In the three series he played for the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday against the New York Jets, Andy Dalton was perfect. The quarterback went 8-of-8 for 144 yards and a touchdown against the Jets' No. 1 defense, posting a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
Dalton admitted after the preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs that he felt pressure to perform well after signing his six-year extension that could be worth up to $115 million, and through his first two showings this preseason, he's not making the organization look foolish for betting on him. He went 3-of-5 for 71 yards against Kansas City.
However, the Bengals' bet on Dalton is a tenuous one, hinging on performance. The pay-as-you-go structure of his deal, which includes just $17 million in guarantees, is inextricably linked to his inconsistent play over the last three seasons.
So while Dalton deserves credit for his impressive performance against the Jets, his consistency remains a question mark until, well, he proves it isn't.
The Dalton years in Cincinnati have been a tale of peaks and valleys. The Bengals have made the postseason three consecutive times, but have never made it past the wild card. Dalton's touchdowns have continued to rise since his debut in 2011, but so too have his picks.
But with one of the league's elite receivers in A.J. Green and emerging star Giovani Bernard surrounding him, 2014 could be the season Dalton carries this offense to true contention in the postseason.
Everything was working for the Bengals Saturday evening. Dalton engineered two scoring drives in the first quarter. On the first, Cincinnati went 67 yards in five plays in under three minutes. In a balanced offensive attack, Bernard picked up yards on the ground, while Dalton found Green, Bernard and Jermaine Gresham in the passing game, finishing the drive with a 43-yard scoring bomb down the middle to Mohamed Sanu.
On the second scoring drive, Dalton again put together a string of highlights, including a 35-yard completion down the right sideline to Green, who beat New York's Antonio Allen in coverage. The Jets secondary was leaky throughout the night, which helped Dalton's 100 percent completion rating, but the Bengals offense was on, period.
Despite the sharp execution, Dalton and the offense have to prove themselves in the regular season, and against stouter competition. The Jets pass defense was 22nd in the league in 2013, allowing an average of 247 yards per game. New York tried addressing this weakness this offseason by signing Dimitri Patterson and experimenting with position changes—moving Allen to cornerback, for example. But if its performance against Cincinnati is any indication, the Jets secondary is still in rough shape.
Cincinnati's offensive success in 2014 will depend largely on the ability of the offensive line to give Dalton time in the pocket and create holes for Bernard. Dalton had the lowest completion percentage (38.5) of any quarterback in 2013 (with 50 percent or more of his team's dropbacks) while under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
It's the preseason, and early on at that. But in the four series Dalton has played thus far, he has orchestrated four scoring drives—two touchdowns and two field goals. He averaged a whopping 18 yards per attempt Saturday. He hasn't yet taken a sack.
Will Andy Dalton finally lead the Bengals past the first round of the playoffs in 2014?
Something is clicking in the Bengals offense, one that looks poised to have prolific production in 2014. And produce is exactly what Dalton will have to do if he wants to earn out the top end of his contract, which Cincinatti has structured so that it can walk away after any year with minimal financial impact, as Peter King of The MMQB pointed out.
It's not the preseason those skeptical of Dalton worry about, after all. It's not even so much the regular season. The wound of last year's Wild Card Game loss to the San Diego Chargers, in which Dalton went 29-of-51 with two picks, is still fresh.
The pieces are in place under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson for Dalton to justify in 2014 the Bengals' continued faith in him and earn that faith, finally, from frustrated fans. From what he's shown so far this preseason, he's ready.