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The Andy Dalton Era in Cincinnati Is the Perfect Quarterback Litmus Test

As the Bengals sit at 0-4 and trend in the wrong direction, it seems like Dalton’s tenure with the team is coming to an end. What have we learned from his time there?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

During the Bengals’ 27-3 blowout loss to the Steelers on Monday night, Andy Dalton led a drive that captured the essence of his career in Cincinnati. Midway through the second quarter, with the Bengals trailing 7-3, Dalton efficiently moved his offense down the field. On a first-and-10 from his own 37, he completed a quick play-action throw to John Ross for 11 yards. Two plays later, he found Tyler Boyd for a 13-yard gain. After finding Ross for yet another first down, Cincinnati was in the red zone and looked ready to take the lead. That’s when Bud Dupree tore into the backfield, knocked the ball out of Dalton’s hands, and stopped the Bengals in their tracks. They wouldn’t see the red zone again until the fourth quarter. And they wouldn’t score another point the entire game.

Like he has so often in his time with the Bengals, Dalton looked capable when his support system allowed it. And like he has just as often, Dalton faltered when it didn’t. Dupree’s forced fumble came on the second of eight Pittsburgh sacks on the night. The offense was so anemic that the Bengals’ only points came after a Pittsburgh fumble gave them the ball on the Steelers’ 15-yard line. Dalton finished with just 171 yards on 37 attempts—his fifth-worst yards per attempt average in 124 career starts.

Dalton is depressingly familiar with falling apart on national TV. Many of his lowest moments have come when the lights were brightest—so many that “Prime-Time Andy” has become a running joke. In 21 career night games, Dalton has averaged 5.9 adjusted yards per attempt—a yard lower than his career average. He’s also winless in the playoffs, where in four starts he’s thrown one touchdown and six interceptions. But while many may ultimately define Dalton’s tenure in Cincinnati by his very public blunders, those debacles misrepresent the type of player he’s actually been.

Throughout his career, Dalton has been an average quarterback, a legitimate MVP candidate, and a punch line. And while his play has vacillated slightly, he’s more or less been the same quarterback through it all. What’s changed are the players and coaches that the Bengals have put around him, and this season—with first-year head coach Zac Taylor struggling to lead a roster ravaged by injury—his supporting cast seems to have reached its nadir. Cincinnati is 0-4, heading in the wrong direction as a franchise, and approaching a potential crossroads. Dalton is 31 years old, with no guaranteed money left on his deal. After nearly a decade, it feels like the Bengals might finally be ready to turn over a new leaf next offseason. If they do, Dalton’s time in Cincinnati will go down as the perfect quarterback litmus test—a case study in the passer whose success or failure is almost entirely dictated by his surroundings.

As the infrastructure around Dalton has changed, so has his narrative. The postseason failures loom large, but through his first three seasons in the league, Dalton looked like a quarterback who could adequately sustain a productive yet imperfect offense. In 2013, Dalton’s third year, he threw 33 touchdown passes for an offense that finished 12th in passing DVOA and sixth in points. Dalton’s progress that year helped offensive coordinator Jay Gruden land the job as Washington’s head coach. But even in those early years, Dalton’s play hinted at just how crucial quality conditions would be to his success. He was terrible when pressured in 2013, completing a league-worst 38.5 percent of his passes with an abysmal 44.4 passer rating. Thankfully, the Bengals’ solid offensive line and Dalton’s penchant for quick throws led to Cincinnati finishing with the second-lowest pressure rate in the NFL.

The Bengals handed Dalton a six-year, $96 million extension ahead of the 2014 season, but the finances of that move were mostly smoke and mirrors. The deal included only $17 million in guaranteed money, with all of that cash coming in the first season. If the Bengals decided that Dalton wasn’t their man after 2014, they could move on with no strings attached. Dalton’s numbers took a slight step back that year under coordinator Hue Jackson, but the Bengals were also dealing with several key injuries: Tight end Tyler Eifert, who was coming off a promising rookie season, went down with a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2; star receiver A.J. Green missed three games and was noticeably hampered by a toe injury; and no. 2 receiver Marvin Jones Jr. sat out the entire season with an injured foot.

