The Cincinnati Bengals have an 8-4 record headed into Week 14 and sole possession of the AFC North. If they can keep hold of it, that means a third straight season will end with a trip to the playoffs. It's also the third season Andy Dalton has been the Bengals' starting quarterback. This is not a coincidence.
Prior to the Bengals drafting Dalton in 2011, the team was seesawing between good seasons and less-than-good ones. There was seemingly little stability, and though the quarterback situation with Carson Palmer wasn't entirely to blame, it's hard to deny that the era hearkened in by drafting Dalton has been a good one for the Bengals.
In his first two seasons, the Bengals reached the playoffs, and they're on the verge of reaching them again. The only problem? The Bengals' past two postseason appearances have been one-and-done, being bested each time by the Houston Texans.
For all that Dalton had done to get his team to January football, he did just as much to keep it from advancing. He has yet to throw a postseason touchdown, while he's turned the ball over four times. Last year, he completed only 46.67 percent of his passes in the loss to the Texans. Questions arose about whether or not he could handle the pressure of a big game.
|AFC Playoff Picture Through Week 13|
|2.||New England Patriots||9-3|
|5.||Kansas City Chiefs||9-3|
|Bengals host Colts in Week 14|
Though the Bengals are in no danger of being eliminated from the playoffs by the presently two-win Texans, doubt still lingers about Dalton's ability to get them deep into the postseason or to the Super Bowl.
His recent spate of bad games, in which he's thrown six touchdowns to nine interceptions in his past four and under 200 passing yards in his past two, only seems to prove he doesn't have what it takes to get to northern New Jersey in February.
There is a lot of evidence that speaks to the contrary, however. But there is also a lot that supports doubts about Dalton. Here's why Dalton is—and is not—a playoff-caliber quarterback.
Why He Is: Just Look at Joe Flacco
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is the latest to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in celebration of a Super Bowl win. In doing so, he secured himself a $120 million contract (the spoils of winning the Big One in a contract year) and was established as the leader of the Ravens offense. It's something Dalton could accomplish as well.
Dalton and Flacco are very similar quarterbacks. While Dalton has been criticized for a weak arm, both he and Flacco have attempted 63 passes of 20 or more yards this year, tied for second-most in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Like Flacco, Dalton is not very in-your-face on the field or the sidelines. And Flacco has reached the postseason in each of his first five years in the league, a path Dalton is currently walking himself.
They are also both very inconsistent quarterbacks on almost a week-to-week basis.
Take just 2011 and 2012 for both quarterbacks. Not counting both seasons' Week 17 games, in which Flacco played a few series before being rested, he had 12 games in those two years with under 200 passing yards. In the same span, he also had nine with 300 or more.
Dalton, from 2011 to 2012, had 11 games with under 200 yards, not counting his regular-season professional debut and Week 17 of 2012, in which he was also rested after a few series. He had five 300-plus yard passing days over those two seasons.
|Dalton and Flacco's Weird 2011|
|Week||Flacco Pass Yds.||Dalton Pass Yds.|
In fact, Flacco had a maddening stretch in 2011 in which he was alternating between throwing for under 200 yards and throwing for over 300. Dalton too had a similar back-and-forth performance during those same weeks that season. But ultimately, both teams won enough games to reach the postseason.
Playing consistently—and consistently well—is a desirable trait for a quarterback to have, but it's not realistic to expect it out of every starter in the NFL. And it's not necessary to reach the playoffs and win.
In his first two playoff runs, Flacco threw only one touchdown pass, and the Ravens still won three games. He's had around or under a 50 percent completion rate in eight playoff games, six of which the Ravens won. Flacco is a good example of how Dalton, flaws and all, can lead the Bengals to postseason success.
Why He Isn't: Fits of Low Confidence
The difference between Flacco's inconsistency issues and Dalton's is that Flacco doesn't let them linger. One of the best things a quarterback can do is move on completely from bad games and not let them affect how he plays in the following weeks. Dalton doesn't seem to have developed this quality yet.
