It starts with what's become the meat and potatoes of arguably 90 percent of all NFL assessments, the most simplistic atom of NFL analysis: is your franchise quarterback elite? If the answer is no, don't even bother. College basketball coming in hot, check it out. Because everyone knows you cannot win in the NFL without an elite quarterback. And if there's one thing we know about Andy Dalton, it's that he is not an elite quarterback.
At least that's the going line on him, isn't it?
Because when it comes to Dalton, the critic's knee doesn't just jerk, it nearly flies into the wall. It doesn't seem to matter if the Bengals win or lose, which is odd because it definitely matters if the Bengals win or lose. He simply doesn't fit the mold. He's small. He doesn't run that fast. His three-quarter delivery results in balls batted down at the line.
To date, he's 25-15 with two playoff appearances, both of which were less-than-ideal experiences, which have really augmented the negativity surrounding him. Somehow, despite unfamiliar routine success in Cincinnati, Dalton has become one of the more polarizing players in recent memory, mainly because people can't figure out if they like him or not.
Dalton is not only familiar with an abundance of doubt surrounding him, but he's familiar with success in spite of it. Throughout every facet of his career, he's been largely dismissed. And despite the overwhelming negligence afforded to him, he continues to win football games.
His first taste of national skepticism might have started back in January of 2011, while Dalton still wore purple and played for the TCU Horned Frogs. He led his team to the Rose Bowl, but the Horned Frogs sort of fell into that game with Wisconsin because Oregon was selected to play for the national title and the Pac-10 had no one to send. Somehow TCU, despite finishing the year undefeated with Dalton under center and being a three-point favorite in Vegas over Wisconsin, incurred the same lazy criticism awarded to every unfamiliar team.
Remember? Strength of schedule? Who have they played? It's the very reason TCU didn't get a shot at the national title. Remember former OSU President Gordon Gee's remarks that year, prior to the Rose Bowl? Here they are, courtesy of ESPN.com:
I do know, having been both a Southeastern Conference president and a Big Ten president, that it's like murderer's row every week for these schools. We do not play the Little Sisters of the Poor. We play very fine schools on any given day. So I think until a university runs through that gauntlet that there's some reason to believe that they not be the best teams to [be] in the big ballgame.
Billboards went up after the Frogs' win over Wisconsin, congratulating TCU on the big win. It was signed by the Little Sisters of the Poor.
But while even the exclusive, members-only BCS may have acknowledged Dalton and the Horned Frogs by handing them a Rose Bowl trophy and banner, the rest of the country didn't seem convinced of this quarterback's potential. Mel Kiper, one of ESPN's leading NFL draft experts, had just three quarterbacks listed in the top 12, none of which were Dalton. Ranked ahead of him were Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker.
There are countless articles that would confirm the skeptical outlook on Dalton heading into the NFL, but ESPN's John Clayton took one of the more aggressively negative approaches to the rookie. In his annual ranking of QB's heading into the 2011 season, the tenured analyst ranked Dalton No. 33, which is of course mildly insulting considering there are only 32 teams in the NFL—Kerry Collins, the backup in Indy following Manning's injury, was ranked ahead of Dalton.
Analysis: Carson Palmer gave his heart, soul and body to make the Bengals a winning franchise. After two playoff losses and years of enduring frustration, Palmer gave up. Now it's Dalton's turn to try to do the same with a smaller body and not as strong an arm.
Arrow is pointing: down
Dalton hadn't taken a snap in the NFL and already his stock was dropping like Apple after Jobs. Despite having nothing to do with 2010's 4-12 record, his promise and body size were dismissed like yesterday's newspaper.
Was Clayton validated? Dalton finished the year No. 20 in passer rating (80.4), threw 20 TDs, 13 INTs and had a completion percentage of just under 60 percent, which was good enough to see the Bengals earn their first playoff berth following the end of the Palmer Era. If losing Palmer meant going back to square one, then the game the Bengals are playing clearly isn't chronological. It didn't even take a season. Dalton and the Bengals won nine games and drew a wild-card matchup with the Houston Texans.
Losses like these hurt anywhere, but in Cincinnati, the feeling was entirely too familiar. The playoff loss rivaled the neighboring Reds' 2010 cup-of-coffee playoff stint, only it was more like a shot of espresso. And the same ire aimed at Dusty Baker, Edinson Volquez and Joey Votto rapidly transitioned to Marvin Lewis and Andy Dalton. To be fair, if Cincinnati is a city that indeed expects championships, then criticism is definitely warranted. He had a pretty terrible game.
Three interceptions, including one by rookie J.J. Watts, at the line of scrimmage that went for six. Of course, that wasn't all that surprising—he was sacked four times, hit five. The Bengals offense turned the ball over four times. The disparity between the teams was so much bigger than who was under center.
The Texans' leading rusher was Pro Bowler Arian Foster. The Bengals' was Brian Leonard (34 yards). The final score was 31-10, just seven of which Dalton was directly responsible for. Furthermore, we can't forget the defense Dalton was facing. It was the NFL's No. 2 defense in yards allowed, No. 4 defense in points allowed per game. Some might consider that a tall order for a rookie already playing his first playoff game on the road.
While the loss can be defined atrocious, it was still a loss that occurred after Week 17, which only the dishonest would have guessed the Bengals to make it to following a year in which the franchise figuratively hit the reset button. Expectations were exceeded and Cincinnati had a winner. Only, it didn't seem like the majority of people were ready to label Dalton as a winner.
Dissecting why he could never be elite seemed to be a more interesting topic for scribes. NBC Sports authored an article entitled, "Bengals organization has reservations about Andy Dalton," following a playoff berth and a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year Voting.