Cincinnati still finished in the middle of the pack in most offensive efficiency metrics, but with the easy out the organization had in Dalton’s deal, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis was forced to field questions that offseason about his QB’s future. They were all swiftly rebuffed. “We have no problem with Andy Dalton as our quarterback,” Lewis told reporters. “We don’t have time to waste time with another quarterback.” It’s easy to see why a team would find comfort in Dalton’s steady but unspectacular game. The highlight plays that teams get from talented yet volatile passers like Josh Allen and Mitchell Trubisky may be absent, but Dalton is a smart, stable QB—one who processes information quickly and tends to make fast, decisive throws. He may have his limitations, but those limitations are also easy to project. The Bengals preferred the devil they knew—and the franchise was immediately rewarded for it.

The 2015 Bengals featured arguably the best collection of offensive talent in the NFL. Green and Eifert were both fully healthy and would stay that way for most of the season. Cincinnati’s offensive line featured top-tier players like Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler, with solid contributors like Clint Boling and Andre Smith filling out the group. Jones was also back in the fold, and combined with Green, Eifert, receiving back Giovanni Bernard, and slot man Mohamed Sanu to give the Bengals the deepest receiving corps in football. Jackson also made some smart schematic tweaks that season—incorporating more run-pass options and packaging plays together in a way that allowed the Bengals to utilize Dalton’s quick decision-making. Dalton’s average time to throw that season was a lightning-fast 2.21 seconds. That’s the shortest time any QB has produced since Pro Football Focus started charting the stat in 2011. But this was hardly a dink-and-dunk offense. The Bengals produced 62 completions of at least 20 yards—the fourth most in the league—en route to finishing no. 1 in passing DVOA.

As the offense rolled, the conversation around Dalton shifted. Cincinnati started the year 8-0, with quality wins over the Chiefs, Seahawks, and Steelers. Dalton completed 67.4 percent of his passes over that stretch, threw for 2,226 yards and 18 touchdowns, and averaged 9.33 adjusted yards per attempt. Just a few months after some wondered whether he should return as the Bengals’ quarterback, Andy Dalton had the inside track to be the league’s MVP.

Cincinnati stumbled in its next few games, but following a 37-3 blowout win over the Browns in Week 13, the Bengals were 10-2 and aiming for the no. 1 seed in the AFC. That’s when disaster struck. With 5:06 remaining in the first quarter of a Week 14 clash with the Steelers, Dalton shoveled a short pass to Bernard but failed to account for defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who’d changed course at the last second and jumped the route near the line of scrimmage. As Tuitt barreled his way with the ball, Dalton dove to make the tackle and clipped his right hand on the 314-pound lineman’s shin. In the most inconsequential of ways, Dalton had broken his right thumb. His season was over. And though the Bengals didn’t know it yet, their season was, too. Led by backup quarterback AJ McCarron, Cincinnati would eventually lose a notoriously brutal divisional-round playoff matchup to Pittsburgh. The team’s Super Bowl dreams were dashed. And it hasn’t come close to realizing them since.

In the four years since the Bengals fielded the best passing game in football, a series of factors—both in and out of their control—have eaten away at their offense. After the 2015 season, longtime quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese replaced Jackson, who parlayed the Bengals’ offensive success into the Browns head-coaching job. The choice initially felt like a typical Bengals move—one lacking imagination and brought on by a desire to cut costs. But at the time, keeping some continuity from the 2015 staff made sense. It wasn’t long, though, until that logic proved to be tragically misguided. Zampese’s tenure was a disaster, and he was fired two games into the 2017 season.

There’s also been no way to account for how much injuries would affect the Bengals’ roster. Green missed 13 total games from 2016 to 2018. Eifert missed 34 over that same stretch. Running back Jeremy Hill missed the entire second half of the 2017 season.

Some of the other issues, though, were self-inflicted. The Bengals are notoriously cautious (read: cheap) when it comes to free agency. They almost never foray into the market, and if the asking price for their own players gets too rich, owner Mike Brown isn’t afraid to let them walk. In March 2016, Jones and Sanu reached sizable deals with the Lions and Falcons, respectively. The following spring, both Whitworth and Zeitler left for greener pastures, too. In a two-year span, the Bengals suffered a larger exodus of offensive talent than any other team in the league—and refused to spend in free agency to offset the losses.

