In his fifth NFL season, the often disparaged Andy Dalton is an MVP candidate who is among the league's top five in every relevant passing category.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As fiery as his red hair, the Bengals’ quarterback has finally taken a leadership role and transformed into an MVP candidate. For the nonbelievers, a postseason win will be the measure of true growth

By Robert Mays
December 03, 2015

CINCINNATI — Koch Sporting Goods sits on 4th Street in downtown Cincinnati, less than half a mile north of Paul Brown Stadium. The store opened in 1888, about 30 years after the Koches first arrived in the United States. They were a family of Austrian tailors, and in the early days, the new store relied on sewing curtains and costumes for nearby theaters. As team sports took hold in southern Ohio, business turned to stitching and selling uniforms, and the morning after the Bengals came back from a 17-point deficit to beat the Seahawks in overtime, the store’s fifth generation of owners set to work on their latest design.

Eric Koch and his cousin Ryan couldn’t stop talking about the game that Monday in mid-October, mostly about how well Andy Dalton had played yet again. They joked about the buzz surrounding him this season and the banners in the upper deck of the stadium suggesting that a quarterback in his fifth season had suddenly transformed. The notion gave Ryan an idea, so they began customizing a jersey. When it was finished, they hung it just inside the door, on the front of a rack filled with Mannings, Newtons, and Bradys. From afar, it looked like a normal Bengals number 14, black with white piping and numbers outlined in orange. But in place of “Dalton” sat a freshly constructed nameplate fastened with a dozen pins:

New Andy.

“It’s supposed to be a joke,” Eric says. “Just a way to show the wake me up in four months when the playoffs start crowd how much fun they’re missing right now.”

The fun is the Bengals’ best start in 40 years, and a quarterback playing better than he ever has in the NFL. In his first four seasons, Dalton showed flashes of what he and Cincinnati’s offense could be. He threw for a career-best 4,293 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2013, but there were also 20 interceptions, and like every other season of his career, it ended with a loss in the Bengals’ playoff opener. For some time, many have trumpeted their roster as the league’s best, armed with offensive firepower and a consistently great defense. Blame for the playoff disappointments, year after year, has been placed at Dalton’s feet. But now the Bengals are 9-2, and the argument that it’s Dalton holding this team back is fizzling. Cincinnati has the most efficient passing offense in football, and his numbers rival anyone’s. He’s thrown nearly four times as many touchdowns as interceptions (23:6) and he’s among the league’s top five in every relevant passing category. The often disparaged quarterback has his team in pole position to earn a first-round bye.

Just a few hours after Koch explained the joke, Dalton hunches forward on a stool in front of his locker, peering at a photo of the New Andy jersey. He leans back, exhales hard, and smiles. “Obviously, I’ve seen stuff like this before,” he says. “It’s not new. It’s still me.” As he continues, his voice gets a little louder. “It’s not that I haven’t played well here before. I’ve been Offensive Player of the Week. I’ve been Offensive Player of the Month. It’s not New Andy. It’s just me.”
 

* * *

Growing up in Katy, Texas, about 30 miles west of Houston, Dalton made his pocket change by pushing a mower around the family’s third of an acre. The fee changed depending on how generous his parents felt, but it was always modest. He was a saver, always storing profits for the next big purchase. When he was 12, the stockpile was meant for a new bat, a Louisville Slugger Omaha that would run him about $180. Even if the Daltons were in a giving mood, that meant a lot of lawns.

He was close to having enough cash when the family went to a shoe store one afternoon. Dalton’s sister, Ashley, two years his senior, had been eyeing a pair of Doc Martens for a while now. “We were waiting it out because they were kind of expensive,” their mother, Tina, says. While his sister tried them on—again —Dalton snuck over and whispered in Tina’s ear. “He said, ‘Mom, I really want to buy those for her,’ ” Tina says. “I said, ‘Andy, you’ve been saving that money.’ And he told me, ‘Well, that’s what I really want to do.’ I think that says a little something about him.”

