For the first time in three decades, the Cincinnati Bengals advanced to the playoffs in consecutive years. But the 2012 season ended in the same way the 2011 campaign did, with the team falling to the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round.
The Bengals failed to score a touchdown on offense Saturday, and only made it inside the Texans' 20-yard-line once. After watching the offense flounder all afternoon, a very unsettling question may have wormed its way into head coach Marvin Lewis' mind.
Is Andy Dalton really the Bengals quarterback of the future—the player the team wants leading the franchise for the next decade?
Granted, Dalton has enjoyed a fair amount of success in his first two NFL seasons. He's won 19 regular-season games and has led the Bengals to the postseason twice.
In each of his two seasons, Dalton topped 3,000 yards through the air and threw more touchdown passes than interceptions. In addition, the 25-year-old's numbers improved across the board in 2012 as compared to his rookie season.
Those numbers would seem to tell the tale of a young quarterback coming into his own in the NFL.
His two postseason starts, however, tell a much different and more troubling tale, as ESPN's Trey Wingo pointed out:
So far in 7+ post season quarters.. Andy Dalton has 0 TD passes and 4 Interceptions— trey wingo (@wingoz) January 6, 2013
In those two starts, Dalton has completed fewer than 60 percent of his passes, thrown the aforementioned four interceptions and posted a quarterback rating well south of 60.
That's a far cry from his regular-season numbers, but even those aren't that great when put into context. Dalton's raw numbers are OK, but in neither of his NFL seasons did he finish inside the top 12 at his position in passing yards, touchdowns or quarterback rating (except for the TDs category in 2012).
He ranked 25th among NFL quarterbacks in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2011, he was 28th.
Those are not the sorts of numbers that give fans the warm fuzzies about their so-called franchise quarterback. And if you throw the numbers out the window and use the eyeball test, it gets even worse.
First off, Dalton's arm strength is average at best. That's by no means the kiss of death, as there have been plenty of NFL quarterbacks who enjoyed great success without being able to throw a football like Dan Marino.
However, those quarterbacks compensated for a relative lack of arm strength by making smart decisions with the ball, reading the defense, finding the open man and putting the ball in the right place at the right time.
Dalton has struggled doing those things. Saturday's loss to the Texans was a prime example.
Where Does Andy Dalton Rank Among NFL Quarterbacks?
On at least two occasions, Dalton missed seeing an open A.J. Green deep. On another, his timing on the throw to Green was off, which allowed the coverage time to recover.
Never mind the fact that Dalton didn't target Green once in the first half. I don't care if they're bracketing him in coverage—when you have a stud wide receiver of Green's caliber, you need to get him the ball even if it means forcing it into a tight spot.
There's playing it smart, there's playing it safe...and then, there's taking it too far. No targets for A.J. Green in 30 minutes of a playoff game is taking it too far.
Then, there was the biggest play of the game. Trailing by six and facing a 4th-and-11 from the Houston 36 with three minutes left, Dalton...
I'll let Pete Prisco of CBS tell you:
Andy Dalton misses a wide-open Green and then throws short of the marker on fourth down? Wow.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 6, 2013
There's no words for that sort of decision in that situation (that I can print), other than inexcusable.
Listen, before Bengals fans start warming up the tar and tearing open pillows, I'm not saying that Andy Dalton is doomed. He's all of 25 years old and seems to be an intelligent and hard-working young man. If he's willing to put in the time in the film room and on the practice field, some of these issues can be remedied.
With that said, though, there's just no simulating the speed of an NFL game or the split-second decisions that need to made during it. And in that area, Dalton not only isn't improving, but he may actually have regressed.
That's not to say that Dalton isn't a good quarterback, but as Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald put it:
Andy Dalton is the personification of the huge gap between good NFL QB and great NFL QB.— Armando Salguero (@ArmandoSalguero) January 6, 2013
In the short term, there's little doubt that Dalton's job is safe. Great quarterbacks don't come along very often, and getting to two playoff appearances in a row is still quite the achievement—especially for a long-suffering franchise like the Bengals.
However, there's also very little doubt that it's a lot harder for teams in today's NFL to win a Super Bowl without that great quarterback.
If the Cincinnati Bengals are serious about one day hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, they might have to actually consider beginning to search for that great quarterback.
Because Andy Dalton may be good, but it's beginning to look like good is all he is.