Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has many reasons to be proud of his NFL career so far. He was a second-round draft pick in 2011 before becoming a Week 1 starter in his rookie season. Not only has Dalton started the last two seasons, but his team has also made the playoffs twice and he has already visited Hawaii as a Pro Bowler.
Those are the facts about Dalton's career. They can't be argued. However, not everything in football can be quantified with facts.
A culture of competition has overtaken every aspect of the NFL. Obviously, the teams on the field compete and are separated by their records at the end of the season, but it doesn't stop there.
Passionate fans are always looking to win the offseason arguments that inevitably emerge. Even team records aren't sacred, because there will always be those who lament close losses by arguing bad decisions from officials or those who point to injuries to distract from the futility of the players who were actually on the field.
Arguing the value of teams is one thing, but arguing the value of individual players is something that has really taken over the NFL universe. Series such as the Bleacher Report 1,000, the Pro Football Focus 101 and the NFL Network Top 100 were all born out of the need for debate and discussion over who are the best players in the league.
However, unlike the teams, there is no single metric that definitively decides what player performed better than another. Those series aim to bring an objective, decisive consensus about the quality of individual players, but somewhat fittingly in today's culture of never-ending competition, even they disagree with each other.
When it comes to rankings, there is no more divisive position than quarterback. Of course, there are a handful of exceptions to the rule because nobody is denying that players such as Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and the rest of the elite quarterbacks are at the very top of the totem pole, while most will agree that the Matt Cassels and Blaine Gabberts of the league are at the bottom.
Instead, it's that midsection where the rankings are covered in a veil of ambiguity—that midsection where Dalton lies.
Establishing exactly where Dalton ranks amongst his peers is much more difficult than it would initially appear. With Rodgers or Manning, you know that they would perform regardless of who was on their supporting cast. Similarly, with the Cassel or Gabbert you know that, at this point of their respective careers, they would drag down even the best of supporting casts.
Dalton doesn't look like a quarterback who could carry an offense on his back for 16 games of the season, but he is also not dragging the Bengals to the depths of the AFC North.
Dalton falls somewhere between the below-average to above-average range of signal-callers in the NFL. From person to person, players in that range are almost interchangeable because of the variables that come with evaluating the individual performance.
It's easy to rank quarterbacks by how they are represented in box scores, but despite it being the most important position, much of what the quarterback can do is dependent on the quality of his supporting cast. For that reason, rating Dalton or any other quarterback on his individual statistical output is a misguided process.
Instead, it's more important to understand how that statistical output is created.
In spite of those who associate team win-loss records with the quarterback and the quarterback alone, there are a large number of variables quarterbacks can't control on every single play. Those variables manipulate the performance of the quarterback and affect production.
A quarterback who plays behind a poor offensive line will consistently be under pressure. That quarterback must work harder for any completion than a quarterback who is standing in a completely clean pocket on every snap.
A quarterback who has a predictable or unimaginative play-caller is put under pressure by playing in a predictable offense. Predictable offenses allow defenses to be more aggressive and cause less hesitation than better designed offenses.
A quarterback who is throwing to less talented receivers is obviously forced to deal with more drops, but he can also be forced to throw into tighter windows with his teammates gaining less separation.
Those aspects of the game are all fairly obvious, and it's easy to see how they limit what a quarterback can do on the field. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg because the quality of the defense and running game must also be considered.
The quality of a quarterback's running game not only allows that quarterback to attempt fewer passes, but it also forces the defense to approach him differently. When a team has no rushing attack, the defense can set up to stop the pass and be content with coming up to play the run.
When a team has a strong rushing attack, the defense is less flexible because it has to account for more threats. Furthermore, a quarterback with a strong running game gets the benefit of throwing off of play action or being put in more favourable situations.
Situations are very important for a quarterback. If a quarterback knows he has a defense that routinely gives up 30 points per game, he also knows that he has to take more risks to try to score on every drive.
If a quarterback has a stronger defense that is only giving up 17 points per game and can create turnovers from week to week, then he doesn't have to force the football into tight windows and can settle for punting the ball more often.
That is why it's easy to see the extremes of quarterback rankings. If Rodgers or Manning don't have good running games or defenses, they can still produce enough to make their teams a playoff contender. That's why they are the best in the league. If Gabbert or Cassel have great running games and excellent defenses, you'd still be hesitant to write them in as a playoff contender.
The statistical output of the quarterbacks in the middle class feeds the ambiguity that engulfs it. Those who don't understand the impact of situations and supporting casts don't get a clear idea of how much of the quarterback's production the player himself is responsible for. In order to remove that ambiguity, a clear understanding of the player's skill set, his production and his situation must be developed.