Ask anyone about Dalton, and it won’t take long to hear “nice” and “guy.” To hear his friends tell it, his childhood was full of typical suburban innocence: Ping-Pong in the Dalton’s basement, pool at his friend Tyler Hobbs’ place, and harmless loitering in the school parking lot. After wins, even in football-crazy Katy, nights usually ended when Taco Cabana closed at 1 a.m. “We would just hang out saying, ‘Let’s go do stuff,’ and we never did,” Hobbs says, laughing. “We were pretty boring.”

They haven’t changed much with age. Video games are a constant—NCAA Football, FIFA, Rory McIlroy Golf—and while that’s hardly shameful, those sessions provide a glimpse into a different side of Dalton. Hobbs and Sam Justus, the co-best men at his wedding, will both tell you that mild-mannered nice guy Andy Dalton isn’t afraid to dish it.

There was a moment earlier this year, during a round of NCAA Football, when Dalton latched on to a single mistake Justus made. “That’s all it takes, just one thing,” Justus says. The rest of the game, Dalton kept coming back to the misstep, harping on it until his friend couldn’t take anymore. Tensions got so high that Justus, only half-joking, threatened to take a swing.

“It was funny,” Hobbs says, “because Andy was losing.”

* * *

Former TCU teammate and current Jets receiver Jeremy Kerley says Dalton made a leap from “captain to general” before leading the Horned Frogs to a Rose Bowl victory in January 2011—the same kind of leap he’s making in Cincinnati this season.
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Jeremy Kerley knows how quarterbacks are supposed to act, and for much of their time together at TCU, Dalton fit the bill. He studied hard. He was quiet. He did all the right things. “As a quarterback, you get a rap that you don’t have any personality,” the current Jets wide receiver says. “You’re just a guy that’s all about your work. A guy like me, I’m going to test it. I want to see if you’ve got something.”

Before their junior season, Kerley and a few others made a one-sided bet with Dalton. If the Horned Frogs won their first 10 games, they would take a trimmer to his ginger dome. After TCU reached that threshold by pummeling No. 16 Utah, 55-28, it was time to pay up. Kerley took Dalton to his regular barbershop, Supreme Styles in Ft. Worth, and everyone inside wasted no time hammering him about the flame-colored patch on his head. “No worries at all, man,” Kerley says. “He was joking, sitting in that chair, and they were getting on him about the red hair. He just vibed.” Dalton left with a bright orange Mohawk and “TCU” carved into the right side of his head. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this dude, he’s good by me,’ ” Kerley says.

TCU finished the regular season 12-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country. For the second postseason in a row, the Frogs were pitted against Boise State in what amounted to a mid-major championship game. Dalton had thrown five interceptions all season, but against a torrid Broncos’ pass rush, he was picked off three times. In listing the worst losses of his life, it’s among the first few he’ll mention. His bad afternoon meant the offseason was spent thinking about how a magical year had become a tragic disappointment.

When practices resumed the next spring, Kerley saw a different quarterback than the one who had walked off the field in Glendale. Kerley had never hesitated to bark at his quarterback when a play went awry; the difference now was that Dalton barked back. “He just came back with a mean streak, a streak we hadn’t really seen in him,” Kerley says. “He’d always been this even-keel guy, but he just started taking charge. Like, ‘I’m going to take over this team.’ I saw someone who’d just gone from a captain to a general.” TCU finished the 2010 season 13-0, knocked off Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl, 21-19, and finished as the No. 2 team in the country. Dalton was the game’s MVP. To this day, the Horned Frogs don’t think there was a team in college football that could have beaten them.

* * *

No one could have expected Dalton to maintain that same level of ownership in the Bengals’ locker room. Carson Palmer’s messy departure meant Dalton was handed the offense as a 23-year-old rookie, stepping into a huddle full of veterans. Leadership roles were ceded to others like tackle Andrew Whitworth while Dalton eased in, just as he had done during his early years at TCU.

