Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton's spectacular rookie season was a big part of what made the Bengals a trendy pick with an unlikely success story that culminated in a playoff experience in 2011.
Cincy's second round pick in 2011 instantly got a chance to show all the teams that passed on him that he is the future of Bengals football when he was handed the keys to the Cincinnati offense. Taking the reigns from a man who once enjoyed some decent seasons in the Queen City in Carson Palmer comes with expectations of success, and during his rookie season, Dalton clearly delivered just that.
The organization was used to seeing their team win with Palmer, but he ultimately overstayed his welcome, and thus the era of the "Red Rifle" has begun in Ohio.
Some experts such as NFL Films' Greg Cosell have been rather harsh on Dalton despite his impressive rookie season, dismissing his abilities because of his lack of a cannon for an arm so to speak.
"I will never minimize the value of arm strength. In fact, there have been quarterbacks whose arms have gotten stronger as their NFL careers have progressed (Tom Brady and Drew Brees, to name a couple). Perhaps that will happen with Dalton. But for right now, his ability to offset a lesser arm with highly developed execution of other necessary attributes sets him apart, especially early in his career," writes Cosell.
But make no mistake about it, Cosell may be scraping at the walls to find flaws in Dalton's game. However, clearly what Dalton lacks in arm strength he makes up for by consistently making smart decisions with the football, and that is something that can't be taught at this level.
This was evident in his execution of some of the most difficult and crucial situations in a game –– most notably his standout performances, managing and executing from within 20 yards in the red zone offense. Dalton responded to his critics by working with a compact delivery that translated to intermediate passes thrown with good velocity and passes thrown with pinpoint accuracy that became very difficult to intercept.
Fifteen touchdowns and not a single interception during red zone offense in just his rookie season was, without a doubt, a crucial spark that the Bengals needed to help them ride out a rather surprisingly good season. Granted, there were a few times this past season that he tried to throw the ball deep to connect with the Bengals' other prized rookie out of Georgia in wide receiver A.J. Green, but failed and underthrew him, thus we have guys like Cosell nitpicking at his weaknesses.
Not having that canon of an arm is a flaw, albeit it's probably a very minor flaw as Cosell mentions when he talks about guys like Brees and Brady that have gotten increased strength after several years in the league.
I am very much a believer in quarterbacks that have the smarts and the heart to want to compete every game to the fullest extent, because you can't really teach smarts or guts.
Fortunately for Andy Dalton, he has both of these attributes and seems to already be embracing the role of a leader as he molds himself into the big time threat and the complete passer that the Bengals so desperately need.
An added bonus that will also help Dalton continue to excel at such an early stage is offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, who certainly will call games that revolve around utilizing Dalton's ability to make accurate sideline passes that prove very difficult to pick off. That skill in itself to make crisp and accurate throws while being able to taking a pounding is far more important than just flat out being able to throw the long ball.
Dalton is purely out there to be the distributor in Gruden's west coast offense, which is centered around yards being picked up after the catch. This allows Dalton to adapt and accelerate the learning curve because he doesn't have to go out there every game and have his team rely on him to create offense.
Being the distributor surely suits him more than being in the creator role and it showed last season, culminating with an unlikely Pro Bowl selection in No. 1 overall pick Cam Newton –– making them the first pair of rookie quarterbacks to make the Pro Bowl in a single season.
Doubters may feel as though Dalton has already reached his pinnacle as a guy that was overlooked by most teams, but the fact of the matter is that his passing accuracy is a strength that will allow him to keep succeeding. The Bengals have that big play threat in A.J. Green, but they need to add a suitable No. 2 receiver, as the focus of the coverage will be on Green. But, teams know Dalton lacks a canon, so the other slot receiver will end up playing a crucial role.
Regardless of who the team goes after in free agency, Dalton is the man going forward for the Bengals for the time being with often injured journeyman Bruce Gradkowski serving as backup and a mentoring figure.
After a successful 2011 season, Dalton and the Bengals will look to push the momentum forward and Dalton will preform, utilizing his smarts and his intensity to dominate and carry the Bengals back into the playoffs in 2012.
Some of the highest praise for Dalton came from ESPN analyst and former Pro Bowler himself in Marcellus Wiley who said,
"This sounds like déjà vu for me, because in 2001, I was a San Diego Charger when we drafted Drew Brees in the second round,” said Wiley. “He came in with the same attributes – he was accurate, he had great anticipation, but he had some arm strength limitations. It sounds the same when you hear about Andy Dalton. But when you watch the film, he reminds me of Drew Brees except that he’s already accelerated the learning curve because he had a better rookie season than I saw out of Drew Brees. If you look at Drew Brees now – where can Andy Dalton go and what can he become as a quarterback? I think this is a Super Bowl-bound quarterback one day. He can lead them to the promised land.”
With such an outstanding rookie season, I think it's fair to build a case for Dalton's dominance in 2012.
He will surely strengthen himself and focus on learning from his experiences (both the successes and failures), from his rookie season. And without the hindrance that was a shortened off-season, he will implement them to dominate in 2012.