The best example of this is how he's handled losses to the Miami Dolphins in both 2012 and 2013. When he lost to them in Week 5 of last season, it began a four-game losing streak for the Bengals. This year, a Week 9 loss to the Dolphins ended Dalton's streak of three straight games with 300 or more passing yards and three or more touchdowns.
Though the losing streak ended at two games, Dalton's struggles didn't. In Weeks 10 and 11, Dalton completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns to five interceptions. Though the completion percentage went up after the Bengals' Week 12 bye, he still threw an interception and had only 190 passing yards in a win over the San Diego Chargers.
Dalton lets bad games get to him. It's something head coach Marvin Lewis discussed at the AFC coaches' breakfast this past March. He hinted that Dalton needs more mental toughness and needs to stop paying attention to what fans and the media say about him. If Dalton is reading his press, he needs to give it up. There's no position in football that suffers more than quarterback if outside criticism is taken to heart.
Lewis has been trying since at least the 2012 season to get Dalton to be a more aggressive leader—he said of Dalton last October: "We are looking for Andy to take the next step of being the leader of the football team. Confident, being vocal if it needs to be, but grab this football team by the back of its neck and let's go. Let's move forward."
We saw Dalton progressing in the right direction on this summer's season of HBO's "Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Cincinnati Bengals," but as the season has worn on it appears some old habits die hard. This was especially the case when he went face to face with his personal brand of Kryptonite, the Dolphins, and was struck with an acute case of Daltonism, throwing the football to too many of the wrong-colored jerseys.
An NFL quarterback must walk onto the field each week believing he can lead his team to victory, that he can make all the throws necessary and that his mistakes are behind him. This may or may not play out, but the confidence is a requirement.
Playoff games are difficult to win. The pressure is high, and everyone is staring at the quarterbacks in particular, trying to figure out their respective places in NFL history. To win these games, the quarterbacks must eliminate the noise. Until Dalton can do this, a Super Bowl victory will remain elusive.
Why He Is: He's Finally Winning Big Games
The biggest knock against Dalton and the Bengals in their first two years of making the playoffs is that they earned their winning records without defeating any teams that matter.
Only two of the Bengals' wins from 2011 and 2012 came against teams that ultimately wound up in the playoffs—Washington, whom the Bengals defeated in Week 3 of the 2012 season, and the Ravens, whom the Bengals beat in Week 17 last year, though Baltimore did rest its starters after just a few series. In big games, the Bengals couldn't be trusted.
That has changed this season. The Bengals defeated the Green Bay Packers in Week 3 (with a healthy Aaron Rodgers), the New England Patriots in Week 5 and the Detroit Lions in Week 7. Two of these teams are likely to reach the playoffs this year, while the other, the Packers, was penciled in for a postseason appearance before Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone.
|Eventual Playoff Teams Dalton's Bengals Have Beaten|
|2013||3||vs. Green Bay||34-30|
|2013||5||vs. New England||13-6|
|The AFC South-leading Colts come to town this week|
The Bengals—and Dalton—have held their own against some of the most difficult teams to beat on their 2013 schedule. If they can go into Detroit and fell the Lions or host the Patriots and hold them to just six points, it bodes well for their chances to win a playoff game this year, whether it takes place on the road or at home.
It can not be understated how huge of a hurdle the Bengals have cleared this year with these three wins. It hasn't completely eliminated the doubters, but it certainly makes them a bit more quiet. At least Dalton's moldable confidence gets a boost.
Should the Bengals see the Patriots in the postseason, Dalton knows that he can outplay and has outplayed Tom Brady. Should they meet the Lions in the Super Bowl, Dalton knows he's already come into their house and won. This is now a different Dalton, in that respect, than he was in the previous two years.
Why He's Not: Can Dalton Carry the Team on His Back?
If a game is on the line, is Dalton the quarterback you can trust to make the necessary plays to win? Is he the metaphorical general leading his team into 60 minutes of battle? Can he carry the team on his back?
It may be an unfair measure of a quarterback, but it's worth examining. Can Dalton be trusted to engineer a game-winning drive in a playoff game? In his career, Dalton has had nine games in which he had a fourth-quarter comeback and/or a game-winning drive, two of which have happened this year.
