There is no worse place to be as an NFL franchise than quarterback purgatory.
News leaked Monday that the Cincinnati Bengals signed quarterback Andy Dalton to a $115 million contract over the next six years, per ESPN's Adam Schefter and Adam Caplan. Now, NFL contracts are not fully guaranteed, and those lofty numbers usually mean little to nothing, but this ostensibly puts Dalton in the driver's seat for the Bengals for the foreseeable future.
With this deal, the Bengals have condemned themselves to the worst possible situation—mediocrity.
This runs counterintuitive to what many people might think, as being truly bad actually has its benefits in the NFL—namely, high draft picks. In fact, with the new collective bargaining agreement controlling rookie salaries at the top of the draft, it's never been a better time to be terrible.
Maybe we haven't quite reached NBA levels of tanking, but there's at least some wisdom to allowing one's team to atrophy rather than consistently trying to prop it up. It's early in the process, but the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars are two examples of teams that have recently undergone regime changes where the new guard seemed to purposefully deep-six a few years to clear out dead cap space and acquire high draft picks.
A middling team, though, doesn't stand much of a shot—especially if the quarterback position is just as mediocre. "Propped up" is actually a great analogy for what's going on, as not only does the team receive artificial (and superficial) stability, but it's also a lot like a Hollywood prop in that it looks nice, but is likely hollow and lacking any real value.
The Bengals seem committed to heading down that road.
'Good Enough' May Not Be Good Enough These Days
Dalton, frankly, might be the poster child for "just good enough" at the quarterback position in today's NFL.
I talked to former NFL quarterback Shaun King about Dalton's prospects in this new deal, and King was less than ecstatic about the dollar amount, pointing out that Dalton is good enough but has had the poor fortune of having his worst game each year in the first round of the playoffs.
King further said, "I think Dalton's maxed out. He's gotten the most out of his ability that he'll get out of it—a very mature kid coming out of TCU and he bypassed some of the issues that young quarterbacks had, hitting his ceiling right away."
One of the things about being average, though, is that the insinuation may be that the play in question is consistently average. Maybe that is true for someone like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, but Dalton's play has often been of the consistently inconsistent variety.
This is a story about Good Andy Dalton vs. Bad Andy Dalton.
Andy Dalton: the highs are high, the lows are low. But, is he capable of going on that 3-4 game playoff run? pic.twitter.com/hvcEgvurgh— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) August 4, 2014
The tweet above isn't just great because it graphically lays out the maddening issues with Dalton, but also because Steve Palazzolo posits a great question: Even if Dalton does finally win that elusive playoff game (he's currently 0-3), will he ever put together the kind of Eli Manning-like run that has earned the Giants quarterback two rings while Dalton has been just as good of a regular-season quarterback?
King believes Dalton's inconsistency is linked to his physical/arm limitations, and there's some merit to that line of thinking. In scouting, players are often tiered or ranked according to the matchups they will win at the next level.
A mid-tier quarterback like Dalton may win a significant number of matchups, but he's going to naturally look more like a scrub when the matchup overwhelms him. Unlike position players, the "matchup" may not be a one-on-one, but rather the quarterback's physical or mental limitations against the caliber of the defense or the scheme of the defensive coordinator.
Grantland's Bill Barnwell tapped into another likely culprit:
The numbers suggest that Dalton just crumbles when attacked. It's not as simple as merely big-blitzing Dalton and having him panic; the Bengals have a very good offensive line, and when that line keeps the opposition off Dalton, he remains a league-average passer. To pick an all-inclusive stat, QBR pegs Dalton as the 23rd-best quarterback in football over his three years as a pro, with a cumulative QBR of 51.5. When teams rush Dalton with five men or more, his QBR falls to 47.0, but since everybody's a little worse when they’re blitzed, that's good enough for 21st in the league.
Barnwell actually compared Dalton—in terms of composure—to guys like Blaine Gabbert and Kevin Kolb. Maybe that seems harsh, but it's worthwhile to consider that Gabbert and Kolb never had the supporting cast or pass-blocking Dalton has enjoyed during his time in the league.
Dalton's DVOA without pressure: 43.1%. With pressure: -66.7% Dalton's YPP without pressure: 8.1. With pressure: 3.4.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) August 4, 2014
Dalton's 12.0% pressure rate was the NFL's lowest last year. So, if anything happens to that line in 2014... it ain't gonna be pretty.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) August 4, 2014
This is another downside to QB purgatory. When a quarterback is young and his team has convinced itself he is its future, it makes sense to surround him with as much talent as possible. However, when does it reach the point where the team is just artificially propping up the subpar talent because he's being dragged along with the team's success rather than making the talent around him better?