For Dalton that means examining his first two seasons in the league in terms of what the Bengals have done, what he has done and how he fits within the confines of the team's success and failures.
Rookie Season Recap
The Bengals as a franchise have exceeded expectations since selecting Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. It's hard to comprehend now, but the then-23-year-old was joining a roster that had a very bleak outlook ahead of the 2011 season.
That pessimism was born out of the fact that some key players from the previous era were no longer with the team.
Veteran starting wide receiver Chad Johnson had been traded to the New England Patriots, exceptionally gifted starting cornerback Johnathan Joseph signed a massive contract with the Houston Texans in free agency and, most importantly for Dalton, starting quarterback Carson Palmer was holding out to force a trade.
Although Palmer had endured somewhat of a tumultuous season the year before, he was still a proven veteran instead of a rookie starting his first game.
In spite of what Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger had done during the decade before, expectations for rookie quarterbacks were still extremely low at this point. Dalton's expectations were lowered further because he was a second-round pick, whereas Ryan, Flacco and Roethlisberger had been taken in the first round.
And the absence of Palmer made it unclear if he was really the team's first choice.
Furthermore, when the season actually began, he dropped into the shadow of that year's first overall pick, Cam Newton. Newton threw for 422 yards, completed 64.9 percent of his passes and scored three total touchdowns against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 1—a record-breaking performance that was in a completely different stratosphere to Dalton's 10 completions for 81 yards against the Cleveland Browns.
Not only did Dalton have a quiet day, but backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski also replaced him at halftime after a late hit in the second quarter. He did throw a touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham, but the fact that it was Gradkowski who carried the team to victory in the second half made Dalton's display an afterthought.
Timing is very important. By obliterating the box score against the Cardinals, Newton quickly earned himself a reputation that he needed to live up to. Because Dalton limped into the first start of his career, his season was framed very differently.
Dalton's expectations were as low as they could be, so when he helped the Bengals to a winning record, onlookers were quick to celebrate his play. Those who paid closer attention to the rookie saw an inexperienced player who carried himself with impressive poise and the intelligence of a veteran.
Of course, that was the optimistic view of the former TCU signal-caller.
The pessimistic view pointed to the fact that Dalton had limited physical tools and the Bengals were reliant on a top-10 defense to win football games. If you discounted his expectation level and solely considered his play in relation to the rest of the quarterbacks in the league, he was an average producer on an average offense.
Dalton finished the season with 3,398 yards, 21 total touchdowns, a 58.1 percent completion rating and 13 interceptions with four fumbles. In comparison, Newton finished the season with 4,051 yards, 35 total touchdowns, a 60 percent completion rating and 17 interceptions with five fumbles.
There are two ways of interpreting those statistics.
Those who value team victories will point to how Dalton played within the offense and didn't put up huge numbers because he understood the strengths of his team. That allowed the Bengals to make the playoffs and win three more games than Newton's Panthers did.
Those who like to concentrate more on the quarterback's individual numbers will say that Newton had very little help and his efforts played a greater role in the Panthers' six victories because of that.
Dalton and Newton had similar second seasons in the NFL, but both ceded the spotlight to members of the star-studded 2012 class. Newton continued to put up huge individual numbers, but his team only gained one victory. Dalton's individual output improved, but not dramatically, and his play on the field carried the same limitations.
Much of Dalton's improved statistical output was a reflection on the Bengals' improved supporting cast.
Dalton threw for 300 more yards, seven extra touchdowns and completed an added 4 percent of his passes in 2012.
Although that wasn't a dramatic leap, it was notable enough to imply that Dalton had developed into a better player. Of course, that presumption is solely speculation if it is only based on the listed statistics. Arguably the most telling statistic about Dalton from year one to year two is his number of attempts. Throwing only 12 more passes meant that he averaged less than one more attempt per game.
This is because offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is one of the few offensive coordinators left in the league who are willing to commit carries to a feature back. Gruden based his offense on Cedric Benson in 2011 before moving on to BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2012.
While Green-Ellis isn't a dramatically better runner than Benson—both have limited explosion and the running game itself only improved slightly in 2012—the free-agent signing offered Gruden's offense and Dalton much more than the departed veteran.
Benson wasn't an impressive receiver out of the backfield, and his blocking was below-average at best. Green-Ellis, on the other hand, was a capable receiver who hadn't been asked to fill that role in New England and an impressive pass protector.
Much more significant than the change in the backfield was the turnover on the offensive line.
