How far can a middle-of-the-pack quarterback take an NFL team? It’s one of the most heavily debated topics in professional sports, and to properly conduct this discussion we must first understand that there are two types of “average” quarterbacks: those who achieve averageness through mediocrity, and those who achieve it through inconsistency.
Those mediocre quarterbacks would be the guys who are incapable of making all the throws. They’re risk averse. You must run a controlled, balance offense for these players and emphasize things such as field position. These are your Alex Smiths, your Trent Dilfers. They tend to attract a small but ardent group of supporters who often ask anyone who’s willing to listen (and even those who aren’t) why nobody ever gives their guy any credit.
The inconsistent quarterbacks are the guys who reach the middle of the pack through ups and downs. They have extreme strengths offset by maddening weaknesses, usually stemming from sloppy mechanical habits. Think Cam Newton or Jay Cutler. These guys tend to have immense but uncultivated talent. But not always. Sometimes they reach this class the way Andy Dalton has: by offsetting outstanding decisions with horrendous ones.
When you have a so-so arm and shaky accuracy (usually stemming from poor footwork), you must almost always make sharp decisions. Dalton fulfills this, but only in the presnap phase. He’s a borderline genius at adjusting protections, altering run plays to exploit a defensive front and, to a slightly lesser degree, identifying coverages. But once the ball is snapped, the 27-year-old becomes a crapshoot. Which is why defensive tactics that involve a changing picture—say, an outside coverage rotation or a zone blitz—have been known to bait him into turnovers. And there are plenty of times when Dalton simply makes mind-blowing predetermined throws into nonexistent windows.
Unlike the mediocre average quarterbacks, the inconsistent average quarterbacks don’t tend to attract vocal supporters. Fans aren’t wired to accept these sorts of mistakes. (These aren’t hard and fast rules, of course. Right now Newton has ardent supporters. But watch: in about three years, he’ll be the exact same quarterback he is today and people will start treating him the way they treat Cutler.) Inconsistent average quarterbacks—especially one like Dalton, who can’t mesmerize a crowd with immense raw talent—attract vocal critics.
Fans are always calling for a replacement, but that’s easier said than done. It’s funny how often we forget, but an average quarterback is a better option than a subpar or outright bad quarterback, of which the NFL still has many.
Dalton is the most scrutinized average quarterback in the league today. The Bengals have been to the playoffs all four years of his career, and they’ve been one-and-done each time. Fair or unfair, the former second-round pick has taken the overwhelming brunt of the blame.
But debating Dalton’s postseason culpability is oversimplifying the discussion. Important as playoff games are, they present too small a sample size to render conclusive declarations so early in a player’s career. In Dalton’s case, we’re talking about judging a four-game body of work. And contrary to what lazy talk show hosts would have you believe, there’s no way to judge a player’s heart or moxie or whatever nebulous trait these hacks ascribe to playoff success and failure.
Bengals owner Mike Brown, director of player personnel Duke Tobin and head coach Marvin Lewis have been judging Dalton’s entire body of work—playoffs, regular season, practice and meeting room sessions—and have come to this conclusion: the fans are right, he is very average. But they feel the fans are wrong to think the Bengals can’t win with him.
But doing so continuously can be difficult. First, it takes discipline from play-caller Hue Jackson, who must commit to conservative game plans and take his shots selectively. Second, you have to surround your quarterback with a lot of talent. You can’t afford to miss on many players. You can afford to keep those players around, however, because your quarterback’s contract won’t destroy your salary cap (Dalton’s $9.6 million salary in 2015 takes up about 6.5 percent of Cincy’s cap, ranking 17th in the league among quarterbacks, according to OverTheCap.com). Still, it’s hard to find quality talent at every other position.
But the Bengals have done just that. They’ve given Dalton an elite wide receiver in A.J. Green, who they’ll re-sign for big money after this season. Beneath Green on the receiver depth chart is an athletic cast, starting with the versatile Mohamed Sanu and working down to the gifted (when healthy) Marvin Jones. At tight end, the Bengals spent a first-round pick on Tyler Eifert in 2013 and a third-rounder on Tyler Kroft this past offseason. Kroft will replace the unreliable Jermaine Gresham.
