Last week I went to Cincinnati and asked Bengals fans if they’d rather have Akili Smith as their starting quarterback over Andy Dalton. I was not asking that question seriously. Yet amazingly, some fans thought that I was, and it’s perhaps a small window into how maligned at times Dalton has been in this city, despite the fact that the Bengals are off to a franchise-record 8-0 start.
“He’s done everything else you can do in the regular season; the team’s won a division with him, the team’s made it to the playoffs every year with him,” offensive coordinator Hue Jackson told me. “I think when we win a playoff game, the whole city will totally embrace what the Red Rifle is.”
Four straight first-round playoff losses have complicated the relationship between fans and Dalton, reaching a crescendo this past July when Dalton was booed during introductions at MLB’s All-Star celebrity softball game at the Reds’ ballpark, just a few blocks away from Paul Brown Stadium.
A few weeks ago Jackson told Peter King how Dalton has used that moment as a bit of motivation this season. So I came to town to see if the undefeated start had changed fans’ minds. I also wanted to ask Dalton and his teammates about that moment back in July.
But there are few questions I’d less like to ask professional athletes than ones that have to do with fans. The athletes are in a no-win spot, because if they say one thing that could be construed as offensive, they won’t hear the end of it. After the Bengals beat the Browns in prime time on Thursday night (another criticism of Dalton was that he can’t win under the lights), I spoke to the franchise QB for a few minutes and asked him about the fans. He was gracious in spite of my probing him about what must have been an embarrassing moment.
He called the relationship with fans as “a little up and down,” over the years. “I think there have been some people who have supported me, and I think there have been some people who have doubted some things, but that’s just kind of how fans are,” Dalton said.
I asked him about being booed. He noted that it wasn’t everybody, which it wasn’t. Dalton told me that whoever was booing was “wrong.”
“It’s unfortunate because of the way things have happened here; the amount of success that we’ve had has been good,” he said. “Obviously we’re not satisfied with what’s gone on the last four years. Obviously the amount of wins we’ve had has been big. Since [the booing] happened, so much support has come my way, and whoever did it was wrong.”
Dalton now walks around the city and feels the excitement. He said when he goes out to dinner, people are supportive.
“For him to get that from the home [fans], I think he went into the offseason to figure out a way to win them back over,” defensive end Carlos Dunlap said. “I think it’s displaying on tape, and he’s going out there demanding that from teammates, and he’s controlling and running the offense right now, and as you see, they’re lighting it up. He’s doing what they want to see—he’s putting points on the scoreboard.”
Jeff Bearding is a season ticket holder for both the Reds and the Bengals. I had exchanged emails with him leading up to the Bengals-Browns game and met him in the third quarter at his seats. He had been at the softball game with his daughter, Allie. He said he turned around and told the people who were booing, “You know nothing about football.
“You don’t boo your hometown QB at your hometown event,” Bearding said. “It reflects poorly on the people booing more than it reflects on Andy.”
Paul Daugherty, columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, has covered the Bengals for almost 30 years. He says Dalton right now ranks just behind Boomer Esiason and Ken Anderson, but has a long way to go to catch up to those two memorable Bengals quarterbacks. I asked him what needs to happen for Dalton to be fully embraced by the fans.
“Win a playoff game,” he said. “Period. End of story.”
As for those fans back in July? I asked Allie, who was there when they booed, what she would say to them about their QB, possible MVP candidate and undefeated squad.
Her response: “Look at us now.”