Bothered by boos in his own city this summer, Andy Dalton has started the 2015 season as one of the NFL’s hottest quarterbacks. Here’s why his success might carry into January. Plus, 10 things to watch in Week 5
Now this is something I never thought: Andy Dalton’s 2015 ascension is due to getting booed at the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati three months ago.
“I truly believe that was a turning point for Andy,” Bengals offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said Thursday.
Whoa, whoa. Let’s go back. The baseball classic had lots of pre-game festivities, including a Sunday celebrity softball game with the fences moved in. Dalton played. He was booed. The crowd was letting him know it judged him as much on his 0-4 postseason record as it does on his four playoff trips in four NFL seasons since being a second-round pick in 2011.
“I’m not going to tell you it didn’t bother him,” said Jackson. “It did. When you have the success he has had—four seasons in the league, four times in the playoffs—getting booed in your own city, that has to hurt a bit. But he was able to hit one over the fence for a home run. And he flipped the bat. His message was sort of, You might not like me now, but you’re going to love me later.”
Regular-season games might not make fans change their ways. But Dalton’s performance in the first month of this season has been surpassed by only two quarterbacks—Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, the two gold-standard players at the position. There are many ways to judge greatness at the position, and at most of them, Dalton has been outstanding early. Only one quarterback with 100 attempts has averaged more than 9.0 yards per pass attempt—Dalton, at 10.23. Only three quarterbacks are plus-eight or better on touchdown-to-interception differential—Rodgers (plus-11), Brady (plus-nine) and Dalton (plus-eight). Only two quarterbacks have a rating higher than 120—Rodgers (125.9) and Dalton (123.0).
Dalton has played 72 NFL games, including four in the playoffs. And two of his top three career games in yards per pass attempt have come in the past two weeks: 13.38 in the win over Kansas City Sunday, and 11.97 the previous week against Baltimore.
Undoubtedly, Dalton’s resurgence has made Sunday's showdown between the 2-2 Seahawks and 4-0 Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium exceedingly more interesting. “It’s gonna be a clash of the titans,” said Jackson.
I watched all of Dalton’s throws over his past two games, wins over Baltimore and Kansas City, and I think there are four major reasons why Dalton has been significantly better: 1) He’s got a tight end he trusts—Tyler Eifert—instead of the maddeningly inconsistent Jermaine Gresham, in an offense that treats the tight end like gold; 2) Dalton has so many healthy weapons, both in the backfield and at receiver; 3) His mechanics and timing and decisiveness are clearly the best he’s ever shown, particularly on the deep balls he’s much better throwing this year; 4) And the final point is harder to define. It’s a combo platter of the unyielding confidence the organization, specifically Jackson, has had in Dalton even in his darkest January days, and the fact that owner Mike Brown can withstand the public slings and arrows and constantly build for the future, and be the most patient owner in the league with the players he trusts. Sometimes that’s maddening. Sometimes that’s rewarding. The Dalton story is still being written, but the patient approach sure is rewarding the Bengals in the first half 2015.
“We see a quarterback who is emerging, who has been through a lot,” said Jackson. “He did everything a quarterback needed to do in the off-season, both physically and mentally, and we have created an environment for him to be as successful as a quarterback can be. I hear what people have said about him. But I see what is on the other side. There are things about him that people do not see. They say he doesn’t have passion. They say he doesn’t have the work ethic. All totally untrue. He has the burning desire to be the best. I see it every day. I’ve really seen it this week.”
Charting Dalton’s rise, through 16 games last year and four this year:
|Average Bengal points per game||22.8||30.3|
|Yards per pass attempt||7.1||10.2|
Trait by trait in Dalton's improvement:
• Mechanics/decisiveness. Time after time in the game against Kansas City, when he was pressured significantly only twice and never sacked, he got rid of the ball with confidence and made good decisions. Time (in seconds) it took him to get rid of the ball on his eight first-possession throws against the Chiefs: 2.16, 0.95, 1.75, 1.90, 1.28, 1.58, 1.68 and 4.45 (on a rollout). He doesn’t give the defense enough time to get to him; that’s a big reason why he’s been sacked twice in 16 quarters. In this game, he threw five balls over 30 yards from where he stood. He completed three and a fourth was dropped by Marvin Jones. In the first quarter, Dalton dropped a snap, picked it up, and almost without thinking, lofted a perfect ball 36 yards in the air into A.J. Green’s hands. “He’s more compact with his everything than he’s been in the past,” said Jackson, who credited quarterback-whisperer Tom House with help on refining Dalton’s mechanics this off-season.
