ORLANDO — If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results, then the Bengals are certifiable when it comes to quarterback Andy Dalton.
Forget what owner Mike Brown said earlier this week about Dalton, hinting that the team wasn’t yet sold on giving him a new contract. Coach Marvin Lewis comments at the AFC coaches breakfast on Tuesday leave no doubt that the Bengals are fully committed to keeping Dalton as their QB of the future. The only question is whether they get a contract extension done now, or whether they do a franchise tag/extension dance after next season. The bottom line is Dalton is Cincinnati’s guy, no question.
“Oh yeah,” Lewis said.
“Because he’s done what most people have never done,” Lewis explained. “He’s taken a team to the playoffs three years in a row, from a rookie on, and continues to ascend and get better.”
There is little question that Dalton has been good in the regular season, at times playing very well. The stats and the film study bear this out.
Dalton, 26, has started all 48 games since being a second-round pick in 2011, with a 30-18 record. The win total has increased by one each season. He’s improved from completing 58.1% of his passes as a rookie to being around 62% over the past two seasons. Dalton’s yardage and touchdowns have increased every season, but so have his interceptions. Dalton’s passer rating has gone from 80.4 as a rookie to 88.8 as a third-year pro.
But it must be pointed out that Dalton has played on supremely talented teams. He was not a rookie who was forced to make chicken salad out of chicken … well, you know.
This past season, the Bengals had a deep and forceful defense that ranked among the top five in yards and points allowed. They also forced 31 turnovers (tied for third in the NFL) to give Dalton extra possessions. On offense, Dalton had the pleasure of dropping back behind one of the league’s best pass-blocking units (second only to the quick-throwing Broncos in The MMQB’s final Pressure Points ratings), and he also threw to targets such as A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert. Maybe the Bengals lacked a solid running game (28th in yards per attempt), but not everybody’s the pre-salary cap Dallas Cowboys.
So, yes, Dalton did a good job of executing a talented offense on arguably one of the league’s best-stocked rosters in the regular season. But …
What about the postseason? The Bengals and Dalton are 0-3 in the playoffs while averaging of 11 points per game, including a 27-10 home loss to the Chargers in January.
“We lost the football game, and the quarterback gets the blame when you lose,” Lewis said of the most recent postseason loss. “But we didn’t cover people on third downs, we fumbled the football, Andy had a fumble. We didn’t protect Andy. So we as coaches have to do a better job. We all lost.”
This is where the disconnect occurs between the Bengals and the rest of the football-loving country. The Bengals go out of their way to make excuses for Dalton, firmly believing one win will serve as a breakthrough that will propel Dalton from being a solid starter to a very good one. It’s their opinion, and they’re entitled to it.
The rest of the country sees a quarterback who plays with zero confidence when the games matter most, and a QB who turned in not just bad postseason games but god-awful performances: three interceptions as a rookie against Houston (when he lost to backup T.J. Yates); a 46.7 completion percentage and a 44.7 rating in a 19-13 loss to Texans in which Dalton missed several opportunities to win the game in his second season; and then last season’s loss to the Chargers. After holding a 10-7 halftime lead, the Bengals punted, Dalton fumbled without being contacted, and then he threw interceptions on back-to-back drives.
With a résumé like that, most teams would wait for a quarterback to prove himself worthy of even a $15 million per year contract (the going rate for a top quarterback is $20 million). The importance of making sure you have the right guy at the most crucial position can’t be overstated. If Dalton suddenly takes the Bengals to the AFC Championship Game this year and it ends up costing Cincinnati a little more money next offseason, that beats the alternative of backing the wrong guy to be your franchise quarterback—just look at what happened when the Jets extended Mark Sanchez’s contract.
But the Bengals are all in on Dalton, even though he’s yet to have a respectable showing in a playoff game, let alone winning one.
“We feel like we have a great young player in Andy, we’re hopeful that we can get a deal done that works,” Lewis said. “And he can put it behind him, he can get back to focusing on football, he doesn’t have to go into the season and worry about this contract thing being one of the—I mean, every week someone’s going to ask him the question—and then it gets to there and then are you going to franchise him, all of the things that come into play later on. Let’s get it behind us, something that works for everyone, something that allows us to keep tackles in front of you, receivers on the outside, guys on the other side of the football, so it works for everyone.”
The Bengals want to make sure their prized flower, who has wilted when the pressure has been at its highest, continues to grow inside the coddled existence they’ve carved out for him. Dalton’s always been the starter and never had to worry about competition. Now, after Lewis’ comments, having to worry about a contract would bring too much stress to a player who plays a position where imperviousness to pressure is as vital as breathing. (The 2012 Ravens and Joe Flacco would disagree).
Meanwhile, the Bengals’ rivals in the AFC are quietly hoping that Cincinnati will fully invest in a player who has been the one impediment to it ascending to a Super Bowl contender with a roster dripping with talent.
Just don’t try to tell Lewis that.
“I’m tired of answering questions about Andy that don’t make any sense, you know what I mean?” Lewis said. “Andy’s done a fine job for us. We all want to be better and once he does that, all that rest will go away. But he’s compared to Drew Brees, compared with (Aaron) Rodgers and guys that didn’t get the chance to play until later on. They sat and they watched. We had to throw Andy in right away and I think he’s done a really good job and he will continue to get better, until he proves he won’t.”
If the Bengals extend Dalton now, when everyone outside Paul Brown Stadium has sizeable doubts about his ability to win in the postseason, he just might rise to the challenge and prove himself. But it could be way too late for a Bengals team that was ready to win big two years ago.