However, three out of the Bengals' four losses have been by margins of three points or less. The overtime two-point loss to the Dolphins was the result of a walk-off safety, with Dalton sacked in the end zone to seal his team's fate. He hasn't managed a single touchdown pass in the postseason and looked lost and overwhelmed in both games.
If this is the quarterback who will be taking the field for the Bengals in January, winning is going to be hard to come by. At some point in the postseason, the Bengals will need their offense to step up. Their great defense may not be a match for what Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos can cook up for them. Their run game may get bottled up by the Kansas City Chiefs, forcing them to turn to Dalton to win them the game.
Because he hasn't yet proven these are situations in which he can succeed, Dalton will be questioned about his leadership and ability to come through in the clutch when it matters most. When he does it, we can stop wondering whether he can carry the team. But these worries won't cease unless it happens.
Why He Is: Dalton Doesn't Need to Carry His Team
The good thing about football is that it's a team sport, something easily forgotten when so much attention is paid to the player under center. "Defense wins championships" might be an oversimplification, but the phrase makes a good point: Winning involves more than the quarterback playing well.
Take for example the Bengals' Week 11 41-20 blowout of the Cleveland Browns. Dalton was still in the throes of his post-Dolphins meltdown. He completed only 13 of his 27 pass attempts—48.15 percent—for just 93 yards. He threw three touchdowns, but he also had two interceptions, with one returned for a score.
What bailed Dalton and the Bengals out was the defense and special teams. The Bengals blocked two Browns punts, including one returned for a touchdown, while linebacker Vontaze Burfict had a score on a fumble recovery. The Browns turned the ball over a total of four times, and Dalton was, for the most part, a non-factor. His inaccurate passing day didn't matter. He made a few plays, and the defense and special teams did the rest.
|Bengals Defensive Rankings, 2013|
|Total Defense||Rank: 6th||314.8 Yds/G|
|Rush Defense||Rank: 8th||101.1 Yds/G|
|Pass Defense||Rank: 8th||213.8 Yds/G|
|Opp. Red Zone TD %||Rank: 12th||50.00%|
|Opp. Points Per Game||Rank: 5th||18.0|
It happened again, though less dramatically, in Cincinnati's Week 13 17-10 win over the San Diego Chargers. Dalton had only 190 passing yards and threw one touchdown and one interception, but solid defensive play combined with 164 Bengals rushing yards clinched them the victory.
The Bengals have one of the most complete and deep rosters in the NFL, something that has served them well through injuries and through Dalton's struggles. While they can absolutely live and die by the play of their quarterback, the Bengals aren't a quarterback-dependent team like the Packers, whose season turned to dust with Rodgers' injury, or any team featuring the elder Manning (see the 2011 Colts for evidence). They have enough talent to compensate for when Dalton is off his game.
On defense, the Bengals rank sixth in yards allowed, at 314.8, eighth in rushing yards, at 101.1, eighth in passing yards, at 213.8, 12th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage, at 50 percent, and fifth in opponent average points per game, at 18. The defense is clearly making things easier for the offense and thus for Dalton as well.
It's better to be an all-around good team rather than just one that features a top-five quarterback and bad defensive and special teams play. Defensive problems are what made the powerhouse Packers lose in the playoffs last year. Manning alone cannot magically produce Super Bowl victories. Tom Brady and the Patriots haven't won the Super Bowl in nearly 10 years.
Flacco was just one part of why the Ravens had such a great playoff run last year. Colin Kaepernick was very effective in 2012, but the 49ers' appearance in the Super Bowl had just as much to do with their run game and defense as he did. The Bengals have the makings for an elite team, which matters more to a deep playoff run than just having an elite-level quarterback and little else.
It's great when a quarterback can carry his team all the way to a Super Bowl victory. But if Dalton doesn't or cannot, it doesn't matter—the Bengals have enough top-flight cogs on their roster to carry Dalton. That may be the strongest argument for why Dalton is, after all the debate, a playoff-caliber quarterback.