• Eifert. He’s got better hands, gets open more consistently and is in the right spot more than Gresham. Last year, Gresham had eight catches for 61 yards and no TDs through the first four games. Eifert has 16, 222 and three this year.
• Depth of talent. The Bengals were so happy with their offensive weapons that they used their first two draft choices on offensive linemen not likely to play much if at all this year. Watch the tape against Kansas City. The fourth back, Rex Burkhead, made a deep catch down the left side. Forgotten wideout Brandon Tate made a diving touchdown catch of a bomb that rainbowed 50 yards in the air from Dalton. A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones all ran like it was the first day of training camp, healthy and unfettered. Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill, almost interchangeable as number one backs, combined for four rushing touchdowns. “All our pieces are consistent,” Jackson said. “And it’s refreshing how unselfish they are.”
• Faith. Maybe they were lying. Maybe they had fingers crossed behind their backs when they said it. But Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown and Jackson haven’t wavered about Dalton. Even at the worst time, Jackson particularly has been rock solid and convincing in his belief that Dalton was a young player who’d come through the growing pains and play well on the other side. And true, this isn’t January. But if you don’t play well in October, you don’t get to have a chance in January. Jackson, though, did ask Dalton to be different this year. After the Bengals got blown out by the Colts in the playoffs last winter, Jackson said he told Dalton: "We're gonna fix this. We don't want to be in this situation again. Whatever it takes to be the best, we're gonna do. But it has to start with you first. You've got to do more than you've ever done. You have to be at the forefront of everything we do. He knew I trusted him, because he hears it from me. But I asked him to be different. I thought he had to be different.”
Said Jackson: “Look, Andy has the chance of a lifetime. It’s all there for him. And I couldn’t be happier how he has responded.”
This is a measuring-stick game. Dalton versus Russell Wilson. Dalton versus the Legion of Boom and a pass-rush getting better by the week. “It won’t be easy,” said Jackson. “But it’s not supposed to be easy to be great.”
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About Last Night...
Colts 27, Texans 20. What we learned Thursday night was mostly about the quarterbacks:
• Matt Hasselbeck is invaluable. Remember a month or so ago, when he was awful in preseason games and looking old in practice? I guess turning 40 agrees with him. Forget the numbers; Hasselbeck was in control of the Colts’ offense for four sometimes-shaky quarters Sunday and then, after not practicing all week because he has been ill since Saturday (and hospitalized Tuesday with severe dehydraftion), he came through with a starry, two-touchdown, relatively mistake-free performance in the Colts’ 16th straight AFC South victory. “I got nothing left,” he told Tracy Wolfson on the field after the game. “Pretty emotional day.” Now the Colts know they have a prayer without Andrew Luck. And how about the rainbow 43-yard bomb to T.Y. Hilton to clinch this amazing performance? He might not be able to do that against New England a week from Sunday, but the rest of Indy's schedule is manageable.
• The Texans’ quarterback situation is a mess. Ryan Mallett the sulker showed his true colors Thursday night after being replaced when he get a helmet in the gut in the second quarter. Brian Hoyer, who never should have lost his job in the first place, had a 312-yard night in relief, but also made one of the dumbest throws a quarterback can make, throwing a shot-put into the secondary under heavy pressure on the last Texans’ snap of the night. Interception. Bill O’Brien’s got a Mallett problem, number one. Someone’s got to take Mallett and tell him no one’s feeling sorry for a career backup who got a tough break and the backup played played well. But he’d better stay ready. Because that pass by Hoyer at the end says he shouldn’t have much job security either. Regardless, I hope the Texans are scouting college quarterbacks every weekend. Lots of college quarterbacks.
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Player You Need To Know This Week
Sam Bradford, quarterback, Philadelphia (number 9). Bradford’s got to be better than 237 passing yards a game, and a puny 6.5 yards per attempt. And he has to be better at home against the Saints. The Eagles play at the Linc after playing three of the first four on the road, and if Bradford struggles early, it’s not only Chip Kelly who will get booed lustily.
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Fantasy Player You Need to Know This Week
Kamar Aiken, wide receiver, Baltimore (number 11). The Ravens welcomed Chris Givens to the receiving corps this week after his trade from St. Louis last Saturday, with all the injuries in the receiver group. Baltimore may not be done dealing, particularly if rookie Breshad Perriman continues his disappearing act. Aiken, 6-2 and a good target, has already been on five practice squads in his young NFL life, and he enters the game Sunday against Cleveland as Joe Flacco’s primary target in a game Baltimore needs badly. With Flacco targeting him seven times last week, his intentions this week should be easy to see.
