorly, like overthrowing Brandon LaFell when he’s 9 yards away.
Is Dalton a top-five playmaker capable of leading his team to near-annual playoff berths? Is he a limited, inconsistent thrower? The answer is yes … and yes. While Dalton has always been different things to different people, and different things in different moments, the contradiction is on full display late into this lost season, with his favorite targets out injured and his team out of playoff contention. “Aloha” means both “hello” and “good-bye,” and Dalton means both good and bad.
Dalton is a leader. He’s not the classic rah-rah type, instead employing an unorthodox style. Consider: Dalton, who’s likely the only starting quarterback with a large bottle of sunscreen in his locker, is such a stickler about the stuff that his locker serves as a distribution center for teammates who appear to be in need.
Dalton wears the most of any Bengal (“I mean, of course,” he said during training camp), but is always willing to share: “Any time guys need some sunscreen, they know to stop by. It works out nice because they are walking right out to practice.” (Dalton’s locker is closest to the exit to the field.) “Could be coaches, players. Really, anybody.”
Dalton’s service is invaluable during long days outdoors. “I’m bad at remembering and he always has it,” said tackle Andrew Whitworth. “He loves giving it out. Being a fair-skinned guy, he can’t wear all those tank tops — which are important to him — if he doesn’t wear sunscreen.”
Sunscreen is nice, but it’s not as nice as winning, and the Bengals are one of the few NFL teams that already finds itself out of contention in a year defined in part by leaguewide clustering in the middle. Of the 19 teams whose primary quarterback has started at least 11 games this year, only two have less than five wins. One is Jacksonville, whose quarterback, Blake Bortles, forgot how to play football this year; the other is Cincinnati, led by Dalton. The Bengals are 3–7–1, meaning Dalton, who’s famous for losing luggage on vacation, can likely go ahead and book a relaxing trip for January.
Since Dalton made his first Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2011, it’s been easy to lump him into a class of indistinguishable but decent quarterbacks who put up similar numbers each season and whose success depends on luck, opponent, and health as much as skill. You know this group: Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan, Eli Manning, et. al. We can call them Bro Flaccos. Ryan Tannehill just signed up for a trial membership and Jay Cutler only stopped paying his dues this year.
But those quarterbacks don’t display the same sharp rises and falls that Dalton does — not just from season to season, but sometimes from play to play. We know that Dalton is capable of greatness: Remember, his Bengals started 8–0 last season and went 10–3 in his starts. A right-thumb injury ended his season and the Bengals’ championship hopes.
One of the most frustrating things about Dalton’s current down season is that, after a career of wild-card berths and losses, he had a great opportunity to steal a division title and earn a bye in a year featuring so few dominant teams. In fact, many of Dalton’s supposed peers are having a moment: Flacco, Manning, Stafford, and Ryan all look poised to reach the playoffs. Sam Bradford — the sleeves guy! — is in the hunt. Being a pretty good quarterback is enough in 2016 — unless you’re Dalton, who despite not being a wholesale disaster has been slightly worse in every major category, with his completion percentage dropping from 66.1 percent in 2015 to 63.5 percent, and his yards per reception dropping a full yard year to year, to 11.7.
Dalton’s greatest strength is upgrading the play from the line of scrimmage.
“Everyone talks about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and what they do at the line of scrimmage, but Andy does a lot of that stuff at the line of scrimmage,” said former NFL quarterback Zac Robinson, who was in the Bengals organization from 2011–13 and is now an analyst at Pro Football Focus as well as a private quarterback consultant. “He knows everything going on presnap, he makes great, quick, analytical decisions.”
To illustrate this, Dave Lapham, the Bengals’ radio analyst and former offensive lineman, points to a 2015 play in which Dalton audibled into an 80-yard touchdown pass to Green:
“He knew there was a blitz coming and that Gio Bernard could pick it up,” said Lapham. “He checks into great screen passes to Gio Bernard in the red zone. He knows the numbers advantage to where he can pick up 15, 17 yards. Sometimes it’s as simple as changing a run play to a better run play. He’s a smart cat. If you ask anyone in the locker room who their smartest teammate is, they’ll immediately say ‘Dalton.’”
Lapham said Dalton’s ability to make presnap changes built slowly over time, finally cementing into full control over offensive changes last year under then–offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, now the Browns head coach. Dalton has maintained that freedom under new OC Ken Zampese.
No one’s comparing Dalton to Brady once the ball is in the air these days, of course, but if Dalton never had to snap the ball, he would be damn near elite.