Jay Gruden, the Bengals’ offensive coordinator for Dalton’s first three seasons, knew what type of figure his quarterback was capable of cutting in a huddle. At some pro days, only a few teammates show up to watch. For Dalton’s, the field was packed. “His whole damn team was out there,” Gruden says. “He was like the Pied Piper. You saw the type of leader he was. People are drawn to him.” There were times, though, as Dalton started to find his way in the NFL, that his passivity became frustrating. “He’s a great competitor, don’t get me wrong,” Gruden says. “But sometimes you wanted him to get in peoples’ rear ends. That wasn’t his style. Sometimes, you wish he had just a little bit more a------ in him.”

Dalton’s mean streak reemerged this spring. Tyler Eifert remembers a practice when he dropped a couple passes, and rather than chide him off to the side like he might have done in years past, Dalton openly snapped at his tight end. Those were plays the Bengals needed. “He’s shown an assertiveness in our meetings, in our walkthroughs, in everything,” Whitworth says. “Kind of showing, This is my football team, and I take a lot of pride in it.” Carrying himself with that type of presence was a part of the offseason conversations Dalton had with offensive coordinator Hue Jackson and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. “The wins and losses only get tied to two peoples’ ledgers,” Jackson says, “and that’s the head coach and him. You’re responsible. And he took that in.”

On Wednesday afternoons this season, after the entire offense meets, Jackson and the linemen leave the room so Dalton and his receivers can study on their own. During these sessions, Dalton is the one in charge, clicker in hand as they pore over tape from that week’s practices. “It’s just a time to let them know what I’m thinking, and I can kind of get to know what they’re thinking too,” Dalton says. Jackson feels comfortable ceding control. He knows the right information is changing hands, and the sessions also provide a chance for his quarterback to take further ownership of the offense.

“I can only do so much,” Jackson says. “At some point, they only play for him.”

Whitworth had the same feeling. Dalton has long mined his left tackle’s reserve of leadership wisdom—and this year, he’s showed enough of his own that there’s no mistaking who’s in charge. “There’s only so much as a lineman and a leader you can really do,” Whitworth says. “You don’t have the ball in your hand. You don’t dictate the offense. You don’t want a foreman being the head of your company. You need the CEO.”

Dalton has left no doubt this season that the Bengals are finally his team.
AJ Mast for Sports Illustrated/The MMQB

* * *

The middle finger on Dalton’s left hand is a twisted mess. It curves out near the top, and he can turn the top knuckle almost completely upside down. When doctors put in the pins, after Dalton’s senior year at Katy, they made a mistake, and the mangled digit is what remains.

The break happened late in the season, in a regional final against Cypress Falls. The undefeated Katy Tigers were heavy favorites, but with 5:11 left in the fourth quarter, they trailed 28-17. Facing fourth-and-11 near midfield, Dalton dropped back and fired a throw over the middle—right into the chest of a linebacker. Like that, a perfect season was seemingly gone. “That’s the thing about Andy, though,” his father, Greg, says. “He’s at his best when everything is going wrong.” A blocked punt, a defensive stop, and two touchdown passes later, Katy was celebrating a 32-28 victory.

Over Dalton’s first four years in Cincinnati, his father’s theory was tested often. The Bengals infamously failed to win a playoff game, and much of that blame has fallen on the quarterback. The strongest roster of Dalton’s tenure—before this one—was the 2013 group. That season ended with a 27-10 loss to San Diego, at home, and featured three brutal interceptions. The box score leaves Dalton as the scapegoat, but looking back upon that afternoon, that isn’t where Gruden starts. “We had no tight ends. Our two tackles didn’t practice all week,” he says. “We were a mess offensively, as far as being injured and banged up. We just weren’t ourselves that day. That’s no fault of Andy’s.”