Despite those receivers, the Bengals will want their offense defined by the rushing attack. That’s the ultimate way to help an average QB. They drafted Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard each in the second round over the last two years. Hill, at 235 pounds, has the powerful thighs and light, balanced feet to be a 1,500-yard downhill runner. As a rookie, he shined behind pull-blockers on “power” and “counter” runs, as well as on outside zone concepts. You can’t ask for much more diversity. Accumulating 1,500 yards will be difficult, though, because Bernard, a shifty, surprisingly stout scat back, is worthy of 18 touches a game. Bernard is also very dangerous in the passing game. (So is Hill.) The nice thing about throws to running backs: they’re safe and defined. The Bengals have invested up front, too. This offseason they spent a first-round pick on RT Cedric Ogbuehi and a second-rounder on LT Jake Fisher, both of whom will likely spend the first year developing on the bench behind a sturdy O-line.
It’s imperative that Hill and Bernard keep Cincinnati ahead in the down and distance. That allows Jackson to employ Dalton in the play-action game, which creates many of the offense’s deep shots. It also makes defenses more predictable and less focused on Green, who has been the target receiver for 27 of Dalton’s career interceptions—the most in the NFL between a quarterback and receiver over the past four years. As valuable as Green is, he’s dependent on Dalton to throw him the ball. Hill and Bernard are dependent on Dalton to hand them the ball. And remember, Dalton, average as he may be, is tremendous at making adjustments in the ground game prior to the snap.
Bengals Nickel Package
1. Being a run-based offense requires stingy defense, because running the ball tends to keep games artificially close. Here, the Bengals have also built a fine cast of players. The most important of the bunch is one of the few who wasn’t drafted: weak side linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The athletic fourth-year pro missed 11 games last season with concussion and knee problems. (The later required offseason microfracture surgery.) In his absence, defensive coordinator Paul Guenther drew away from the double A-gap pressure concepts that have long defined a very good Bengals D. Guenther didn’t feel he had the depth or athleticism at linebacker to run many facets of the pressure-based scheme. The problem was, despite having a talented D-line, Guenther did not get productivity from his four-man pass rush. The Bengals finished the season with 20 sacks—the fewest in the league, which isn’t good when you wind up playing as much zone coverage as they did.
2. At least Guenther doesn’t play straight zone coverage. Often the Bengals get to their assignments via disguised rotations. One of their staples is the inverted Cover 2, which they usually run on the short side of the field. In this, the cornerback drops back over the top, and the safety plays underneath. Both safeties, George Iloka and especially Reggie Nelson, have the coverage aptitude to do this. Nelson is particularly dangerous here because when the Bengals are able to go with double A-gap looks, he’s often an edge blitzer (a very good one, too). That puts him in ideal position to drop outside into an inverted Cover 2 position.
3. If the aforementioned “talented” defensive line plays up to its potential, Guenther shouldn’t feel as compelled to blitz this season. End Carlos Dunlap is limber, long and explosive. So limber, long and explosive, in fact, that his occasional prolonged disappearances are completely inexcusable. At three-technique, Geno Atkins is now almost two full years removed from his ACL surgery. As Guenther intimated at the beginning of the offseason, the squatty, incombustible sixth-year pro needs to recapture his destructive nature.
4. Domata Peko has been a very stellar starting nose shade for the last eight years, but it’s time he be replaced in the base 4-3. Not because he can’t play. At 30, Peko remains deft at shedding blocks and identifying run designs. But his backup, 25-year-old Brandon Thompson, is quicker and plays with just as much strength and leverage. Thompson is too good to keep getting only 15-20 snaps a game.
5. Dre Kirkpatrick, a presumed first-round cornerback bust, replaced an aging Terence Newman late last season and now becomes the most important player in this underrated secondary. Kirkpatrick has a long frame, but he sometimes has trouble swiveling his hips against receivers in space. In order to succeed, he’ll have to make a lot of plays out of recovery mode.