Bolder. Held together. Reaching new heights.
There is change in Andy Dalton that cannot be ignored.
And then there is his hair.
Spectacularly different, vividly red and unconventionally styled, it has become his trademark. It has an almost hypnotic quality. If in conversation Dalton requests that you talk to him and not to his hair, you will need to gather yourself, apologize and lower your gaze.
It did not used to be this way. In some ways, the metamorphosis of the hair and the man is one and the same.
But let's start at the bottom and work our way up.
The bottom, for Dalton, came last January. That's when the Bengals lost to the Colts in the AFC Wild Card Round. It didn't matter that the Bengals were without injured receivers A.J. Green and Marvin Jones and injured tight ends Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham. It didn't matter that the Bengals' running game didn't show up or that their pass defense was a dud. It didn't matter that Dalton was still just a fourth-year quarterback or that he already had 40 wins, the fourth most ever for a QB through the first four years of his professional career.
It only mattered that Dalton was flat and incapable of victory for the fourth time in four playoff games.
The Bengals have not won a postseason game since 1991—since they were doing the Ickey Shuffle. So 24 years of frustration were directed at Dalton. The possibility of a training-camp quarterback competition was raised by the media.
Then, there were the introductions at the celebrity softball game before the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati last summer. Snoop Dogg, Macklemore and Urban Meyer, they were cheered. Dalton was booed.
He shrugged and hit two home runs. Publicly, he downplayed the hostility, but those who know him best knew it hurt.
"He told me it was a little difficult," Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said. "You are in your own city. You have done everything you can do. You've won a lot of games. And now you get booed. I know it affected him."
The status quo would no longer work for Dalton.
In the dead of the offseason, Jackson and Dalton sat down to talk. Jackson told Dalton he needed him to take the reins of the offense. In the past, Dalton carried himself like a duckling in the locker room, looking to fall in line and follow.
"It's not my normal personality to come out and yell at somebody or to make a scene about something," Dalton said.
Dalton needed to say more and to say things the right way. But first, he had to be reassured that the limb he was inching out on would not snap.
"Sometimes people have to understand how to express that part of themselves and know that it's OK to express that part of themselves," Jackson said. "He plays a position that has to have that kind of fire. We told him to go for it."
Dalton is most comfortable being inconspicuous. But he was beginning to understand that inconspicuous doesn't win in the playoffs. And besides, if he were supposed to be inconspicuous, he would not have been born with flaming red hair.
Jackson and his fellow coaches wanted their quarterback to lose his inhibitions.
"What we wanted to get was more Andy," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said. "Do your thing. Be you. Whatever personality you have, let it flow."
For years, left tackle Andrew Whitworth had been the man in the Bengals locker room. And a good leader he was. So good, in fact, that this offseason he recognized his team would be best served if he were to step back. Whitworth told head coach Marvin Lewis he wanted Dalton to take the baton and gave Dalton a similar message.
"He needed to say, 'I'm not only the quarterback and the captain, but this is my offense,'" Whitworth said. "It was about him knowing he has the keys."
Jackson looked for ways to empower Dalton. In meetings, Jackson always has asked questions of his players. But instead of spreading the questions around the room as he had in the past, he decided to direct all of his questions to Dalton. If something needed to be explained to the group, Jackson wanted Dalton to do it. "They need to hear him talk and see he is the centerpiece of it all," Jackson said.
Jackson also appointed Dalton to lead offensive meetings on Thursdays and Fridays. Dalton's assignment would be to preside over a group tape study and point out strengths and weaknesses of the opponent's defense. For about an hour-and-a-half each week, Bengals wide receivers, tight ends, running backs and offensive linemen would hear exactly what their quarterback was thinking, and they could address any gray areas.
The new entitlement needed to be actualized on grass too. So the coaches expanded Dalton's control at the line of scrimmage. On any play call now, Dalton would be given the freedom to check to another.
"We changed the mindset and the trust," Jackson said. "There is no situation I won't trust him in. I give him the green light to do as he sees."
The way Lewis saw it, Dalton had been uniquely prepared for his new freedom. In the infancy of his NFL career, he had been coached by Jay Gruden. Voted the second-greatest quarterback in Arena Football League history, Gruden taught Dalton with a quarterback's eyes.
Then he was coached by Jackson, the former head coach of the Raiders. He had observed Dalton when he was in charge of Bengals defensive backs, and then running backs. Jackson opened Dalton's eyes to the forest that the trees were a part of.
Always, he has had Zampese, who has been coaching Bengals quarterbacks since Jon Kitna was under center. Zampese was bequeathed quarterback wisdom from his father, Ernie, a general in the Air Coryell army and a 28-year veteran of NFL wars, and could teach with stories of Dan Fouts, Troy Aikman, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.
And another set of eyes could push Dalton further still. In the spring before the 2014 season, Dalton decided to spend a week with independent throwing gurus Tom House and Adam Dedeaux, former pitchers whose methods had clicked with Tom Brady and Drew Brees. This offseason, the decision was made to spend more time with them—three weeks—and to bring along other Bengals quarterbacks and skill-position players.
The Dalton who showed up for the season-opening win against the Raiders was a Dalton the NFL had never seen before. In that game, he led his team to 33 points. He did not oversee an offense that scored 33 points. He led his team to 33 points.
