Andy Dalton Still Hasn’t Earned His Stripes

Wednesday January 7th, 2015

INDIANAPOLIS — Andy Dalton looked for one man in particular among the cascade of jerseys running off the turf and spilling into their respective locker rooms following his fourth consecutive one-and-done postseason showing. He finally found backup quarterback Jason Campbell in the tunnel, and the two proceeded to their neighboring lockers, where they sat close together and spoke softly in a somber locker room.

By capping his fourth NFL season with a 26-10 loss to the Colts, Dalton would face nearly the same media interrogation he endured a year ago.

Should people question this team’s makeup?

Can you sum up the frustration?

You haven’t won a game in the postseason yet. How much does that bother you?

Campbell, a journeyman backup and former first-rounder, offered words of encouragement.

“I told him, ‘Forget what everyone says,’ ” Campbell says. “ ‘You and [Joe] Flacco are the only two quarterbacks to make the playoffs your first four years. When you play like that, the expectations come, but you set those expectations because you won. If you weren’t winning, nobody would be talking about all this. So you have something to hang your head on and be proud of and know that you can get to the next step in the future.”

“We just felt like we’d stop the run and see if Andy Dalton can beat us,” Colts linebacker Erik Walden said in the postgame locker room. “And that’s just not Andy.”

Anybody could see that Dalton was in dire need of a pep talk when, in the waning minutes of a lackluster performance, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson couldn’t be bothered to look at the man speaking to him from an arm’s length. There was nothing to salvage at that point, down 16 in a game Jackson had described as an opportunity for Dalton to validate the franchise’s commitment to him in the form of a six-year, $96 million extension this season. (The deal is essentially a two-year commitment, with team options the rest of the way.)

Dalton didn’t necessarily lose the game; he just failed to win it. Without wideout A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham in uniform, the Bengals planned to run the ball early and often. And Indianapolis had an answer. Perhaps Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden summed it up best in the postgame locker room when he said, “We just felt like we’d stop the run and see if Andy Dalton can beat us. And that’s just not Andy.”

It’s easy to fault Dalton, who completed 18 of 35 passes for just 155 yards (and lost a fumble). In stark contrast, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was good in bunches and spectacular in flashes, such as his breathtaking third-quarter escape and chuck for a 36-yard touchdown. When the deep ball was there, Dalton consistently overthrew his target, going three-and-out on five straight positions while Indy built a comfortable lead.

“We’ve got to go out and make the uncommon plays and we didn’t do that. The extra-effort plays … the 50-50 balls,” Bengals running back Gio Bernard said. “We just didn’t do that. You can’t put it all on one man.”

Yet many fans have made a habit of pinning it all on Dalton, and Dalton hears the criticism. Campbell’s advice to the 27-year-old: “Stop listening to what the naysayers are doing and concentrate on what you can control.”

This is why Campbell was brought to Cincinnati. He’s a capable backup, of course, but he’s also Dalton’s mentor. Says quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese,  “The experience he brings to the table is so valuable for Andy.”

That’s one opinion. Another way of handling middling young quarterbacks is to bring in a highly touted rookie to compete for the job. Yet Marvin Lewis, with what seems like unparalleled job security for a coach without a playoff win in six tries, is unlikely to spend a pick just to put Dalton in the pressure cooker of a QB controversy. Instead, the Bengals have gone with players like Campbell, now a veteran of five NFL teams who can sympathize with a teammate grasping at sustained success.

In a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon, speaking as he packed up his desk for the offseason, Zampese echoed the comments of Lewis, who was unequivocal in his support of Dalton on Sunday and Monday.

“We ask him to do a lot,” Lewis said. “We’re comparing him to guys that have been in the league for a long time, and he's doing a lot. Some of them didn't play [as early on as] when he played.”

In 2014, Dalton was certainly asked to do more with less. Injuries removed right tackle Andre Smith and Green from the equation for large chunks of time, revealing a lack of depth at both spots. His scoring, yards and yards per attempt dropped from the previous year, yet his completion percentage improved and he absorbed eight fewer sacks.

Zampese mapped out reasons for optimism, and areas where Dalton can improve.

“When he showed up in the summer he had transformed physically, and you could see it in the way the ball was coming off his hand,” he says. “So the question becomes, how do we take that next step and translate that to the field? This is a work in progress.

“What we’d like to see this offseason and next season is taking young players under his wing and really bringing people along with himself. He made huge strides in that regard this season. It’s something he has to grow and grow.”

• THE MMQB PODCAST: Andy Benoit breaks down the divisional matchups

But how much patience can be expected? Dalton was in pre-kindergarten the last time Cincinnati won a playoff game. Then again, it could be worse. Just look at the other Ohio team; the Browns are now wrestling with the temptation of drafting yet another first-day quarterback despite having selected Johnny Manziel in the first round last year. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who spent the first eight seasons of his career in Cleveland and played in his first playoff game on Sunday, is now 4-4 against Dalton’s Bengals.

“I thought he did a tremendous job today, all things considered,” Jackson said on Sunday. “For him to take the blame isn’t fair. He’s taken a lot of harsh words, but that is a very different team without him.”

“All things considered” might have been the theme in both locker rooms. Some members of the Colts defense were quietly relieved not to have faced Green, and several Bengals players openly acknowledged his absence as a huge hindrance. Even before the game, Campbell said he and Dalton discussed “how sweet it would be to still win this game while you’re missing your top guys.”

In Cincinnati, they’ll wait at least another year for might win to morph into must win.


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