Dalton’s playoff outings have left much to be desired, but each loss has come with failings beyond his own. As he threw three interceptions against Houston during his rookie season, Arian Foster was also shredding the Bengals’ defense for 182 total yards. In last year’s loss to the Colts, Dalton was without Eifert, A.J. Green, and Marvin Jones. It is believed that Paul Brown, the founder of the Bengals, first coined the phrase and said it to Ken Anderson after a particularly difficult loss in the 1970s: “A quarterback gets too much credit when he wins, and too much blame when he loses.” Just don’t tell Dalton that. “Those are the things we say to him,” his friend Tyler Hobbs says, “and he’s just not having it. His stance is, ‘I’m the quarterback of the team, and it’s on me.’ ”

In Dalton’s four playoff losses, the Bengals have averaged 9.0 offensive points per game. In 45 drives, he’s led the offense to three touchdowns—only one through the air. Dalton may not deserve all the blame, but there’s no denying that he’s struggled in January. Until he wins in the postseason, he’ll have his share of nonbelievers.

His friends aren’t among them—and not just because they’re his friends. They see what Dalton is doing to take that next step. They also know the critiques that ring the loudest in the quarterback’s head are his own. When Hobbs and Justus visit him in Cincinnati, Monday mornings turn into film sessions the moment Dalton’s 18-month-old son, Noah, goes down for his 10 a.m. nap. On plays with a protection mishap or a drop, Justus and Hobbs will chastise the line, only to have Dalton point out that the breakdown was his fault, a misidentified protection. He chides himself for errant throws.

“Nobody,” Hobbs says, “is harder on Andy than Andy.”

That’s a feat, because Dalton’s critics have been ruthless. At the MLB All-Star Game this summer, he was met with boos during his first at-bat of a celebrity softball game. The game, you might recall, was played in Cincinnati, right next door to the stadium where he’s gone 25-11-1 in five seasons. He insists the story has been overblown, that the jeers were a smattering and not a cacophony, but they were still impossible to miss. Dalton tries to downplay all the licks he’s taken publicly, but he admits to knowing what’s out there.

“With my name, there’s been a lot of negativity around it,” Dalton says. “I’ll be real. I understand it.”

* * *

To help bridge the distance between Texas and southern Ohio, Dalton and his best men maintain a group text that sees at least a few messages a day. If Justus or Hobbs stumble upon Andy material that’s notably vitriolic, be it a radio segment or a nasty comment from the Bengals section of Reddit, they’ll share the link. “And he’ll just respond, ‘So what are you guys up to today?’ ” Hobbs says. “It just rolls right off his back. He doesn’t care. Peoples’ opinions aren’t playing defense on Sunday, so it just doesn’t matter to him.”

“He has true self-confidence,” says Justin Fuente, Dalton’s offensive coordinator at TCU and the newly hired head coach at Virginia Tech. “Andy is confident in everything about who he is. He’s true to himself and who he wants to be.”

During their son’s days at TCU, the Daltons would drive the four hours from Katy to Ft. Worth in a white Chevy Express, the perfect tailgate mobile. The final stop of the weekend was Dalton’s home, where they’d linger in the driveway as they prepared to part with their son for the week. A day after the Horned Frogs beat Rice, Tina only steered the conversation one way. Earlier that week, Dalton had told his parents there was someone he wanted them to meet. Her name was Jordan. Two days after meeting her, Tina Dalton was in the front seat of the van, planning her son’s wedding. On instinct, Dalton protested, but soon admitted that she was the one. Just after graduation, Andy and Jordan were married. His friends never wondered if it was too fast. “There was no doubt in my mind that Andy knew what he wanted,” Hobbs says, “and she was it.”

The couple had met earlier in the school year, during a gathering at Dalton’s place. Jordan remembers that he was playing guitar, a talent he still shows off. “He’ll play some John Mayer that’s really nice,” Jordan says. “We just went to the Ed Sheeran concert, so he’s been working on that a little bit.” In the early years of their NFL life, Jordan took the deluge of criticism harder than her husband. The second playoff loss—in which Dalton completed just 14 of 30 passes, with an interception—stands out. “I remember talking to him and saying, ‘You’re here for a reason. You’re going to handle this beautifully,’ ”Jordan says. “I think at the time, it’s hard not to question why you’re going through what you’re going through. But five years later, you see what’s happening now and the person he is now—I feel like he was made to be here.”

