It was perhaps the worst day for a quarterback who could ill-afford any more bad ones. When Andy Dalton of the Bengals faced off against the Browns defense on Thursday, Nov. 6, he proved unable to do anything well, completing just 10-of-33 passes for 86 yards, no touchdowns and three interceptions. Not that quarterback rating is the be-all/end-all when it comes to reflecting quarterback performance (far from it), but Dalton's 2.0 rating in the game tells you quite a bit. Dalton registered career-lows in completion percentage, passing yards and rating, and had few answers after a performance that led to a 24-3 loss, and Cincinnati's fall to a 5-3-1 record. It was, according to Pro Football Reference, the worst game for any quarterback with at least 30 passing attempts since 1983.
"I deserve it. It all starts with me," Dalton said, when asked who was at fault for the abysmal home loss. “It all goes through the quarterback. I have to play better to put our team in position to win the game.”
First-year offensive coordinator Hue Jackson, who had Dalton on a career-high pace in passer rating, yards per attempt and completion percentage after Cincinnati's first three games, refuses to bail on Dalton, who he believes is the long-term answer at the position for the Bengals. The franchise seemed to agree when it gave Dalton a seven-year, $97.09 million contract in August. The construction of the deal makes it more of a year-to-year proposition as only $17 million is guaranteed, but it's still a major commitment to a player who hasn't shown quite enough since the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 2011 draft out of TCU.
“I know you guys think, fourth season, they should be doing this, they should be doing that,” Jackson said the day after the Browns game. “Again, I would feel very, very badly if we hadn’t had any success on offense. That’s not the case and I’ve watched some teams in the NFL stub their toe. Maybe not to the extent we did, but lose games, not play well. Whatever all that is and everybody goes bananas and I understand why.
“Now is the time to really focus on getting better. Now is the time to really tighten the screws and dot the Is and cross the Ts and make sure things are done right. That’s the only chance you have. All I know is hard work. I don’t know anything else.”
Jackson's problem is that there may not be anything else.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Dalton ranked 12th in quarterback rating. (55 completions in 84 attempts for 722 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.) But since Week 4, Dalton has fallen to the very bottom of the quarterback tree -- ranked dead last among 30 qualifying quarterbacks with a 70.6 quarterback rating. (116 completions in 197 attempts for 1,238 yards, six touchdowns and eight picks.) Only Cam Newton and Blake Bortles have a worse PFF rating, and he ranks right down there with Austin Davis and EJ Manuel in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. His FO ranking takes the first three good weeks into consideration, by the way. Basically, Dalton was playing at a better-than-average level through those first three weeks, and he's been the NFL's worst quarterback ever since.
You could blame the three weeks receiver A.J. Green missed with a toe injury, but Green played in the game against Cleveland. You could blame Jackson's offensive designs and route concepts, but these designs and concepts are good enough for most quarterbacks. You could blame Cincinnati's porous offensive line, but only the Browns have allowed fewer total pressures than Cincinnati's 55. This descent is on Dalton, and it's been going on for a while.
The question is, why? Dalton was supposed to have transcended his limitations -- or, at the very least, turned himself into a quarterback on which his team could rely. An Alex Smith-plus, perhaps -- a game manager with some explosive play potential. Instead, Dalton has become the kind of player who can throw an entire season right in the tank. And the worst thing is, every issue has its antecedent in Dalton's past issues. Not only is Dalton regressing; he's not developed in any single category.
Last season, per Pro Football Focus, Dalton was pressured on 25.2 percent of his dropbacks, the second-lowest percentage in the league behind Peyton Manning's 22.7 percent. It is perhaps unfair to compare any fourth-year player to Manning in his statistical prime, but Manning completed 58.1 percent of his passes under pressure with six touchdowns and three picks, while Dalton completed 38.5 percent of his pressure passes with three touchdowns and six picks. This season, Dalton and Manning are tied for the lowest pressure percentage (22.9), and Dalton has completed 43.6 percent of his pressure passes for two touchdowns and three picks.
And when he is sacked, as he was on this play against the Browns last Thursday, it's often because he's not reading open receivers -- Dalton has major field diagnosis issues, and this becomes more and more clear the more you watch his tape.
That's a clear slot receiver open in zone coverage, and Dalton didn't pull the trigger. Not good.
The Money Downs
In 2013, Dalton was at his most mediocre on third down, per ESPN Stats & Info. He completed 93-of-157 passes for 1,151 yards, seven touchdowns, six interceptions and 11 sacks. Third down was the only down in which Dalton completed less than 60 percent of his passes and the only down in which he had a quarterback rating lower than 81 (80.9).
This season, Dalton has completed 49 passes in 81 attempts for 596 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions on third down. His completion percentage is up (61.5), but it's become clear that opponents are scheming against Dalton on obvious passing downs, because they know he can be had.