In 2012, Andy Dalton at least achieved a rank among active NFL starting quarterbacks, an impressive leap from last year, when two-thirds of his review from Clayton was about Carson Palmer. Dalton didn't win a playoff game, but he did win a mea culpa from the ESPN analyst:
Analysis: Bengals fans blasted me last year for putting Dalton at the bottom of my ratings. Well, if the entire first round of teams pass on you, it's difficult to give a top grade. Dalton played like a Pro Bowler last year and jumped up 14 spots.
Arrow is pointing: up
Not too shabby for the sophomore. While I don't mean to assert Clayton as the ultimate authority in NFL, he represents the worldwide leader, which typically reflects the national flavor about any given topic, so it's interesting to refer to what the national authority had to say about things at the time.
I should clarify: national does not mean informed.
Dalton finished the 2012 regular season with a passer rating ranked No. 13 (87.4). If that reads mediocre and anti-elite, then it doesn't take much to become the Super Bowl MVP, because Joe Flacco finished one spot above Dalton—No. 12, (87.07). Dalton's TDs spiked by seven that season and his INTs only increased by three. Sure, 16 TDs was on the higher end of INTs thrown by QBs that year (No. 8). But so were the 27 TDs (No. 8).
At the end of the 2012 season, Dalton had amassed seven game-winning drives (GWD) for his career, proving his ability to methodically march an offense down the field and win a game. That was one more GWD than predecessor Palmer had after two seasons.
Unfortunately, despite improving numbers from the sophomore, it didn't translate to the playoffs, where he once again was tasked with defeating a top-10 Houston Texans defense on the road.
His second stint in the playoff against the familiar Texans was a nightmare. Despite being hit just three times and sacked twice, he only managed 127 passing yards, no touchdowns and a deflating interception to former Bengal Johnathan Joseph. But also like the year before, he didn't get much help.
Matt Schaub was the benefit of yet another incredible performance by Arian Foster, who pounded the Bengals for 142 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries. The Texans overwhelmed clock control and the Bengals offense never really found its groove. Furthermore, Jay Gruden drew the most scrutiny he ever had when his game plan became a major topic following a half of football in which A.J. Green saw zero targets.
Regardless, it was Dalton's narrow overthrow of Green that would have won the game that slowly burned itself into the minds of every Bengals fan over a long offseason.
The Bengals made enormous strides in 2012 as they improved their record to 10-6 and made back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time in 30 years. But the team's trajectory stalled precisely where it had the year before, which from an outside and blunt perspective, means a lack of progression.
That of course prompts the notorious "make or break year." Make or break, for a third-year quarterback that has already amassed 25 wins. Make or break for a now 26-year-old player who has led his team to the playoffs in as many years as he's played in the NFL. We said there are no more excuses for Dalton, though for what he'd be making excuses for following the initial success he'd endured wasn't clear.
But it had to be something, because even our guru John Clayton seemed skeptical about Dalton, whom he compared to former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington this time, which emphasizes the help surrounding Dalton more than Dalton:
Analysis: Dalton is much like Pennington, the former Jets quarterback who made trips to the playoffs when the talent around him was good. The Bengals are loaded at wide receiver and tight end. They have made two trips to the playoffs with Dalton behind center. His next mission is to win a playoff game or two. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is working to improve Dalton's deep accuracy.
Arrow is pointing: up
Hey, for the second consecutive year, his arrow is pointing up, which has to count for something if you're just barely being squeezed into the best 20 quarterbacks. But it didn't, at least following the first sign of trouble. Dalton played one of his worst games to date on a dreary day in Cleveland where he threw for just 206 yards on 40 attempts. His total QBR that game was a career low.
Furthermore, on intermediate throws (in the air for 6-15 yards), Dalton was 5-of-12 for 40 yards. On deep balls (in the air for 16-plus yards), he was 4-of-11 for 94 yards. Numbers that make you cringe, numbers that incite "deep ball" articles.
Is it just in Cincinnati, or is it everywhere? Are talented athletes routinely having their entire futures deconstructed following a bad performance? Absolutely. In a league so dependent on manufacturing its own melodrama on a weekly basis, it's almost necessary. But what makes for acceptable criticism anymore? Is this degree of skepticism and criticism following one bad loss merited?
And after eight games this year, are we ready to revisit?
Andy Dalton is currently top five in passing yards per game (No. 4). The company surrounding him: Peyton Manning, Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan. Dalton has more attempts than Drew Brees, which should demonstrate the amount of trust he's now being awarded. He's also top-five in TDs, top-eight in completion percentage and tied at No. 6 for passer rating.
Question to his most ardent of critics: is Andy Dalton still who you thought he was?
It's useless to try and curb the behavior of what's become commonplace. In a league that's more "What have you done for me today" than it is lately, you can expect guys who don't finish the season holding a Lombardi to be criticized. What else are football fans and writers going to do during the offseason?
But can we honestly revisit the amount of criticism this quarterback has received and tailor it accordingly?
I'm not claiming Dalton to be this city's savior. Dalton is not perfect and to say there aren't areas where he can improve would be inaccurate, which is about as accurate as saying he's absolutely not the guy who can lead the Bengals to a Super Bowl.
What is not debatable is that this quarterback has won at every level he's played in during his career. What cannot be challenged is that the Bengals are now a perennial playoff contender, something they could never maintain even under Carson Palmer. Or really ever.
It's irrefutable that halfway into the season, the Cincinnati Bengals are alone in first place staring down one of the easiest remaining schedules in the NFL. And at the center of all the recent fanfare surrounding the franchise sits Dalton, where he's always been.
Is Dalton elite? Who knows. Who cares? The more important question is if the Bengals can win the games necessary to ultimately reach and win the Super Bowl with him under center. And when you consider everything Dalton has done in his career to this point, dismissing Dalton seems misguided, if not borderline foolish.