It's not just that Andy Dalton and the Bengals are 6-2 halfway through the season; it's how the QB has been playing and who he's been throwing to. Plus, mailbag questions on the kicking crisis and a sharply-worded take on childish wideouts
Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d see in 2013: Andy Dalton throwing five touchdown passes against Rex Ryan’s defense, with none of those to all-world wide receiver A.J. Green.
It’s one thing for the immensely talented Bengals to beat a rising team like the Jets. It’s another thing to beat them by 40. But the best sign for a team that has been drummed out of the wild-card round two years in a row is the play of Dalton, and the multiplicity of weapons he’s using. There’s been some trepidation by the coaches that Dalton is far too focused on getting the ball to Green. That’s why Cincinnati, on a three-game winning streak while building a comfortable 2.5-game lead in the AFC North, is ecstatic about where Dalton is going with the football.
Green has had his targets—26 of them—in wins over Buffalo, Detroit and the Jets. But let’s look around him. The second and third receivers, Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu, have been targeted 30 times over that same stretch. The bookend tight ends, Jermaine Gresham and Tyler Eifert, have 23 targets between them. Add one weapon Dalton is still developing chemistry with, Gio Bernard (15 targets in the last three games), and you can see why Dalton was a very happy man when we spoke Monday night.
“What was great for our team on Sunday was that we finally played a complete team game,” Dalton said after a late-afternoon practice as the Bengals crammed to prepare for a Thursday night game against Miami. “It was so big for our offense. I don’t feel like we are forcing anything.
“It seemed like last year every three or four weeks I was trying to get used to someone new opposite A.J. But this year, I’ve got all these weapons and we’ve had all offseason to get on the same page. It’s working.”
In Cincy’s last three wins, Dalton is a 66-percent passer with 1,034 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s telling that only two of the 11 touchdowns have been scored by Green. Jones has six, including four in the ridiculously small sample size of 18 plays against the Jets. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is shuttling every eligible pass-catcher on the roster—12 of them on Sunday—in and out of the lineup freely; all of the backs, tight ends and wide receivers played at least nine snaps. What is particularly encouraging for the Bengals is that Dalton has gotten out of the habit of simply checking down if Green isn’t open. In fact, over the past two games, Pro Football Focus calculates that Dalton has the longest depth of target among all quarterbacks in the league. That means Dalton is throwing the ball an average of 11.7 yards past the line of scrimmage on every throw. (He was averaging just 8.1 in the first six weeks.)
Dalton explained that one of the reasons why the stats might show this is because early this year and in the past, if Green wasn’t open because of double coverage downfield, he wasn’t as confident in the other receivers who he was still building relationships with. And so now that he feels more comfortable, Dalton is inclined to take more chances with guys like Jones (six TDs in three weeks) and the Sproles-like Bernard.
“Andy has to continue to let the play to work based on what he sees from the defense,” coach Marvin Lewis said. “As long as he does that and doesn’t worry about how many catches 18 has at the end of the day, we’ll be fine. A.J. is going to get his.”
And Green has, with three consecutive 100-yard games while the others flourish around him. “A.J. is not a me-first guy,” Dalton said. “What we’re seeing is the team success is helping the success of each player.”
So now the 6-2 Bengals, who are not used to midseason prosperity, go to Miami on Halloween night and try not to think too far ahead. The Bengals have failed miserably in their playoff losses to Houston over the past two years, and Dalton’s play mirrors his mates. In Cincy’s 23 postseason possessions piloted by Dalton, he has led one touchdown drive with zero TD passes. So no matter how good things are in October, Bengals fans (and coaches and players) want results in January.
“Our goal is to play our best football at the end of the season,” Dalton said. “It’s early but we are on course to do that.”
The knock on Dalton, justifiably, has been his inability to throw consistently downfield. That’s changing. Most offensive coaches value the yards-per-pass attempt statistic higher than almost any passing number. Dalton’s YPA this year (8.06) is more than a yard better than it was in 2012 (6.95). Some perspective on that: it’s better than Matthew Stafford (7.74), Tony Romo (7.51) and Andrew Luck (7.03). Those are all big-gun guys, not peers of Dalton’s in arm strength.
Give credit to Dalton for pushing the envelope on offense, to Gruden for calling aggressive game plans and to new receivers like Jones for making Cincy’s receiving corps more multiple. For Cincy, the second half of the season, which begins Thursday night, can’t come soon enough.
Regarding Dez Bryant’s childish tantrums on the sidelines of the Detroit-Dallas game Sunday: the best thing said by a smart person in the aftermath of Bryant acting like an idiot and passing it off as passion came from ESPN's Ron Jaworski, who said passion is great but it has to be focused in the right direction. It doesn’t matter that Bryant was peeved about being targeted only six times against the Lions. There are ebbs and flows to every season and every great player won't get the ball as much as he'd like. Bryant did get 16 balls thrown his way last week in Philly. Did he forget that? Bryant needs to be careful or he’ll find himself with the same of kind of baby reputation that ended up marring Terrell Owens’ career unnecessarily.
Speaking of childish scenes, I’d be in favor of a fine for Golden Tate and his third-grade taunting incident Monday night. That one shocked me. I’ve never seen Tate like that. I might sound like a get-off-my-lawn guy railing against that but come on—it’s pathetic and undignified.
