The Cincinnati Bengals are in the playoffs for the third consecutive season, taking on the San Diego Chargers in Cincinnati on Sunday. Not coincidentally, this also marks the third year in the league for Bengals starting quarterback Andy Dalton.
While Dalton's presence has helped the Bengals reach the postseason every year he's been with them, he's also the biggest reason they haven't won a playoff game yet. In their first two games, both losses to the Houston Texans, Dalton has been held without a passing touchdown while also throwing a combined four interceptions.
So, understandably, there is much chatter about whether or not Dalton can perform better this week against the Chargers than he has in his previous two postseason games against the Texans. There are questions concerning his ability to be the Bengals' long-term, franchise quarterback without at least one playoff win this year.
But this is not Dalton's make-or-break postseason, no matter how many people want to force that narrative.
While postseason success—and quick postseason success—seems to be the best and most important measure of a quarterback's progress, it also serves to ignore just what that quarterback did all year to get to the playoffs. It ignores that football is a team sport. It also smacks of impatience.
What should be the hallmark of a third-year quarterback is improvement, not that he is suddenly the second coming of Peyton Manning. Becoming that type of player takes time. And though there were of course hints at what was possible, even Manning himself took more than three seasons to become the future Hall of Famer we know today—or to even win a playoff game.
Dalton has improved. He was better in 2012 than he was in his 2011 rookie season, and he was better this year than he was in his last. His 4,296 regular-season passing yards were both a career-best and a Bengals single-season record.
His 33 passing touchdowns are six more than he threw last year. His sacks are down from 46 last year to 29. His yards per attempt average is up to 7.33—tied with Matthew Stafford and better than Cam Newton and Tony Romo.
But Dalton has continued to be inconsistent in the 2013 season, which is why so many fingers are pointed his direction and wondering, "can he or can't he?" Granted, he's been less inconsistent than in years past, but it's also why the Bengals, who are undefeated at home and have scored at least 34 points in their last five home games, aren't slam-dunks to defeat the Chargers on Sunday.
Through three regular seasons-worth of games, Dalton has thrown for under 200 yards 15 times, while he has thrown for over 300 10 times. What's worth noting, however, is how the former metric has declined with time and the latter increased. This season, Dalton had a career-low two games with under 200 yards passing and a career-high five games with over 300 yards.
While Dalton's up-and-down yardage issues are getting better, he is struggling with interceptions. With 20 on the year, only four other quarterbacks have thrown more picks. However, even Manning has thrown 20 or more interceptions in a season, doing so twice, and 19 in 2002, when the Colts went 10-6.
Other longstanding knocks against Dalton seem to be turning around as well—namely, the deep ball and Dalton's supposedly weak arm. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), only Joe Flacco has thrown more pass attempts of 20 or more yards this year, while only Manning and Drew Brees have more yardage this year from deep passes. His one-time weaknesses are becoming strengths.
Nothing that Dalton has done over his first three seasons indicates that his job is in jeopardy, in 2014 or in 2015, when his rookie contract is up. Should the Bengals not defeat the Chargers this week while Dalton throws a touchdown pass or two, that's already a step up from his previous two postseason appearances.
The standards to which young quarterbacks are held to right now are ridiculous. They are expected to reach All-Pro status before their first contract expires or else they are considered busts. Andrew Luck, the Indianapolis Colts' 2012 draft pick and the first player selected overall, is about to head to his second playoff game. The Colts lost last year; if they lose this year, will Luck be a victim to the same needless scrutiny as Dalton?
What do you think is Andy Dalton's ceiling?
The truth is, Dalton was a second-round pick who helped the Bengals form an offensive identity and become a consistent winner. A playoff win will do much to silence his critics, but if he doesn't get that on Sunday, it won't put his job security in jeopardy.
Based on how much Dalton has improved over the course of his young career and how well the Bengals have been playing while he's been their quarterback, Dalton's make-or-break moment is still a year or more away.
The Bengals are, on the whole, a very good team with a balanced offensive philosophy, a strong defense and impressive depth. Dalton is but a part of this. If there is a desire to put someone, anyone under the microscope, have it be the entire Bengals team and not just Dalton.
The NFL is an increasingly impatient place. The desire for instant results, from both fans and front offices alike, seem to only grow bigger with each passing season. No position suffers under the weight of this impatience than quarterback, and the year of hand-wringing we've seen about Dalton only serves as an example of this.
The only way Dalton was headed into a make-or-break situation is if the Bengals failed to reach the postseason this year as a direct result of Dalton failing to show improvement. Neither of those things happened, however, so Dalton has only managed to further his case for being the Bengals' starter in the long-term.
Here's a novel suggestion: Let a quarterback develop, let him approach his ceiling before declaring what his future must certainly be. Dalton has time on his side, regardless of what happens on Sunday. He's made the playoffs; he's broken a franchise record. How's that for make-or-break?