As well as the Bengals have played for most of the season, there’s still some frustration in Dalton’s voice as he talks about the way he’s been treated by those outside the Bengals’ facility. It’s not that he believes his play has been beyond reproach. It’s that he sees a tendency to emphasize the derision instead of the support. “The negative stuff sells,” Dalton says, talking about the All-Star Game boos. “That’s what everyone thinks is the story.”

Hue Jackson says the trying times have hardened Dalton, who can use them for motivation when he needs to and ignore them otherwise. “If not, that tape recorder will play over in your head,” Jackson says. “Sometimes you have to shut it off and move on. And he knows how to do that.”

Dalton’s ability to play gatekeeper, to dictate what sticks with him and what fades away, is tied into a new echelon of self-assuredness that Jackson has seen this year. In the past, when Dalton would make a mistake—like his fourth-quarter interception against the Steelers in Week 8—it could hang over him for the rest of the game. “I think there’s a confidence level that all great quarterbacks play at,” Jackson says, “and I think he’s playing that way right now. There are glitches as you go, but he’s been able to get himself back in the groove like he needs to.” Six plays after getting picked off by Mike Mitchell, Dalton fired a strike to A.J. Green for the game-winning score.

* * *

A.J Green and Dalton were taken in the 2011 draft with the hope of stabilizing a franchise that had enjoyed just one winning season in the previous five years.
John Grieshop/Getty Images

Heading into the 2011 draft, the Bengals had a plan to improve their passing game. They knew their first-round pick (fourth overall) was meant for Julio Jones or A.J. Green, but at some point that weekend, Jay Gruden’s offense needed to secure a viable starting quarterback. Cincinnati knew Carson Palmer wouldn’t be back, which likely meant that whomever they chose would be under center from the jump. After Cam Newton, Dalton was Gruden’s signal caller of choice, and each time a quarterback came off the board that night he exhaled.

“I was holding my breath, I’ll be honest with you,” Gruden says. “There were a lot of teams that we thought needed quarterbacks in that draft, and a lot of quarterbacks went. Every pick that a quarterback went, I was like, ‘Oh god.’ I was really high on Andy, and when he fell to us, it was really exciting to me. And I think a lot of the other people on our staff felt the same way.”

Three quarterbacks went off the board between the first pick (Newton) and Cincinnati’s nabbing Dalton at No. 35—and just like that, the passing-game connection the franchise had envisioned was reality. A few months later, with his first-round picks in mind, Gruden dialed up a go route on the first play from scrimmage in the Bengals’ preseason opener against Detroit.

“I was going to introduce the world to Andy Dalton and A.J. Green,” Gruden says. As Dalton dropped back, Ndamukong Suh tore through the line. “He almost ripped his head off,” says Gruden. “I’ll never forget it. I thought I’d damaged him for life. Some quarterbacks, when they get hit, they turn into scared puppies back there.” To Gruden’s relief, Dalton popped off the turf and didn’t appear to think twice about the near miss of a 300-pound guillotine.

Securing a franchise-changing receiver and a franchise-stabilizing quarterback were early steps on the path to the current version of Cincinnati’s offense, but other pieces have been added since: guard Kevin Zeitler, the 27th overall pick in 2012, downfield threat Marvin Jones four rounds later, and touchdown machine Tyler Eifert in the first round a year later. Gradually, the Bengals assembled an arsenal of weapons that could rival any in the NFL and paired it with one of football’s surest offensive lines.

