Andy Dalton took a shotgun snap Sunday on third-and-11, and almost immediately found himself under pressure from multiple gaps—Tamba Hali breaking loose to his blindside, Justin Houston collapsing the pocket up the middle.
Think back to the first four seasons of Dalton's career. How many ways have we seen similar plays go wrong? A sack, a fumble, a panicked throw into traffic.
Not this time. Not the way Dalton's playing right now.
Dalton calmly strolled out of the pocket to his right, with both Hali and Houston trailing him, and uncorked a beautiful pass downfield. Waiting for it on the other end, some 55 yards away, was Brandon Tate. The Bengals' receiver laid out and made a highlight-reel catch behind Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters, then got to his feet and dove into the end zone.
If you want to wait until January to issue a verdict on Dalton and the Bengals, so be it. Together, they have qualified for the playoffs four straight years, but they've never won a postseason game. They deserve a certain measure of scrutiny.
So far this season, though, Dalton is playing better than he ever has, and as a result the Bengals' offense is rolling.
That is oversimplifying, of course. To say that Dalton is the lone reason for Cincinnati's impressive 4–0 start would be applying the same logic that pins all of those playoff defeats on his shoulders, and his shoulders alone. The dreaded 'QB Wins' stat is mostly bogus, but, usually, so is 'QB Losses.'
However, there is no denying that Dalton has held the Bengals back at times. Overall, his play has ranged from horrendous to above-average during his first four seasons as a starter, and as a result, the opinion from outside Cincinnati is that this is a Super Bowl-caliber team—except at quarterback.
Perhaps that's still true (we will find out come December and January), but right now Dalton is playing his position better than anyone not named Brady or Rodgers.
His long touchdown toss to Tate was a piece of a 17-of-24, 321-yard performance against the Chiefs, a 36–21 win. Dalton spread the ball around, too, finding six different receivers; his normal go-to target, A.J. Green, was held under 100 yards.
This game was a continuation of what Dalton showed during a frantic Week 3 win over Baltimore. Dalton twice had to bring the Bengals back from a fourth-quarter deficit in that game (granted, one was self-inflicted by a Dalton fumble turned Baltimore touchdown). He did so, throwing a pair of scoring strikes to A.J. Green.
His clutch performance, plus the follow-up in Week 4, marked a clear progression for the 27-year-old quarterback. Dalton has delivered big games in the past and he has 13 game-winning drives to his credit. However, he has always struggled to minimize damage when things go wrong—as they did briefly in Baltimore—and to string strong starts together.
But so far, so good in 2015.
It helps to have one of the league's deepest and most talented rosters around him. The Cincinnati defense recorded five sacks of Alex Smith on Sunday, plus kept the Chiefs out of the end zone, forcing seven field goals. On offense, the 1–2 running back punch of Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard combined for four touchdowns (three by Hill).
Again, this is about more than just Dalton, same as it ever was.
The version of Dalton on display in the opening stages of this season, however, is a vast improvement on previous editions. The Tate touchdown was a perfect example of why—Dalton is playing with increased composure and confidence.
Is this simply a matter of a young (albeit experienced) quarterback maturing? Possibly. If nothing else, Dalton's start lends some credence to the idea of staying patient at the game's most important position. The Bengals have stuck with Dalton through thick and thin, despite an abundance of calls from all directions to look elsewhere.
The plan might be paying off, finally. Dalton has never been better.