Andre Smith and Andrew Whitworth returned at the tackle positions, but Smith was in a contract year and played closer to his full potential than he had at any other point in his career.
Travelle Wharton was signed to be a starting left guard, but a season-ending injury before the start of the season pushed Clint Boling into the starting lineup. Boling seized that opportunity and played exceptionally well for the most part.
At right guard, one of the team's first-round draft picks, Kevin Zeitler, quickly established himself as a staple for the team's rushing attack.
Even without Kyle Cook and Jeff Faine at different times during the year, youngster Trevor Robinson stepped up and played some valuable snaps as the starting center.
In comparison to the unit Dalton played behind as a rookie, the 2012 version of the offensive line was dramatically better even though some numbers won't reflect it.
More important than his protection were the new targets in Ohio.
AJ Green went from being a talented rookie to arguably one of the most impressive players at his position during his second year.
The inconsistent and unreliable Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell moved on. Simpson and Caldwell weren't really replaced by any particular individuals, but Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu offered more during their short spells as starters than the other two had during 16 games the previous season.
It may feel like a backhanded compliment, but Dalton should be praised for improving with the offense around him. Not every quarterback is good enough to do that even though it seems routine to us on the outside looking in.
If Dalton can carry that transition over into his third season, when Tyler Eifert and Giovani Bernard threaten to take the offense to a whole new level, then the Bengals as a team could become maybe the most balanced in all of football.
It is factors such as those above that mean no single stat or observation will ever accurately portray the value of a quarterback. However, examining a quarterback's interceptions will often give you a good outline of his overall skill set and performance.
A standard must be developed to measure Dalton against for those numbers to be given any context. It would be completely unfair to compare Dalton's rookie season to the rookies of 2012, but maybe less so if the analysis is based off of his second season. He should theoretically be further along in his development than the rookies during his second season.
It makes sense that most of the rookie quarterbacks threw more interceptions against zone coverage than Dalton. The complexity of defenses in the NFL compared to the college level means that the rookies likely saw many defenses they had never thrown a pass against last season.
In spite of the rookies' obvious disadvantage against zone coverage and their overall lack of experience, Dalton still threw enough interceptions against man coverage to have the worst interception rate of the group. That is not good.
Even though last year's rookie class was special as a whole, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck received substantial criticism for making too many mistakes and throwing too many interceptions. Luck threw more than Dalton, but he also had almost 130 more passing attempts that gave him a significantly better ratio.
Criticising Luck for throwing too many interceptions as a rookie with a feeble offensive line, no real running threat and mostly inexperienced receivers, but not criticising Dalton for throwing too many interceptions as a second-year player with a very good offensive line, a better running threat and a somewhat similar group of receiving options makes no sense.
Not only is it unfair to Luck to highlight his flaws and ignore Dalton's, it is actually very patronising to the Bengals quarterback also.
Of the rookie quarterbacks from 2012, Miami Dolphins starter Ryan Tannehill is the perceived weakest link. Even in comparison to the supposedly weakest player of the group, Dalton's numbers aren't good. Tannehill threw 74 fewer attempts and had four fewer interceptions. Essentially, Tannehill needed to throw four interceptions in two games to catch up to him.
To make matters worse, it's very difficult to argue that Tannehill had a better situation than the Bengals quarterback.
However, to get a greater understanding of what these numbers mean, we must understand how exactly each interception came about.
Incredibly, Dalton had the most interceptions from simply making bad coverage reads. Seven times he was deceived by a coverage or defensive setup to throw an interception. That is exceptionally poor for a second-year player who is celebrated more for his mental makeup than his physical talents.
While those seven are poor, there were two in particular that really showed him in a bad light.
Against the Tennessee Titans, Dalton threw the ball straight to a linebacker who was dropping into coverage. The linebacker wasn't disguised by the coverage and didn't make an exceptionally athletic play. Dalton simply threw the ball into his chest as he tried to hit a receiver coming infield near the first-down marker. It was a rushed pass, throwing to a spot with complete disregard for what the defense was doing.
It was the type of play that a rookie wouldn't be excused for making, but one that would be expected and used as a teaching tool.
The second was less about his actions and more about his lack of understanding—again, a bad sign for a player who is known for his poise and intelligence. With a 14-point lead against the Cleveland Browns in Week 2, Dalton and the offense had the ball close to the Bengals' 35-yard line. The Bengals scored a touchdown to open the second half before the Browns had two short drives that ended in punts.