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Stat of the Week
Colin Kaepernick the past two weeks: 22 of 44 (.500), 227 yards, zero touchdowns, five interceptions, 25.7 rating.
For a quarterback in modern football to have a two-week mark like that is beyond concerning. There is no player under more pressure to play well in Week 5 than Kaepernick at the Giants. “I don’t worry about job security when I step in the building,” Kaepernick said this week. Well, he should know his job’s on the line.
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Quote of the Week
“I hope I come out guns blazing.”
—Dallas defensive end Greg Hardy, returning after a four-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy.
The NFL’s investigation and a Charlotte court case alleged that Hardy threw a girlfriend down on a bed with several firearms on it. The guns, and the perceived threat of tossing a woman on the bed, became the focus of the Charlotte case and the league’s probe into Hardy’s behavior.
Sorry. I’m not giving Hardy the benefit of the doubt on this one. What an idiotic thing to say by a player with no margin for error in the public eye.
We don’t trust you, Greg Hardy. We read the police reports and the court testimony after the incident in Charlotte with your girlfriend, and, quite honestly, you’re fortunate to have found a team to let you play.
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Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. Officiating. If Cleveland field-goal rush man Tramon Williams was offside on the crucial field-goal try in San Diego, the replay certainly didn’t show he was offside by more than a hair—if at all. San Diego got a second chance after a miss, and ended up kicking the winner. And the back judge blew the call in Seattle on Monday night, failing to throw a flag for an illegal bat when Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright hit a bouncing ball out of bounds, a vital non-call in Seattle’s win over Detroit. It happens every season, but all eyes are on your men, Dean Blandino.
2. Kicking. So let’s see if the debacle of Week 4—10 field goals/extra points missed from 40 yards and in last weekend—continues this week. Lots of kicker roster-churning. It took just one 30-yard miss by Dan Carpenter for Rex Ryan to bring in Billy Cundiff to challenge him. The Saints are looking at Kai Forbath and Randy Bullock. So trigger-fingers are itchy around the league right now.
3. Mike Pettine’s big chance. At some point, Pettine is going to have to show Jimmy Haslam he can coach his team to a win when the deck is stacked against him. Sunday in Baltimore is one of those games. The Ravens are beat up, and Cleveland could steal a win—particularly with Josh McCown coming off one of the best games of his life last week and the Ravens being suspect in the secondary.
4. The Kirk Cousins watch. Two unlikely wins in three weeks. To make it a third win and bolster his case to keep the job in 2016 and beyond, Cousins will have to conquer an Atlanta pass defense that has a good TD-to-interception ratio—five touchdowns allowed, four picks by Falcons defenders—to hand the Falcons their first loss of the year.
5. The Devonta Freeman watch. Six touchdowns in two weeks. To make it nine in three weeks, Freeman will have to conquer a run defense—Washington’s—that has given up one rushing touchdown in four games, and just 3.9 yards per rush.
6. Luke Kuechly’s availability. The Panthers don’t play this weekend, but Kuechly is still a story to watch. Sunday is the four-week mark for the concussion that has knocked the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year out of play, and Carolina is hoping he can return after the bye Oct. 18 against Seattle. Pretty serious stuff, Kuechly playing one half in the opener against Jacksonville and, potentially, not playing for 34 days.
7. Desperate Detroit. Not looking good for the only winless team in the game, with Arizona coming to Detroit, and Haloti Ngata and Eric Ebron iffy for the game, and the Lions being so suspect on offense.
8. Odell Beckham Jr.’s extracurriculars. Accused by Buffalo defenders this week of throwing punches when the cameras weren't focusing on them last Sunday, Beckham has a difficult task Sunday night: facing a pugnacious San Francisco defense knowing it has to keep the score down because the Niner offense is so bad. Might be a good idea for Beckham to remember the NBC telecast has a jillion cameras, and there’s a good bet, knowing how good Fred Gaudelli and Drew Esocoff are inside the truck at the game, that there will be a camera on him for 60 minutes.
9. The return of Antonio Gates. The San Diego tight end returns Monday night against Pittsburgh, and there’s a good chance Philip Rivers will treat him like he never left. With the Steelers likely to sell out to pressure Rivers, look for Rivers to concentrate on tight ends Gates and Ladarius Green in Qualcomm.
10. Brandon Weeden is on a bad streak, and he hasn’t seen anything yet. Weeden’s on a 10-game losing streak as a starting quarterback, dating back to his Cleveland days. Weeden has to beat the unbeaten defending Super Bowl champs Sunday, and the Patriots’ man on a mission, Tom Brady. I don’t like Weeden's chances. You?
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