In searching for the key to this year’s success, the best answer is the simplest one. “Right now, the biggest difference is that we’re healthy,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth says. “We’re not trying to fit in people as much.” Cincinnati was without Eifert for most of last season, and without Jones for all of it. The offensive line spent chunks of 2014 rotating players and positions. This season, the Bengals have been among the healthiest teams in the league. “The comfort level now,” Dalton says,  “we understand each other.”

Now 27 games into Jackson’s tenure as offensive coordinator, and having found a rhythm with consistent personnel, the Bengals have been afforded a level of comfort and communication that was absent a year ago. “The conversations that we’re able to have and how quickly we can talk about things and change things off certain looks, that’s the level of understanding of everything with me and the coaches,” Dalton says.

Jackson maintains that he has “the utmost trust” in Dalton “because he’s been with me long enough to understand what we’re trying to do.” Increased familiarity has bred increased ownership. Dalton is provided similar freedom to what’s enjoyed by the league’s most revered quarterbacks, and that level of belief is what leads to plays like the one that sealed the Bengals’ fate in Arizona in Week 11. On a third-and-2 from well within field goal range, Dalton checked to a deep throw down the sideline to A.J. Green. The ball landed yards shy of its target, which left Cincinnati with no choice but to kick a field goal and leave the Cardinals with ample time to answer. Dalton’s choice was skewered as the press dissected the Bengals’ 34-31 loss in the days to come, but when questioned about it, Jackson was unwavering. “Oh my God, we have our best player and their best corner was on the sideline,” Jackson told reporters last week. “So you’ve got your best player out on the field and the safety is standing in the middle of the field, you’ve got to take that shot. Game over.”

To get the Dalton he’d seen for 59 minutes—22 of 39 for 315 yards against the league’s fourth toughest pass defense—he needed the one who was willing to unload that final throw.

* * *

The New Andy jersey inside Koch Sporting Goods.
Robert Mays/The MMQB

Two days after the Koches assembled the New Andy jersey, it was still hanging just inside the front door. Their last creation for a Cincinnati quarterback was in 2011, when Carson Palmer’s self-imposed departure inspired Ryan to affix “Quitter” to a black and orange number 9. The sentiment about Palmer’s Bengals of the mid-2000s is that they represent a missed opportunity. As fans observe the current roster—four consecutive trips to the playoffs, four times having been one-and-done—it isn’t easy to discount those memories. But it hasn’t approached that point for Eric Koch—at least not yet. “He’s won 40 games in his first four years,” he says of Dalton. “What are we even talking about?”

Even still, the ongoing debate about New Andy versus Old Andy, about Dalton’s role in recent Bengals disappointments, is never far from the minds of the quarterback’s best friends. A few months ago, Hobbs was out with Dalton when they saw a radio host—whose name he declined to give—that has raked his friend over the coals too often. Hobbs implored Dalton to speak up, to say something, anything. There were no cameras, no microphones. No one would have known.

“I understand he needs to play better,” Hobbs says, “and he fully understands that. I’d just like for him to come out and defend himself one time. But he never will. He never will. He doesn’t even do it to us.”

Perspective is a theme that consistently comes up in conversations about Dalton, as those around him try to explain how he weathers storms of denigration. He’s a husband, they say, a father, and has a life that extends far beyond football. But with every win, gritting his teeth seems to get more difficult. As an MVP candidate through 11 games, he’s still the subject of potshots from opponents and disparagement from the same skeptical voices.

Sitting on his stool, hunched over in front of his locker, Dalton addresses the tenor of that dialogue. His patience is waning, and a hint of that mean streak begins to show.

“There’s a lot of unreasonable stuff that’s been said. A lot of stuff that’s not true, people that just don’t understand,” Dalton says. “But I’m not playing for those people who want to say something. People can hide behind a computer, they can hide behind a cell phone, they can tweet. They can say whatever they want. I’m not worried about them.

“It’s not that I need everybody to be patting me on the back. Things are good right now, but regardless of people being positive or negative, I’m still the same person. Everybody here still sees me the same.”

• Questions or comments? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

You May Like