Fixing the QBs: Will Andy Dalton ever learn to thrive under pressure?
When the Cincinnati Bengals selected TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 draft, the biggest brouhaha was not about how Dalton would affect his new team's future. It was the insistence of one analyst that another team had irrevocably damaged its future by refusing to pull the trigger on Dalton earlier. After bashing a draft that brought Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright in the fourth round, cornerback Richard Sherman in the fifth round and cornerback Byron Maxwell in the sixth, former Seahawks quarterback Trent Dilfer put it out there that the team's refusal to take the Red Rifle was a big problem.
"It hurts when I see this, especially when Andy Dalton is sitting there at [pick No. 25], and I know the Seattle Seahawks liked Andy Dalton," Dilfer said, calling the exercise a "travesty."
Of course, Seattle got a bit lucky with Russell Wilson in the third round the next year, and by then, Dalton had a full year as a starter under his belt. He made the Pro Bowl in that rookie year, completing 300 passes in 516 attempts for 3,398 yards, 20 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Dalton became the third quarterback in NFL history to throw at least 80 touchdown passes in his first three seasons, joining Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. He is the fourth quarterback to make the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, and he set the franchise record for touchdown passes in 2013 with 33. Quarterback wins are always a weird stat, but if you're keeping track of such things, it can be mentioned that Dalton is the first quarterback in Bengals history to "win" 30 games in his first three seasons (30-18 overall).
And now, in the wake of the Bengals' decision to extend Dalton with a contract that could pay him a total of $25 million by 2015 and more than $40 million through 2016 if all the incentives kick in, we are left to wonder if a quarterback who has excellent surface stats and is surrounded by a lot of talent is worthy of such generosity.
Those who have balked at the deal point to Dalton's postseason record -- he's started one playoff game in each of the last three seasons, his team has been bounced all three times, and Dalton's stats in those games are nightmarish. In postseason play, he's completed 70 of 123 passes for 718 yards, one touchdown and six interceptions. Moreover, he's frequently looked out of his depth against the more complex defensive schemes put forth by his opponents.
When quarterbacks such as Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck have more playoff success with fewer overall starts and fewer opportunities, the talk about the height of Dalton's ceiling begins anew. Still, that's not the real issue. People keep coming back to those failures, and there's obvious weight to them, but it isn't as if Dalton is a tough-as-nails guy in the regular season who just happens to implode when the lights are brighter. If we're talking about elite quarterbacks for elite money -- to use that nebulous term -- perhaps we could define an elite quarterback as a player who is able to be consistently successful when he's forced to be spectacular.
In that regard, Andy Dalton is a worrisome individual.
Last season, Dalton was pressured on just 16.4 percent of his throws, per Football Outsiders' charting metrics. That was the second-lowest pressure percentage for any qualifying starter (Peyton Manning: 14.8 percent), and Dalton's productivity splits under pressure were absolutely awful. He put up a 27.4% DVOA (FO's opponent-adjusted per-play efficiency metric) when he wasn't pressured and a -114.7% DVOA when he was. His yards per play under pressure plummeted from 7.9 to 1.2. One. Point. Two. Pro Football Focus's charting has Dalton with 19 completions in 54 attempts for 297 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions when under blitz pressure, and 28 completions in 68 attempts for 361 yards, two touchdowns and one interception when under pressure without a blitz.
On third down last season, per ESPN Stats & Info, Dalton was at his most mediocre, completing 93 of 157 passes for 1,151 yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions and 11 sacks. Third down was the only down in which Dalton completed less than 60 percent of his passes and the only down in which he had a quarterback rating lower than 81 (80.9). He was very efficient on third- and fourth-down plays with 1-2 yards to go, but as the distance of the down got deeper, Dalton got worse. On third- and fourth-down plays with 3-8 yards to go (the most realistic situations in which you'd expect a great quarterback to convert), Dalton completed 52 of 86 passes for 596 yards, six touchdowns and four picks. When the Bengals were behind by 1-8 points, he completed 60 of 101 passes for 767 yards, six touchdowns and six picks. And against the defenses of his own division (Baltimore, Cleveland, Pittsburgh), Dalton completed 53.5 percent of his passes (131 of 245 for 1,364 yards), with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
And these are regular-season stats; we're not even delving into his postseason disasters.
Dalton's sloppy play under pressure is his dominant liability, and it's so ingrained, I don't know if the team will ever get it out of him. Former offensive coordinator Jay Gruden used a predominantly quick passing game in which Dalton met his first or second read a lot of the time wasn't asked to throw deep that often. Of his 586 passing attempts last season, only 67 were thrown 20 yards or more, and he completed just 18 of those, throwing eight touchdowns and three interceptions. He threw 124 passes 11-20 yards in the air and completed just half of them; while he completed 185 of the 283 passes he threw 1-10 yards, he threw 10 interceptions to just 10 touchdowns while doing so. An aversion to pressure transcends all throwing distances, and it means that Dalton has to be managed within a specific system. As for all this talk about taking him to the next level, per new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson? Jackson and the Bengals may have to realize that there isn't one.