In that game, one of Dalton's touchdown throws to Eifert was an audible. Two weeks later, the game-winning touchdown pass to Green against the Ravens also was a play Dalton changed. Against the Seahawks the week after that, Dalton changed a fourth-quarter play to a QB keeper and bulled in for a five-yard touchdown in a comeback victory. Then, against Rex Ryan's Bills defense the next week, Dalton changed a pass to a run at the line, and Giovani Bernard carried it for a 17-yard score.
Jackson estimates Dalton has changed 30 to 40 percent of the sideline calls this year, compared to 15 to 20 percent a year ago.
"We've had success with what I've done at the line, so there is a lot of freedom for me out there as long as I see what they are doing," Dalton said.
Even during trying times, a new Dalton has been evident. Witness the Bengals' first loss of the season, 10-6 to the Texans. As the Bengals were battling familiar prime-time demons and failing against the team that always seems to have their number, Dalton was as much cheerleader as quarterback.
"As bad as things were going offensively, he was going up and down the sideline saying, 'We're about to go score.'" Whitworth said. "He really believed it, and he told every single guy that. In the past, he was kind of quiet on the sidelines. He would go back and study what he needed to do. It's a different mentality."
After the game, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said on ESPN that the goal of the Texans was to "make the Red Rifle look like a Red Ryder BB Gun." Informed of the comment by a reporter, Dalton snapped and questioned Watt's integrity. "I'm disappointed in him," Dalton told reporters.
At his midweek press conference, Dalton backed off, saying his postgame comments were not warranted. Dalton's initial response was an overreaction. But given where he had come from, it was better than an under-reaction. This was not an exchange that Dalton would have had one year ago. Off-podium, after he had time to reflect, he said, "You have to be able to stand up for yourself."
During a recent walk-through, Dalton called for a wrong formation in the no-huddle offense. Whitworth gave him a loud jab about it. On the next play, Dalton stopped mid-cadence to point out Whitworth's responsibilities—just in case he didn't know.
None of his teammates get a pass.
"When I run a bad route, he tells me, 'You have to get your depth,'" said Green, a four–time Pro Bowler. "Little things like that have changed."
Dalton is more demanding of his superiors as well. When Lewis' charity, the Marvin Lewis Community Fund, scheduled a celebrity waiter event for August, Dalton voiced his displeasure to his coach. The Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation already had an established celebrity waiter night, and the head coach was infringing on his territory. "He stood up to me and said, 'BS,'" Lewis said. "I was impressed. That was a huge step."
This Dalton began to emerge in August 2014, when the Bengals extended his contract. At the time the deal was struck, Lewis was on the golf course. He and Dalton texted each other, and Dalton expressed his relief over the deal.
We might have started to see a new Dalton a year ago, too, if the players around him had stayed healthy. In 2014, Eifert and Jones missed 33 games between them. Green was banged up to the point that he missed four games and didn't catch a single pass in two others.
There is no question having a healthy, talented array of weapons has been a part of Dalton's transformative season. And Dalton's ability to get them the football at all levels of the field never has been keener. Some of that should be attributed to Dalton's more compact throwing motion, which can be traced to his work with House.
In the summer, Dalton took a course taught by House. Now he is enrolled in continuing education. He speaks with House or Dedeaux every week. The throwing coaches review tape and then discuss his mechanics. They also give him feedback on sports psychology. Dedeaux even visited Dalton in Cincinnati during the Bengals' bye week for a tuneup.
Zampese said Dalton is more balanced, and the ball leaves his hand more quickly from the time he decides to throw it than it once did. Now, there are more catch-and-run opportunities.
|Andy Dalton career stats|
Dalton is averaging 12.5 yards per completion. That's more than a yard better than his career yards-per-completion average coming into this season. He also has 46 completions of 20 yards or more, the third most in the league, according to STATS. That's already 13 more than he had all of last year.
The deep ball has been a point of emphasis for the Bengals going back to the offseason. And at 28, a more physically developed Dalton is capable of throwing it better than ever.
"He's a stronger player," Lewis said. "So there is more velocity on the ball."
Dalton's passer rating of 105.3 is third best in the NFL. Everyone understands that none of this will matter if the big moments prove too big down the stretch, or if Dalton's Bengals go one-and-out in the playoffs again. But through 11 games, no one is booing him in Cincinnati.
Not long ago, Lewis was preparing for his day and not really paying attention to Good Morning America on his bathroom television. He caught a glimpse of an old interview with a ginger quarterback from TCU who looked familiar—but not too familiar.
"I looked again," Lewis said. "I know that guy."
Dalton carries himself differently now than he did then, like a quarterback who is on top. And speaking of what's on top, we're back to his hair.
As we sit in a corner of the bustling Bengals locker room, Dalton is wearing a hooded sweatshirt, hood over his head. A thick tuft of hair sweeps up and out in the front, unwilling to be suppressed. It is very much in contrast to the close-cropped hairstyle he wore in that Good Morning America interview.
His hair became a Halloween costume. Fans come to Bengals games wearing Dalton hairdos. It seems as if more words have been written about his hair than his arm. There is a parody Twitter account, Andy Dalton's Hair.
It does not bother Dalton. If he talks to you long enough, he knows the question is coming.
"Everybody wants to talk about it," he said with a smile. "I'll take it."
He does more than take it. He owns it.
"Having this hairstyle is a way of him showing his confidence," Whitworth said. "That's a good thing, because the more confidence he has, the better he plays. When he lets loose is when he plays his best."
What is happening to Andy Dalton this year really isn't that difficult to understand.
Just look at his hair.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.