It was 3rd-and-9 when Dalton forced a bad pass to Green over the middle of the field. His inaccurate pass was intercepted, and the Browns were suddenly given a reason to believe that they could make a comeback.
Dalton didn't put his team in the best position to win with that throw. He showed a complete lack of understanding of when to be aggressive and when to play situational football. Being aggressive isn't always a good thing, even though fans and many analysts love to celebrate it as if it is.
Outside of Dalton's poor decisions, the other most important piece of the above chart is the "Outside Influence" section. This section points to plays where the quarterback wasn't entirely responsible for the turnover, plays where someone else could take most of the blame for the interception.
Included in this section are Hail Mary attempts against prevent defenses, miscommunications with wide receivers, forced passes when the game is on the line or already decided, plays when the quarterback is hit as he releases the ball, accurate passes that are deflected by wide receivers and exceptional plays from defensive players.
Dalton's seven "Outside Influence" interceptions included an exceptional play at the line of scrimmage from Randy Starks, a Hail Mary against the prevent defense of the Cleveland Browns, two passes that went off the hands of receivers, two miscommunications with wide receivers and one where he was hit as he released the ball.
It's no surprise that Griffin again is at the bottom of this list. Much of that is him being a very accurate passer, but a significant portion also reflects on the offensive scheme he plays in. It's also no surprise that Andrew Luck could blame his teammates or the situation most often out of this group.
There really is no excusing Dalton even when you consider the seven interceptions he can blame on someone else. His rate actually moves further away from the worst of the rookies in this adjusted chart. That still doesn't show you the whole picture because it doesn't take into account dropped interceptions, but it is still a very worrying sign for the Bengals.
Dealing with Dalton's turnovers isn't an issue for the Bengals. Their excellent defense can make up for it while the offense around him is good enough to keep his attempts per game relatively low. However, there are two areas where the quarterback must improve if he is to be considered a consensus top part of the quarterback totem pole.
During the 2012 season, when Dalton was in his second year, just 11.3 percent of his passing attempts landed at least 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage. With him throwing the ball 558 times, that meant that Dalton threw 63 deep passes during 17 games last season.
*One deep attempt wasn't included because it came underneath against prevent defense.
As the above chart shows, Dalton had very little success throwing deep last season. Those numbers don't necessarily say that Dalton was at fault, but more often than not, he was. Only one of his incompletions came when a defensive back made a play on an accurately thrown pass; the rest were a result of poor accuracy, bad mechanics or an inability to control his arm strength.
*Interceptions include actual interceptions and dropped interceptions from defensive backs.
It's obvious what Dalton's main problem is. He overthrows way too many passes, and often he does it dramatically. However, that "often" works in his favour also because he routinely overthrows receivers so badly that the defender can't come up with an interception.
If Dalton's problem were that he was consistently underthrowing passes, he'd be more likely to throw it to a point where the defender could intercept him.
That is somewhat of a faded silver lining on a very dark cloud, but one that should be acknowledged nonetheless. Of Dalton's five deep passes that were or should have been intercepted, only one was overthrown, whereas three were underthrown and one was a result of poor ball placement.
When Dalton overthrew receivers, he did so by an average of 3.28 yards. Those receivers had an average of 1.4 yards of separation when you exclude the three double-teams he threw into and two yards when you exclude all plays when the receiver was completely covered.
While these overthrown passes allowed Dalton to avoid being lambasted for throwing game-changing interceptions, that doesn't mean they didn't dramatically change games. Dalton missed nine touchdowns because of inaccurate deep passes last season. Six of those nine passes were overthrown.
Even though analysts and broadcasters rarely point out the importance of missed touchdowns like they do interceptions, they are still decisive plays in the course of determining who wins football games. This came to light in the playoffs last season as Dalton missed two touchdown passes to AJ Green, including one late in the fourth quarter that would have given the Bengals a lead.
With two minutes, 57 seconds left in the fourth quarter and behind by six points, Green ran a type of double-move route when he faked outside before running up the seam. Jonathan Joseph was taken out of the play by the head fake that Green threw, and the safety was late rotating over the top, which created a massive window for Dalton to throw into.
Alas, Dalton overthrew Green so badly that Joseph pulled up comfortably knowing it had gone too far, while Green desperately tried to accelerate and lay out for the reception. He wasn't able to get anywhere near it.
Dalton targeted Green on deep throws 37 times last year, nine of those attempts were accurate passes with Green only dropping one.
Throwing passes to Green isn't like throwing passes to any normal receiver such as Andrew Hawkins or even a tight end such as Jermaine Gresham. Green's massive wingspan affords Dalton a greater margin for error on his throws and makes bad passes look better because Green can make a play on the football.