“What I’ve tried to do,” Jackson told Peter King on Monday, “is change the mindset a little bit. I think he understands that now, playing quarterback, every defensive coordinator is trying to defeat you. They’re not trying to defeat the offensive team -- they’re coming after you. He saw it last year. That’s my job, to have him understand defenses are now about defeating the other guys; it’s about hitting the quarterback from the time he hits the stadium to the time he leaves. He has to welcome that challenge."
Gruden tried to strike a balance between unlocking explosive plays and mistake-proofing his quarterback. It's what all offensive coordinators do to a certain degree, even when you're Peyton Manning and you're effectively your own offensive coordinator. If Jackson is to make Dalton understand pressure, he'll have to get his quarterback past unacceptable decisions like this one:
"This" was Dalton's penultimate interception of the 2013 season, in the third quarter of Cincinnati's 27-10 wild-card loss to the Chargers. This was a Chargers defense that ranked 31st against the pass and dead last in overall defense last year, and Dalton couldn't solve it when defensive coordinator John Pagano called blitzes. This pass was intended for Mohamed Sanu, but it shouldn't have been intended for anyone -- the Bengals had third-and-8 at their own 26, and they were only down 17-10 at this point. But Dalton threw a floater despite the pressure, and he failed to recognize that cornerback Shareece Wright had dropped into the spot where Dalton hoped Sanu would be. When people call Dalton an excellent anticipation thrower, they need to qualify that his sense of anticipation flies right out the window when the heat is on. At that point, he's bailing water, and his seeming aversion to extending the play when he's pressured -- there seems to be a "deer in the headlights" thing going on here -- exacerbates the problem.
Moreover, because the expectation was that the blitz would condense Dalton's time to throw, Wright was reading Sanu out of the slot all the way. You need to see this if you're a top-level NFL quarterback. He's throwing off his back foot, out of balance, into the void. That's a quick way to find your way back to the bench in the NFL.
"Anybody can go back and complete a bunch of passes when the protection is there and guys are open and the play isn't breaking down," Jackson told NFL.com's Mike Silver in July. "But when things start to fall apart -- those are the moments I'm looking for. Sure, we want to install an offense. But we're also building a quarterback, and those moments are more important toward that end. I want there to be chaos. I want to see how he reacts in those situations.
"To me, that's the Achilles' heel of a quarterback: Everything's not always gonna go right. So at the end of the day, you have to have those situations where things are not looking as good, so you can get out of them. I need to know, under pressure, that you will make the right decisions for our football team, and not for the football player. He's done that."
This remains to be seen.
Seeing the Field
Dalton's other big issue at this point in his career is his failure to see the field -- to anticipate what's going on around him and adapt to changing circumstances. This can be solved over time, but Jackson has his work cut out for him. Dalton was a "see-it-and-throw-it" guy at TCU, and he's gone through most of his NFL throws the same way. This incompletion to Marvin Jones in that same playoff loss shows how you can beat Dalton with variable coverage looks and disguised concepts, even if they're not very complex.
Here, the Chargers look to be running a front-side blitz to cut Dalton's sight line, and it appears that his primary read is Jones running the iso position on the other side of a bunch route. But San Diego drops four and rushes just three at the snap, giving Dalton an easy and clean pocket. Wright is on Jones on the outside, and the safety is bearing down to double coverage. Wright covers Jones aggressively, upsetting the timing, and one of two things happened on the overthrow: Either Dalton was just throwing to where he thought Jones should have been no matter what, or he was guided by the better angels of his nature and wasted a pitch against double coverage. Judging from the position of his helmet -- not a fail-safe way to diagnose what a quarterback reads, but not altogether inaccurate -- Dalton was fixed on Jones deep with a secondary look at a drag route that was upset by the stationary inside linebacker.
It's easy to see why Dalton has always been a coach's favorite. By all accounts, he's a very smart player who works hard and won't let his new money go to his head. He's well aware of his past failures and says all the right things regarding his need to step up at least a few levels. And many coaches love players with a good basic skill set, with just enough to fix. Jackson has talked about moving up the tempo of the Bengals' offense even more, which fits in with modern NFL trends and may indeed reduce Dalton's error rate. But before there are any happy endings here, Dalton will still have to correct what needs correcting. Because it doesn't matter what system you're put in and how much you have around you -- if you've got fatal flaws, the NFL will figure them out.
"We are joined at the hip," Jackson concluded to Silver. "We are tethered together. And I'll jump off a building with this guy, because I believe in the things he's trying to accomplish with his career, and I think I can help him."
Happy landing, Coach. The unveiling of Andy Dalton 2.0 begins soon.