It's impossible not to look at the talent around Dalton and see that the Bengals have done, literally, just about anything that can be done. The offensive line has not only been superb in terms of pass-blocking (fifth last year, according to Pro Football Focus; subscription required), but it's also been incredible in terms of depth as players have gone down and the team has continued to flourish.
If Dalton were to undergo the type of consistent defensive pressure that tormented both Philip Rivers and Cam Newton last season, it's almost impossible to predict that he would respond with the type of play those two managed in 2013.
Will Andy Dalton win his first playoff game this year?
The weapons that Dalton has, too, are about as good as can be expected. Most quarterbacks in this league would give their non-throwing arm for a receiver like A.J. Green, let alone a tight end tandem like Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert with a running back stable three guys deep.
Moreover, as a team like the Bengals continues to try to reach the proverbial playoff mountaintop, it has to do so with the constraints of a salary cap. Giving a gigantic payday to an average quarterback can become the albatross to send the team on a slow descent to rock bottom.
Describing the mentality, King said the Bengals "were more comfortable going with Dalton and his low ceiling than starting over."
That's a milquetoast course the Bengals have set themselves on, but they're not alone.
The Market Is the Market
"Good enough" may not be good enough to achieve lasting success (or even a playoff win) in today's NFL.
We've had this discussion before with Tony Romo (repeatedly), Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick. Dalton turns 27 this season, and this is likely the biggest deal he will get. In terms of timing, that's perfect—even if Dalton hangs on for one more deal before he's done, the Bengals are handing him this money as he's supposedly hitting his prime.
I've mentioned the salary cap and CBA so far in this piece, but it's important to note that the CBA pegs that salary cap to the total revenue of the league. Thus, this inflated market for arms is not the same as the exploding free-for-all that is baseball salaries, where MLB owners willingly pay pitchers top dollar and then bemoan the same rising salaries they've created. Instead, the market follows along as a static-sized piece of the NFL's total revenue pie.
Enter television deals.
According to Brent Schrotenboer of USA Today, the NFL is hoping its total revenue rises to $25 billion from its current $10 billion in revenue over the next 13 years. This isn't like me hoping to win the lottery; this is a business projection that the NFL could easily shatter.
The 2014 season is when the NFL's new TV deals begin to kick in. With that money flowing in, the salary cap, which has been flatter than players hoped in recent years, should skyrocket. Because of that, some of the bigger-than-expected deals we've seen this offseason may simply be hedging bets.
It's possible to think about this two ways: first, that players like Dalton still need to take up a commensurate piece of the total salary cap as everybody gets paid more. However, and most importantly in this regard, we may simply have to change our paradigms about what money totals mean as the NFL is raking it in hand over fist.
Earlier this year, Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk pointed out just how high that cap could go:
When the salary cap jumped from $123 million to $133 million last week, some suggested it could move to $140 million in 2015 and $150 million in 2016.
One source with knowledge of the process (but not the same source who was on the money—pun lame but intended—when providing info about the 2014 cap) tells PFT that the cap could spike to $145 million in 2015 and a whopping $160 million in 2016.
With the market expanding, Shaun King even noted that we might see one more of these head-scratching deals soon.
"Whether it's Flacco, Romo, now it's Dalton, that's the going rate now," King said. "If you represent Alex Smith, you're telling the Chiefs that this is what the going rate is. The Chiefs are saying, 'But you're not worth that,' but it's the market now."
With that in mind, the sticker shock of Dalton's deal today may easily be replaced by considering this a bargain deal down the road. That's just the nature of where we are in a transitional period of the multibillion-dollar business that is the NFL.
All that said and dollars aside, the biggest argument against this deal is not really what Dalton is being paid. Frankly, any owner in the NFL can give as much money to whoever he wants and it's zero skin off any of our backs.
The money Dalton receives would be of far less concern to me than how long I was tied to him.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) August 4, 2014
No, the question here is if the Bengals have hitched their wagon to a horse that isn't worth it. The financial investment might not matter in the long run, but what that investment means does.
Dalton has not shown that he can be the guy the Bengals think they are committing to long term. Doing so now may be the safer option, but it may end up being the point we all look back to when things started to go south for the Bengals.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes were obtained firsthand.