Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Dalton is Bengals’ QB of the Future

By Brad Oremland

A column recently ran on SI.com with the absurd title The Bengals Are Crazy For Thinking Andy Dalton is Their QB of the Future. I didn't read it originally, because ... well, because that's absurd. I wouldn't read an article called "Up Is Down," either. It's a waste of time. Although frankly, "Up is Down" would be a much better title. What professional writer gives his article a 14-word headline?

But that headline got under my skin. I had to read it for the same reason I had to look at an article claiming the AFL's passing game was less exciting than the NFL's. The premise of the piece is that the real Andy Dalton is the one who played badly in his three playoff games, not the one who played well in his 48 regular-season games. I noted this in January, but I think it's worth reprinting — among Hall of Fame quarterbacks in the Super Bowl Era, half of them won zero playoff games in their first three seasons as starter: Joe Namath, Bob Griese, Dan Fouts, John Elway, Steve Young, and Warren Moon, plus Peyton Manning and Drew Brees after they're enshrined.

It's ridiculous to suggest that the Bengals should give up on Dalton because they haven't won any playoff games in his first three seasons. The same logic would have encouraged the Colts to unload Peyton Manning ... before he won four MVPs and a Super Bowl. That's not just short-sighted, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of how sports work. The Broncos could have given up on Elway after they lost his first playoff game, 31-7, and lost their next playoff when Elway threw a late interception that was returned to the 2-yard line and set up the game-winning touchdown. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula lost his first three championship games. So did Tom Landry. There are a dozen examples like this.

If the author intended to suggest that Dalton can't play under pressure, I would remind him that Dalton led TCU to two bowl wins and was named Offensive MVP of the 2011 Rose Bowl — a game with 20,000 more people in attendance than any of his NFL games. The Rose Bowl was, up to that point, by far the biggest game of Dalton's life, and he choked so badly that he was named MVP.

Now, here's a list of starting quarterbacks who led their teams to the playoffs in each of their first three seasons: Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar, Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton. Of the previous three, you've got a Hall of Famer (Marino), a Super Bowl champion (Flacco), and a guy who reached three AFC Championship Games as starter (Kosar). Elway didn't reach the postseason in each of his first three seasons. Neither did Terry Bradshaw or Joe Montana or Tom Brady. From a wins perspective, Dalton is one of the most successful young quarterbacks in history.

Greg A. Bedard, who wrote the SI.com piece, rightly points out that Dalton was backed by a good defense. However, Bedard also claims that Dalton benefitted from throwing to Mohamed Sanu. "On offense, Dalton had the pleasure of dropping back behind one of the league’s best pass-blocking units ... and he also threw to targets such as A.J. Green, Giovani Bernard, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert ... [Dalton] has been the one impediment [for] a roster dripping with talent."

A.J. Green, I'll give you. But then you've got a rookie running back, two nobody WRs, and a couple of middle-of-the-road tight ends. This isn't exactly the Greatest Show on Turf that Dalton's working with. He has one of the best wide receivers in the NFL, and a bunch of guys who are basically average. It's nowhere near the supporting cast he'd have somewhere like Dallas or Denver. If you swapped Dalton with Russell Wilson, would the Bengals have been a stronger contender than the Seahawks? Bedard is sure the answer is yes.

But if Jim Plunkett, Jim McMahon, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Eli Manning, and Joe Flacco can lead teams to the Lombardi Trophy, surely Dalton can do the same. He's only 26, and it's foolish to assume that he's already peaked and will never improve. Dalton is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks, through three seasons, in the history of professional football. Most passing yards, first three NFL seasons:

1. Peyton Manning, 12,287
2. Dan Marino, 11,431
3. Andy Dalton, 11,360

Manning, Marino, and Dalton. That's some nice company. Most passing touchdowns, first three NFL seasons:

1. Dan Marino, 98
2. Peyton Manning, 85
3. Andy Dalton, 80

I don't believe Dalton is on the same path as Marino and Manning, but look, this is pretty impressive. Best TD/INT differential, first three NFL seasons:

1. Dan Marino, +54
2. Jeff Garcia, +41
3. Carson Palmer, +35
4. Matt Ryan, +32
5. Andy Dalton, +31

This is still very good. But let's get really unfair, and compare Dalton not just to rookies, but to everyone. Over the past three seasons (2011-13), Dalton ranks 10th in passing yards, 9th in TDs, 12th in TD/INT differential, and 12th in passer rating — all above average. If you were just going by stats, which QB would you prefer?

Chart

QB B is ahead in nearly every category: more completions, fewer attempts, more yards, many more TDs, better TD/INT differential, better rating, fewer sacks, fewer sack yards lost, more rushing yards, more rushing TDs, fewer fumbles ... it's not close, right? You probably guessed that QB B is Dalton. QB A is Joe Flacco.

Of course, I'm ignoring Bedard's real argument: that playoff football is fundamentally different from regular-season football, and ability to perform in the regular season is totally unrelated to performance in the postseason. "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] plays with zero confidence when the games matter most."

Andy Dalton has increased his yardage, TDs, passer rating, and win total every season. He is one of the best young QBs in the history of the game, he has never missed the playoffs, and he's making consistent progress. But Bedard sees a choker and a proven failure. He even claims that "everyone outside Paul Brown Stadium has sizeable doubts about [Dalton's] ability to win in the postseason." Up is down.

Perhaps the most ludicrous statement in his indefensible column was Bedard's contention that the Bengals were "ready to win big two years ago." I don't know whether he means 2011 or 2012, but does anyone really think the Bengals were a contender in either of those seasons? They had only just returned from the depths of mediocrity and worse. In 2010, Cincinnati went 4-12. Since drafting Dalton, they've improved to 9-7, 10-6, and 11-5.

The Bengals were underdogs in Dalton's first two playoff games, both on the road against a team with a better record. This year's loss deserves more blame, and Dalton was the most obvious problem, but that's one game. You can't infer any meaningful conclusions about a player from a single game. Dalton is only 26. He had a great rookie season, and he's gotten better each year. His team will be favored to win the AFC North again in 2014. Let's avoid throwing dirt on this guy's career for a little while.

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