Instead, Cincinnati decided to restock its roster the same way it had built the loaded groups from past seasons: through the draft. But over the past five years, a frightening number of the Bengals’ offensive picks have gone awry. Cedric Ogbuehi and Jake Fisher were both flameouts along the offensive line. John Ross was a nonfactor over his first two seasons. First-round center Billy Price missed six of the team’s first eight games as a rookie last year and couldn’t beat out 2014 undrafted free agent Trey Hopkins for the starting job this fall. Jonah Williams, the 11th pick in the 2019 draft, is out for the season with a torn labrum. Players like Boyd and Joe Mixon have developed into contributors, but the misses far outnumber the hits.

Not helping matters is a series of injuries to Cincinnati’s few talented offensive players. Green remains sidelined as he recovers from a foot injury suffered on a shoddy field during the team’s first training camp practice, which is the most Bengals sentence in recorded history. Left tackle Cordy Glenn, who was acquired in a trade last offseason, has missed the first four games with a concussion. And the receiving corps suffered another devastating loss this week when Ross—who’d already tallied 16 receptions for 328 yards this season and looked like a post-hype sleeper—went down with a shoulder injury and landed on IR.

The lack of young reinforcements, mounting injuries, and a disintegrating offensive line have sabotaged the Bengals’ chances of fielding a top-flight unit, and the struggles at the end of the Marvin Lewis era pushed Cincinnati to finally move on this offseason. To replace him, the Bengals hired then-35-year-old Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor as their next head coach. Hiring a position coach who has never been a coordinator in the NFL to be your team’s head coach and play-caller is undeniably risky, but under Sean McVay, Taylor had helped one-time lost cause Jared Goff become one of the most efficient passers in football. Like Dalton, Goff falls somewhere in the middle class of quarterbacks that need the proper help to thrive, and Taylor had been part of the staff that created arguably the cushiest QB environment in the NFL. The hope was that Taylor could recreate that in Cincinnati, and that Dalton would experience a similar resurgence. Unfortunately, it’s taken about nine months for that plan to go off the rails.

Through four games, Cincinnati’s offense ranks 31st in DVOA, ahead of only the Dolphins—who are trying to be this bad. Instead of deploying a play-action-heavy scheme like the Rams, Dalton’s ranked 13th out of 22 qualified QBs in play-action percentage, and the team has used shotgun at a league average rate. Cincinnati also leads the league in situation-neutral passing rate, as Taylor’s system has looked like a spread-out, pass-happy scheme resembling the most unremarkable NFL offenses. A month into the season, the Bengals offense is full of unqualified players and led by a coach who’s shown no signs that he’s capable of elevating them.

All of this may seem like a litany of excuses to absolve Dalton of blame, but it’s not meant that way. Both his problems in the past—especially in high-leverage moments—and his limitations are impossible to ignore. The point in laying out the swings in Cincinnati’s support system is to illustrate the fact that more than maybe any other quarterback, Dalton has been dependent on his surroundings. Which isn’t an indictment. If placed in the same circumstances, about half the quarterbacks in the NFL would perform better than Dalton has—and about half would perform worse. Finding a quality quarterback is undeniably crucial to a team’s success, but too often, the quarterback’s agency in that process can be overstated. Dalton’s wild fluctuations over the years say much more about the Bengals’ team-building shortcomings and deficiencies as the most conservative franchise in the NFL than they do about Dalton.

The truth is, Dalton hasn’t changed much since playing at an MVP level in 2015. In fact, he’s just a year removed from one of his best stretches as a quarterback. But as the Bengals tumble toward a likely last-place finish in the AFC North, the end of Dalton’s time in Cincinnati seems to be inching closer.

Over the past five years, Dalton has been a consistent presence for a maddeningly inconsistent franchise. And while we may not have learned anything new about him during that time, he’s taught us plenty about what it takes for quarterbacks to prosper in the NFL.