There were numerous plays during the season when Dalton's passes were slightly off target or overthrown, but Green made easy receptions regardless. There were also a few occasions when Dalton simply put the ball in the air for Green to go and get, something that is by no means a bad option but not a play the quarterback deserves much credit for.
On his 37 attempts to Green, Dalton missed the receiver by an average of 2.6 yards. On the 12 plays when Green had no separation or was double-teamed, Dalton missed by an average of 3.2 yards
Dalton threw perfect passes a handful of times during the season—most came over a defender down the sideline—so there is hope for the young quarterback in this regard. However, his consistency will need to move from one end of the spectrum to the other if he is to become even a respectable deep passer.
Although their reputation was somewhat sullied by a poor performance on national television against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Bengals may have had the best offensive line in the NFL last season. Outside of a superstar center, the Bengals have very strong players across their O-line.
Dalton was sacked 48 times last season, and according to Pro Football Focus again, the quarterback was responsible for nine of those sacks as opposed to any offensive lineman. Only Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers were responsible for more sacks last season out of all quarterbacks.
Much like his deep throwing, Dalton won't be castrated for taking too many sacks instead of throwing too many interceptions, but he will still be missing out on opportunities to put points on the board. With the Bengals defense and the quality of offensive weapons projected to be around him in 2013, he should be able to get away with that during the regular season again.
In the postseason, those plays become more and more important, however, so it's something the Bengals won't want to live with.
This seems like a minor detail, and it is on its own because nobody is writing off Wilson or Rodgers, but when combined with his other limitations, it becomes a real headache for the Bengals. Wilson and Rodgers' other positives dramatically outweigh this particular negative. Dalton's don't.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, a sack early on in the game really highlighted Dalton's flawed pocket presence. The Steelers will rush only five defenders, while the Bengals have six blockers waiting for the initial surge before the back releases into the flat.
This is a difficult blitz for the offensive line and quarterback to handle because the Steelers are attacking the center of the pocket and flanking outside with their edge-rushers. The defenders also get a great jump at the snap, which puts even more pressure on the offensive linemen. In spite of that, the offensive line picks up the initial surge, allowing Dalton to get to the top of his drop unabated.
While Dalton is at the top of his drop, he doesn't yet have a receiver to throw to and must sidestep to the left to find a more comfortable throwing lane. His height works against him here somewhat.
After shifting to the side, Evander Hood looks to be coming free to the quarterback. However, Hood will be picked up by Clint Boling from the left guard position. Dalton should have been able to sidestep away from the previous rush before moving slightly back inside once Boling picked up Hood.
Instead, his footwork was poor as his weight shifted onto his bent left leg and took him out of a comfortable throwing motion, while his eyes dropped to focus solely on the pass rush.
This is the point when Dalton gives up on the play and is looking to scramble. Dalton is hunched over with the football in a position that he can't throw it from. That is a result of his poor footwork as it prevented him from making subtle side steps with his eyes downfield.
Obviously, the rush from the Steelers should be credited on this play, but it wasn't the pressure that turned it into a sack. This is what the coverage looked like when Dalton gave up on the play:
He has two receivers who are open for percentage throws. Marvin Jones is coming free across the middle, with safety Ryan Clark too deep to prevent a completed pass. AJ Green is running a post route to the bottom of the screen after turning the defensive back around on a fake inside.
Both of those plays would have likely resulted in a first down.
Instead, the play resulted in a sack for a one-yard loss that was eventually negated because of a celebration penalty.
Is Dalton a below-average, average or above-average quarterback?
Does it really matter?
People choose to look at things in different ways and value different parts of what they see. For that reason, rankings of all kinds will always remain subjective. Rankings are popular entertainment for the masses, but they are trivial when it comes to winning football games. Whether Dalton is seen as a good or bad quarterback is irrelevant if the Bengals can find a way to win with him.
So far in his career, they have been able to do that. However, they have only gone so far. If the Bengals are to go deeper in their journey toward that elusive Super Bowl title, they will need their young quarterback to develop more from season two to season three than he did from season one to season two.
So, whether Dalton is below-average, average or above-average, it doesn't really matter because wherever he currently stands, he must improve on it moving forward.
The Bengals already have one of the most talented rosters, if not the most talented roster, in the league, excluding the quarterback position. Being bounced from the playoffs in the first round two seasons in a row shouldn't be the standard for any quarterback who leads that team.
Depth charts courtesy of Ourlads.
You can follow Cian Fahey on Twitter @Cianaf.