After the snap, the trouble starts, as Bengals blogger Joe Goodberry outlines here:
Dalton has options on the play, but locks into Green, the superstar wideout who’s tallied more than 1,000 receiving yards every year he’s been in the league before 2016. Adam Jones compared their relationship to a bolt nut.
Before their recent injuries, Green and Bernard accounted for 45 percent of Dalton’s pass attempts on the season. Without his favorite targets, though, Dalton struggled on Sunday against the Ravens. The only two times that he’s averaged less than 6 yards per attempt this season were the past two weeks, when Green was out. By comparison, in Week 1 against the Jets with the Bengals as healthy as they’ve been all year (despite missing star tight end Tyler Eifert), Dalton averaged 12.2 yards per attempt.
There’s been a mounting chorus that Dalton’s success has largely stemmed from throwing to Green and learning from the now-departed Jackson. It’s too early to say for certain, but this small sample size without both isn’t helping Dalton’s cause.
“He’s playing winning football,” said Lapham. “I think he’s playing at a higher level than most people around him. It’s been a very disappointing year from the offensive line.”
Even with every excuse at his disposal, his statistical drop-off from last year isn’t as severe as it could be. The offensive line has been so bad that he’s getting sacked on 7.3 percent of his dropbacks, the most he’s been hit since 2012. His kicker cannot connect, yet his team is maddeningly sticking with him. If Mike Nugent had made a few of the crucial kicks he missed in the past two weeks, it’s possible the Bengals would have beaten both the Ravens and Bills, leaving Cincy in honest-to-goodness contention. What’s more, the defense has been significantly worse, nosediving from second in points allowed last season to 17th this year.
Dalton may not be able to mask all of the team’s other shortcomings, but other quarterbacks have done a lot worse in similarly grim situations.
Of course, even when the pocket is clean, Dalton still sometimes does stuff like this:
It’s not all about Dalton’s throws. He’s a surprisingly good athlete, with three rushing touchdowns this year — more than the Packers’ running backs. Teammates regret how few people acknowledge this about Dalton. “There’s a stereotype of this pro-style quarterback that he’s not athletic,” said backup AJ McCarron. “That’s not Andy. He can run, he can move, he can escape the pocket. And he can beat the crap out of anyone with a basketball.”
“He’s a hell of a basketball shooter,” said Whitworth. Dalton often plays the Bengals’ skill-position players in 3-point shooting contests at the team facility. “I win a lot of them,” Dalton said. “I don’t want to say all of them. I’m always telling people I’ve got the best shot on the team and it usually comes down to A.J. Green and I.” Green is quick to clarify that if they were playing one-on-one, Green would bet heavily on himself every time, but that when they play shooting games, yes, Dalton usually wins.
In many ways, that sums up the contradiction that is Andy Dalton: He can do specific things well, both on the football field and off it. He can throw to Green. He can get a first down when his team needs it. And he can shoot a 3-pointer. But he cannot throw as well to anyone else on the field, and he can’t play one-on-one.
“Golf is not his forte,” Whitworth said. “You think all quarterbacks are good at golf. Not him.”
Dalton is no longer the embodiment of the league-average quarterback. At the end of the 2014 campaign, his seasons were so thoroughly bland that an NFL Media analyst used him as the baseline for a serviceable long-term quarterback: If a team’s quarterback is better than Dalton, it can keep him; if he’s worse, it can’t.
Dalton is good enough to keep around and should fit into the Bengals’ plans for the future. He’s also relatively cheap, with a $15.7 million cap hit for 2017 that’s 32nd among NFL players and 21st among quarterbacks. That’s not damning in the slightest, especially considering Brock Freaking Osweiler (his legal name) is going to cost $19 million against the cap.
Depending on what the future looks like in Cincinnati, though, he might not fit into it for long. Everyone seems to think that Marvin Lewis is done, and a new coaching staff would mean a new direction. Is Dalton good enough to build around? The Bengals think so for now, which is why they gave him a six-year, $96 million deal in 2014. But Dalton still needs to be better than he’s been most of this season. It’s unlikely that anyone actually thinks the Bengals will find another starter for next season, and the team would pay about $2.4 million in cap space to move on after 2017. But until Dalton sheds his polarizing tendencies, he’ll be dogged by critics asking if Cincinnati could find a quarterback more capable of elevating the likes of Green, Eifert, and the running backs.
Ultimately, this will be the Bengals’ first nonplayoff season since drafting Dalton. For all of his flaws, he’s managed to have plenty of success in his career, and there should remain some optimism that he can get the Bengals back to the playoffs again next season. And hey: Even though he isn’t always passing the football, at least he’s always passing the sunscreen.