The Cincinnati Bengals are coming up on a decision that will ultimately decide the fate of their franchise for the next half-decade, at least. Quarterback Andy Dalton will be a free agent at the end of next season, and therefore, will be looking for a new contract.
The Bengals have been to the playoffs three years in a row under Dalton, and have lost in the first round for three consecutive seasons. The former TCU Horned Frog was the No. 35 overall selection when the Bengals took him in the 2nd round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Holding a 30-18 overall regular season record since 2011, the Bengals have proven to be a team that's ready to compete for championships.
Andy Dalton in 3 career playoff games: 1 touchdown, SIX picks.— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) January 5, 2014
But Dalton is holding them back with his much-maligned playoff performances.
Despite Dalton having a great regular season, which included single-season franchise records in both yards and touchdowns, he's shown in three postseason games to struggle when it counts the most.
|2013 vs SD||29||51||56.9||334||1||2|
|2012 vs HOU||14||30||46.7||127||0||1|
|2011 vs HOU||27||42||64.3||257||0||3|
The Bengals are able to see the trends around the league of how quarterbacks are getting paid, and Dalton's agent knows that as well.
The market sets the price for these deals and anything close to that number for Dalton would be detrimental to the Bengals. Not because they can't afford it, but because they shouldn't pay it.
That won't be the narrative spoken on Dalton's behalf during contract negotiations, but the Bengals would be smart to try and add some real competition at quarterback this offseason.
They could go into the 2015 offseason with the franchise tag available if they want to work it out with Dalton.
But after a third straight dud in the playoffs, and the way in which it happened, Bengals management can not feel good about committing to Dalton over the long haul. Especially considering this team is built to win now.
The biggest issue is that Dalton's problems seem to be consistent in the playoffs.
On this play from the 2012 AFC Wildcard game, Dalton and the Bengals are taking on the Houston Texans.
It's the first pass of the game and Dalton is going to throw towards tight end Jermaine Gresham, who's running a simple skinny post across the middle of the field.
The Texans are bringing five players and the Bengals offensive line does a great job of giving Dalton a lane to make this quick throw. As you can see, the safety is late to react and Gresham has the middle of the field wide open to make a play.
Dalton overthrows him and makes what should be a fairly simple catch, much more difficult. While Gresham probably should have still made that catch, Dalton's inaccurate throw doesn't go unnoticed.
Sure, it's just one play. But we saw the same thing in this year's playoff game against the San Diego Chargers.
It's 3rd-and-one early in the game and the Bengals run a play-action pass to get Dalton out on the edge.
Dalton attempts to get the pass out in the flat to the running back, but he leads him too far and the pass falls incomplete.
The defensive player responsible for the flat had stumbled and there was plenty of room for the running back to make a play once he had the ball in his hands, but Dalton couldn't get that done.
These aren't nit-picking-type plays right here. These are simple, basic throws that Dalton is missing, and they happen to be playoff games and therefore their importance is magnified.
But more concerning than a few inaccurate passes has been the decision-making.
This play below from last season's Wildcard loss to the Texans is an example of Dalton not understanding his limitations.
The receiver highlighted at the bottom of the screen is going to run a go-route and get behind the defense for a short time.
Dalton sees the opportunity to get the ball deep down the field and when in rhythm for the pass and route, Dalton doesn't pull the trigger.
Instead, he quickly slides right (maybe to avoid pressure) and throws mainly off his back foot deep down the field.
Dalton had the opportunity initially to get the ball down the field without sliding right, but when he did and refused to reset his feet, he was just begging for an underthrown pass.
Dalton wasn't ever known as having a big, strong arm, and this pass thrown off his back foot and out of rhythm, is almost intercepted by the defense because it was severely underthrown.
This next play is from their loss to the Chargers this season, and it will be a play that follows Dalton around for as long as he's winless in the playoffs.
That Andy Dalton throw was bad but the decision was much worse. Zero awareness— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 5, 2014
Dalton had just fumbled on the previous possession, and the Bengals were now trailing 17-10 late in the third quarter after a Chargers field goal.
Dalton is going to attempt a 3rd-and-8 pass towards the top of the screen, but it's Chargers defensive back Shareece Wright (blue square) who steps in and makes a play.
The Chargers get pressure up the middle and rather than scrambling or throwing the ball away, Dalton forces a throw off his back foot into coverage and it's intercepted.
Wright returned the interception to the Bengals' two-yard line and the Bengals defense held the Chargers to just a field goal. They still trailed 20-10 at this point.
The Bengals were given the ball back and on the very next possession, the drive ended with another Dalton interception.
Three turnovers on three consecutive possessions spelled doom for the Bengals.
Are these correctable issues?
This is the million-dollar question the Bengals are going to have to try and answer.
The film says these are big enough issues that with a four-year career at TCU and three years in the NFL, Dalton's development might not take another huge jump.
Although improvement is always possible, that becomes a multi-million dollar question to the Bengals management.
One of the telling stats for Dalton over the past three seasons has been how he handles the blitz.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Dalton has become progressively worse when facing the blitz over the past three seasons.
That's something you'd like to see trend in the other direction as you become more comfortable with the speed of the game and the offense in general.
The Bengals have a tough decision to make with Dalton because it'd be hard to walk away from a young quarterback who's led you to the playoffs for three straight seasons.
But in the best interest of the Bengals reaching their ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl, paying Dalton with a long-term deal would just doesn't help them accomplish that goal.
The writing is on the wall as Dalton has been consistently bad when it counted the most, it's just up to the Bengals to see that writing and understand what's written.