Now let’s head over to Page 2 for your email:
BAD TRADE? NOT SO FAST. I have to take issue with your suggestion that the Patriots trade a fourth-round pick (or a third-rounder, based on performance) for Josh Gordon. Why would the Browns make that trade? They used a second-round pick on Gordon and he has begun to play like a No. 1 receiver despite subpar quarterback play and limited other receiving threats on the team. The Browns are almost certain to draft a quarterback and will need to surround the young QB with weapons and Gordon and Jordan Cameron seem to be a very good start. With another receiving threat on the team instead of Davone Bess or Greg Little—each of whom are prone to the drops—the Browns had a legitimate chance of upsetting your No. 1 team. I would appreciate your rationale. Thanks.
It just wouldn't be smart to offer higher than a conditional third/fourth-rounder for Josh Gordon because of his sketchy off-field history. He has been suspended once for off-field transgressions. His next mistake could lead to at least a one-year suspension. Obviously he is a better talent than a fourth-round offer would suggest, but trades aren’t simply made on talent alone. I probably heard from a hundred or so people on email and Twitter on Monday about this, and I’m glad you asked so I could explain what I meant.
R.I.P. BUD ADAMS. MMQB gets a failing grade this week. A failure to mention the passing of Bud Adams is nothing short of shameful. It's disrespectful. The NFL wouldn't be what it is today without Bud Adams. Looking through the archives, it looks like he got lost in the shuffle. His passing broke after last Monday's column and the focus of the site was on concussions this week, but he at least deserved a mention, Mr. King.
—Ron, New York City
You’re right. That’s my fault. No excuse for it. And I will address Adams next Monday.
HE THINKS STAFFORD'S PLAY WAS BUSH. Today's MMQB column dedicated a fair amount of space to the final drive by Matthew Stafford and deservedly so. However, I'm conflicted as to how I feel about the final play and was wondering your opinion. I find it to be a great heads up play but at the same time feel like it was a "bush-league" move.
Typically, both teams concede the spike play. The O-Line stands up, the D-line does not rush and the QB quickly spikes the ball. This is a mutual understanding between teams, which is similar to the kneel-down play. However, here Stafford takes advantage of a defense which had conceded the spike. Had the Cowboys rushed and hit Stafford, we'd be reading about penalties, fines and a cheap shots (i.e. Buccaneers vs. Giants in 2012). Why no cheap-play commentary on the part of Stafford?
Sports are full of teams and players trying to pull a “fast one” on the other team. The hidden ball trick in baseball, for instance, is thought of as a brilliant maneuver. In football, a pass rusher will put fakes on the tackle across from him. Very often the two sides will use phony signals and fake audibles to try to mess with the other team. I have zero problem with Stafford doing the fake spike, the same as I had zero problem with Dan Marino doing it to the Jets all those years ago.
THE KICKING CRISIS. With regards to the league assigning different points for field goals of different distances … I would hope you mean more points for SHORTER field goals. I’ve never understood the argument that teams should be receive a greater reward for making less progress into the opponents side of the field. Worse, imagine a team taking a knee to back up from a 39-yard field goal to a 41-yarder when the former means a tie and the latter a win! Teams should be forced to make positive yardage to get additional points. Would be interested in hearing your expanded thoughts on how do differentiate point value on field goals.
I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that kickers are too accurate these days. (As I reported Monday, 94 percent of all field-goal attempts inside the 40 are being made this year.) This game was never meant to have one miss out of twenty 39-yard field goals. There’s very little suspense. This is an entertainment business. And we’re getting to the point where there’s very little interesting, challenging or mysterious about the kicking game. In my opinion, that has to change. I’m just one voice. Maybe the competition committee feels differently. We’ll see.
PUTTING TO BED THE BAT. You are off-target on your commentary regarding the illegal bat call in the Miami-New England game. The problem was not the rule--it's a good rule; the problem was the interpretation/enforcement. In order to make this call, there must be visible evidence of intent to illegally bat; otherwise you are penalizing the player for poor technique or unlucky bounces. Olivier Vernon was obviously making an attempt to recover the ball; it just so happens the 270-pound lineman in full pads was in an awkward position on his belly and could not quite pull in the ball. In essence, Vernon was penalized because he didn't do a good enough job of pulling in the loose ball—that's something the team addresses on Tuesday, not the refs on game day. Terrible, terrible enforcement of a good rule, but it was consistent with much of that crew's officiating that day.
The way I saw this, and the way the officials saw it, is pretty simple: Vernon batted the ball toward the New England goal line. Is there any disputing that? I don’t think so. I watched it five or six times. He dives at the ball and bats at it. It wasn’t an accident. I’m not really sure what the dispute is over this. You can’t ask a player to give his interpretation because of course he’s going to say, It was an accident, and I didn’t mean to hit it. Watch the tape. He batted the ball.
NFL EUROPA REDUX. You asked what London was thinking about the Jaguars making an annual trip there. Okay, so they didn't make it a close game against the 49ers, but we got to see an NFL game close to home. It's not just about London fans or UK fans, but for fans from all over Europe. I made the trip from Belgium and encountered fans from the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Finland and Ireland. A trip to London is easier and cheaper than going all the way to the U.S. for an NFL game. Europe is a market with 370 million people. You only need a very small fraction to be into the NFL to get sellouts at Wembley, no matter which teams play. I counted jerseys from more than 20 different teams. I'm proud to say I got to see my first NFL game. I'll be back there next year.
—Vadim, Wichelen, Belgium
eight games with different teams