In 2013, on third- and fourth-down plays with 3-8 yards to go (the situations in which you'd expect a great quarterback to convert), Dalton completed 52 of 86 passes for 596 yards, six touchdowns and four picks. When the Bengals were behind by 1-8 points, he completed 60-of-101 passes for 767 yards, six touchdowns and six picks.
This season, in those situations (third- and fourth-down with 3-8 yards to go), he's completed 24 passes in 43 attempts for 350 yards, one touchdown and two picks. He's thrown four touchdowns to one interception in situations where the Bengals were behind by 1-8 points this season, but as the games go on, he's getting far worse. In attempts 21-30 of games this year, he's completed 40 passes in 68 attempts for 468 yards, one touchdown and five picks. He has a minor uptick in attempts 31-40 (19-of-33 for 258 yards, two touchdowns and one pick), but the overall sample size this season is not good.
And his struggles show up most graphically where it counts -- in the end zone. Dalton has just eight touchdown passes this season, and four of nine games with no touchdowns at all. From the opposing 20-yard line and in this season, Dalton has completed 12-of-33 passes for 111 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. While the touchdown/interception ratio seems more than reasonable, understand that this is where touchdowns are supposed to happen. Seattle's Russell Wilson, who hasn't exactly been a fountain of touchdown passes himself this season, has eight of his 11 total touchdown passes from the opposing 20-yard line on in. In Dalton's case, the completion percentage is the bigger issue; he is not able to make stick throws in compressed areas of the field.
Reading the Field
This is Dalton's primary issue, and it's been a major point of regression. In this play against the Browns, he zeroed in on A.J. Green on a shallow crossing route, completely ignoring open receivers upfield, and throwing a nasty duck out of Green's range. This is a combined failure; Dalton missed the openings upfield, and his mechanics prevented a better and more accurate throw. There are quarterbacks who can transcend their limited field vision with plus-arms (Colin Kaepernick is the most obvious example), but Dalton has a fraction of a plus-arm at best, so he needs to be far more exact. When he's not, the results are not pretty.
And here, he's got tight end Jermaine Gresham on a crosser out of motion, but he throws outside of Gresham, who seemed to stop on the route, giving linebacker Craig Robertson an easy pick. Dalton didn't see tight end Ryan Hewitt further upfield -- whether by dint of Dalton's own limitations or the read concepts Jackson is allowing him, Dalton is not reading the entire field.
And on this interception, Dalton completely missed safety Tashaun Gipson closing on a quick pass to tight end James Wright. Browns head coach Mike Pettine credited defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil for dialing up some great disguised coverages against Dalton, but at this point in Dalton's career, you don't need to do much. The deflection resulted in an interception, picked off by cornerback Buster Skrine.
Lest we think this is an issue isolated to the Browns game, there are multiple examples of bad throws and worse decisions through Dalton's stretch of awful quarterback play. This throw somewhere in the vicinity of Gresham against the Panthers in Week 6 was more of the same. Dalton air-mailed Gresham, and safety Roman Harper had a free gift.
And here's an underthrow to Mohamed Sanu against the Jaguars in Week 9, which presented cornerback Sherrod Martin with an easy opportunity to jump the route.
The mind reels when reviewing Dalton's entire 2014 body of work. However, his teammates and coaches are still firmly behind him -- perhaps because they don't really have a choice. You're generally tethered to the quarterback you have when you've made a serious investment (just don't ask Drew Bledsoe and Matt Flynn about that), and the Bengals seem to understand that they'll go exactly as far as Dalton can take them.
“He's a competitor. He's ready to get back at it and prove who he is,” left tackle Andrew Whitworth said of his quarterback this week. “We all have bad nights and all of us share losses. It's not just him. He's always going to take blame because he's the signal-caller. He's got the ball in his hands, but at the end of the day, all of us share in it. He just wants our team to win. That's what he wants more importantly. He believes in this team. That's what's important. And that's what's going to help us be successful.”
Whitworth, by the way, is not at all part of the problem -- he's allowed no sacks, one quarterback hit and five hurries in 584 snaps this season.
Hue Jackson understands implicitly that his and Dalton's fates are tied together.
"There’s something to grab on to," he told the team's official website on Nov. 7. "There is a body of work that says you can do it. I’m joined at the hip with him. I understand that. That’s the way it goes. I’ve not run from that. As he gets killed [publicly], I get killed. That’s the way it goes. That’s part of this business.
“You know the stats, I can’t dispute what is fact. We are not going to let this define us. We are not going to let last night define who we are because I have seen some really good football on offense. We are going to grow from it, we are going to learn from it we are not going to bury our heads in the sand and say it didn’t happen, either."
Oh, it happened. And unless there's a pretty serious turnaround in several aspects of Andy Dalton's play, it's going to happen again.