Is It Smart for the Bengals to Extend Andy Dalton's Contract This Offseason?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVFebruary 25, 2014

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Cincinnati Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine that a contract extension could be in the works for quarterback Andy Dalton.

Lewis, per, said, "The representatives from his side and our team will get together and try to discuss something. We feel good about what Andy has done the past three seasons, and we have to continue to help him to continue to play better."

Considering that Dalton has helped the Bengals to three consecutive playoff appearances during his time under center, an extension makes sense. However, in those three playoff games, Dalton threw just one touchdown to six interceptionsall were losses. 

Playoff-caliber quarterbacks aren't a dime a dozen, and despite his struggles when reaching them, Dalton can certainly help get a team to the postseason. But is that enough to warrant him receiving a new contract a year early? The Bengals could be holding themselves back by extending Dalton this spring.

Dalton's NFL career thus far has been good, though not great. He's completed 60.9 percent of his passes, thrown 80 touchdowns to 49 interceptions, averaged seven yards per pass attempt and has been sacked on 5.7 percent of his dropbacks. He's engineered five fourth-quarter comebacks and 10 game-winning drives.

Andy Dalton, Regular-Season Career Numbers

However, Dalton is inconsistent. It was evident in his first two seasons and was just as clear in 2013. For example, Dalton had a record-setting span of games from Weeks 6-8 in which he threw for over 300 yards per game and had at least three passing touchdowns in each. That was followed up by a 338-yard performance against the Miami Dolphins where he threw no touchdowns to three interceptions, beginning a four-game span in which he threw nine picks to six scores.

The question is whether Dalton has the capacity to become great and not the loadstone that holds back an otherwise stacked Bengals roster from winning a playoff game or even the Super Bowl. At the same time, if he does have the capacity to become great—let's say in the 2014 season—extending his contract now could potentially save the Bengals millions in a year's time.

Andy Dalton, Postseason Career Numbers

However, that's a lot of hypothetical thinking. Dalton has shown flashes of greatness, but his body of work suggests that he's simply a good quarterback; a more pessimistic reading of his career could even result in him being labeled mediocre. And a commitment to a mediocre quarterback will put the Bengals in what Joe Bussell has dubbed "quarterback purgatory," a fate worse than being in "quarterback hell."

Bussell describes quarterback purgatory as a situation in which a team sees so much good in their present quarterback that they're unwilling or unable to see him as incapable of leading the team to a Super Bowl. It's a good quarterback who has lulled the franchise into believing he's a long-term answer at the position because of a few playoff appearances.

It's a franchise that believes this quarterback can make a leap to the next level and warrant a long-term commitment. However, more often than not, they are wrong. And the window in which they could be legitimate Super Bowl contenders closes incrementally the longer this man is under center. 

Is this the situation the Bengals are in with Dalton? Even the most staunch Dalton supporter cannot ignore the quarterback's trio of postseason collapses and wonders whether he will ever improve.

The fact that there are so many questions surrounding whether Dalton can be the quarterback to take the Bengals to the top of the mountain should give Lewis and owner Mike Brown pause about extending his contract right now.

This doesn't mean the Bengals need to put a plan into place to replace Dalton should he falter in 2014. Nor does it mean that Dalton won't be deserving of a contract extension when his four-year, $5.21 million rookie deal expires after the upcoming season. But the Bengals could be setting themselves up to commit to a quarterback who will limit their progress. 

Is Dalton worthy of being called a franchise quarterback, or does he put the Bengals into quarterback purgatory?
Is Dalton worthy of being called a franchise quarterback, or does he put the Bengals into quarterback purgatory?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

A contract extension means the Bengals believe that Dalton is on track to be one of the NFL's better current quarterbacks. That's not what Dalton needs with his Achilles' heels range from intermediate passing accuracy to scoring touchdowns in the postseason. What he needs for 2014 is a backup quarterback to push him. Extending his contract now would be a reward he hasn't exactly earned yet.

The Bengals cannot be that worried that they won't be able to find anything better at the quarterback position in the next two years and that Dalton is as good as it will get for them in the short term. Granted, season after season of 10 or 11 wins (while going one and done in the postseason) won't help their draft position, thus keeping them out of reach of any top rookie quarterback prospects.

But that's a bridge they can cross should they get to it. After all, the Bengals have a very strong roster, and as long as it stays that way for a few more years, trading draft picks won't be a painful exercise in sacrifice. 

There could be something else at play regarding extending Dalton's contract that has little to nothing to do with what he's done for the Bengals in his first three seasons—the salary cap. Could a potential Dalton extension come now just to save the team money in the future?

The Bengals are projecting to have around $29.4 million in salary-cap space in 2014, which includes carry-over cash from 2013 and the assumption the cap limit is going to jump to $132 million this year. The Bengals also have around $76 million wrapped up for 2015, not counting any new contracts nor their 2014 rookie class. 

While it seems like the Bengals will have a lot of cash to spend next year, one look at their free agents for 2015 reveals the team is poised to do a lot of spending or else lose key members of their roster, from starters to important role players and depth.

Getting ahead of the curve with Dalton now makes their financial situation for 2015 clearer, giving them a better idea of how much money they have to re-sign the likes of receiver A.J. Green and linebacker Vontaze Burfict. It also means the Bengals can structure his contract to be as cap-friendly as possible while rewarding him with the job security they believe he's already earned. It's difficult logic to argue against.

Paying Dalton now may make things easier on the Bengals in 2015, when players like receiver A.J. Green are also free agents.
Paying Dalton now may make things easier on the Bengals in 2015, when players like receiver A.J. Green are also free agents.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Obviously, the Bengals have a degree of faith in Dalton that is not without warrant. It's not as though they are facing the option of either re-signing him now or having to commit to a different quarterback. However, for all that Dalton has done, there are also significant things he hasn't. A contract extension now assumes that he'll fix his problems and lead the Bengals to multiple playoff wins. 

The Bengals would be smarter to give Dalton the final year of his rookie contract to prove himself and use a second-round draft pick on the best quarterback still available in the draft. This will send an important motivational message to Dalton and would not be a waste of a pick for a team that has few roster holes.

Then, they can move on in 2015 if need be, or they could give Dalton a new deal and admit that he's who they want under center for the foreseeable future. 

Aside from any financial concerns they may have, the Bengals would gain more by waiting until 2015 to give Dalton additional years under contract. Their goals should not be just to identify a franchise quarterback, but also to avoid quarterback purgatory. Neither of these goals would be met by extending Dalton's contract now.