When trying to come up with an ideal trajectory for the career of a young quarterback, the best-case scenario is to see a bit of Tom Brady or Peyton Manning in his future—a Super Bowl ring, maybe more than one; a host of broken records in his name; a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Fame enshrinement; an unprecedentedly high payday. These are the stuff of quarterback dreams, something everyone who plays the position at the professional level someday hopes to achieve.
However, that's not the case for the vast majority of NFL passers. Take the Cincinnati Bengals' Andy Dalton, for example. It doesn't look like he's going to become the second coming of Manning, but that doesn't really matter—not when Joe Flacco's present-day success seems to be in his future.
"Flacco?" you ask, wondering why on earth that would be the career path that Dalton would best follow. Well, it's simple: Because his first two years in the league seem to almost completely match up with what Flacco did in his first two seasons. And, after all, in his fifth year in the league, Flacco help lead the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win. Dalton wouldn't mind that, at all.
In Flacco's five years on the job, every season his Ravens have made it to the playoffs. So far, in Dalton's two, the Bengals too have made it to the playoffs. While they haven't yet won a postseason game—the Ravens had five playoff wins in those first two years of the Flacco era—there are a lot of reasons to think that Dalton will travel the same path that Flacco forged, even if the scenery is a bit different along the way.
Flacco's rookie year was 2008, when his primary receivers were Derrick Mason and Mark Clayton and Todd Heap was tight end. That year, the Ravens went 11-5, though Flacco's performance wasn't the biggest factor in their success—that credit would mainly go to their defense. However, Flacco didn't disappoint as a rookie.
He completed 257 of his 428 passes for a completion percentage of 60. He had 2,971 yards, 14 passing touchdowns, 12 interceptions and took 32 sacks. He had one fourth-quarter comeback to his name and engineered two game-winning drives. Notably, though Flacco is considered one of the biggest-armed quarterbacks in the league, his average yards per attempt were 6.9.
Flacco's second year showed the kind of improvement that's required of any quarterback hoping to hold on to his job for longer than just a season or two. His pass attempts increased to 499 and his completions went up in turn, to 315. His completion percentage rose to 63.1, his yards jumped dramatically to 3,613 and he threw 21 touchdowns—seven more than in his rookie year—though his interceptions stayed the same at 12.
His sack total increased by only four, to 36, while he had again just one fourth-quarter comeback and two game-winning drives. His yards per attempt went up slightly, at 7.2, with Mason again his primary target and Heap his safety-valve tight end. This time around, however, Clayton's numbers dipped with the team having drafted running back Ray Rice; he added 702 receiving yards to his 1,339 rushing.
Dalton's first two seasons should look very familiar to those who paid attention to Flacco's early years. Though there are some key differences, the similarities are too numerous to be ignored.
In 2011, Dalton's rookie year, he attempted 516 passes with 300 completions, giving him a 58.1 completion percentage. He threw for 3,398 yards and had 20 passing touchdowns to 13 interceptions. He was sacked 24 times, had four fourth-quarter comebacks and four game-winning drives and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt.
His main target was a fellow rookie, wide receiver A.J. Green. He also had veterans Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell as well as tight end Jermaine Gresham to throw to. The Bengals ended that year at 9-7 and earned a wild-card playoff berth as a result, though they didn't advance in the playoffs.
Like Flacco, Dalton made some major strides in his second season in the league. He attempted and completed more passes—528 attempts to 329 completions—raising his completion percentage to 62.3. He threw for more yards, as well—3,669, 56 more than Flacco in his second year. His touchdowns went up to 27, though his interceptions also did, with 16.
He had one fourth-quarter comeback and three game-winning drives and averaged 6.9 yards per completion. His only major difference from Flacco in his second year is that Dalton took 46 sacks in 2012, a jump of 22 from his first season.
Dalton's improvements also came while the rest of his offense was in relative upheaval. Both Caldwell and Simpson were gone, replaced by a crew of rookies led by Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu as well as by Brandon Tate, who was just a returner in 2011.
He no longer had Cedric Benson as his primary back, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis in his place, and the offensive line was completely reworked, after center Kyle Cook and guard Travelle Wharton suffered early injuries and rookie right guard Kevin Zeitler took over for Bobbie Williams. Despite all of these changes, Dalton handled things well.
The next few years for Flacco saw him seemingly plateau. He constantly threw in the 3,600-yard range, and had around 20 to 22 touchdowns to 10 or 12 interceptions. Much of the Ravens' success seemed to be ascribed to their defense, which allowed Flacco to dip out of the spotlight, much how the attention shifted in Cincinnati from the quarterback and the offense to their top-notch defense in 2012.
However, this season, injuries and age caught up to the Ravens defense and Flacco had to step up and assume a leadership role. Though his yards increased by around 200 in the regular season, and his touchdowns and interceptions were again as they were in previous years, his ability to play strong football with minimum flaws near the end of the year, and especially in the playoffs, helped lead his team to their second Super Bowl victory in franchise history.
He did it quietly, with little fanfare—until the playoffs, most of the talk about Flacco concerned whether the Ravens could win in spite of him, rather than because of him.
Though it's only been two years with Dalton under center in Cincinnati, many of the sentiments about Flacco over his five-year career seem to be repeating themselves with Dalton. But considering how Flacco has performed in Baltimore and where it led his team this time around, there are certainly worse quarterbacks that Dalton could pattern his career after.
After all, Flacco is on the brink of earning himself a $20 million-per-year payday for his work in 2012. If Dalton simply stays on the track he is now—granted he gets his issues when under pressure under control—in three more years, the Bengals, too, could hoist the Lombardi trophy and Dalton could be on his way to a top-tier contract.
Though Dalton may prefer to end his career being viewed in the same realm as Brady or Manning, if he's more comparable to Flacco, there's nothing wrong with that.