THERE ARE places in which Andy Dalton is truly loved. They love him at TCU, where he led the Horned Frogs—who hadn't made a peep nationally in decades—to an undefeated 2010 season and a Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin. Affection for Dalton runs so deep in Fort Worth that one local sportswriter suggested that the school consider retiring his number. (They haven't. Yet.) They love him at the First Baptist Church of Katy, Texas, where he chose to become a Christian at age three. And they love him in the Bengals' front office, where owner Mike Brown expressed his fondness monetarily by signing Dalton in August to a six-year, $115 million contract.
Love has been all around Dalton for most of his life—but in recent years, for the first time, he has begun to elicit the opposite emotion. "I don't get it," says broadcaster and former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason. "Why all the hate?"
To be fair, even Dalton's critics don't actually hate the man. He's too friendly and accommodating for that. It's more that they hate what Dalton represents, however unintentionally. They hate that there are so few reliable quarterbacks in the NFL that the Bengals were desperate to hold on to one who is merely competent. They hate that someone who has stunk worse than month-old Cincinnati chili in his three playoff games, all losses, received such a lavish payday. They hate that Dalton screams average, from his middling arm strength to his mostly effective but largely unexciting pocket play. And they hate that the easygoing QB doesn't even seem to hate all that hate.
Dalton, 26, keeps turning the other cheek, even though he's been slapped often enough over the last couple of years that his cheeks could match his ginger hair. On the first day of training camp, in July, two weeks before he signed his highly polarizing extension, two banners hung from an overpass near the team's practice facility. DON'T SIGN DALTON. HE SUCKS, one read. The other: A.J. TO A.J. THE FUTURE IS NOW, suggesting that rookie quarterback AJ McCarron should be the one throwing to Cincy's star wideout, A.J. Green. (Weeks later McCarron would go on the Bengals' reserve/non--football injury list with a shoulder issue.)
Analysts have been a bit kinder to Dalton than some of Cincinnati's fans have, but then he hasn't exactly received many sonnets from them, either. "There were too many times he didn't pull the trigger [in the red zone] and too many poor reads for a quarterback whose arm-strength limitations demand precise execution," said ESPN analyst and former Eagles QB Ron Jaworski last season. "He's a rock-solid starting quarterback, but there's too much inconsistency in his overall play.... At his best, he throws with great anticipation and accuracy."
That's about how it goes for Dalton. Most assessments are middling at best. He's O.K.... Pretty good at times.... Not awful.... A team could do worse. "The phrase that comes to mind is good enough," says one AFC defensive coordinator. "He's good enough to win a division, good enough to make you feel like a contender. But good enough to get you all the way [to the Super Bowl]? I'm not so sure." When SI.com posted its All--Overrated Team last month, Dalton shared starting quarterback honors with the Chiefs' Alex Smith.
All that, even though Dalton is one of only three players (along with Peyton Manning and Cam Newton) to have thrown for 3,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, one of five (with Pat Haden, Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar and Joe Flacco) to have taken his team to the playoffs in each of those first three years. Dalton and the Bengals took the first step toward duplicating that regular-season success with a thrilling 23--16 road win over the Ravens in Sunday's opener. He threw for 301 yards, one touchdown—a juggling, 77-yard reception by Green that provided the winning points—and no interceptions. But even in victory the duality of Dalton was apparent. He couldn't get Cincinnati into the end zone on seven trips into Baltimore territory, forcing the Bengals to settle for five field goals before he and Green finally connected with 4:58 left in the game. And on that ball too, Dalton underthrew; only a nifty recovery by the Pro Bowl receiver and a dipsy-doodle cutback provided the points.
Dalton missed a wide-open Jermaine Gresham on an earlier red zone pass. That error visibly upset the tight end, yet the Bengals' pass catchers remain among their QB's staunchest defenders. On blogs and on social media, opinion was split on whether Dalton's performance was a sign of better things to come, or just another example of his being bailed out by an exceptional receiver and a stingy defense.
One thing is certain: An AFC North title won't be enough to satisfy the Red Rifle's detractors. If he stumbles again in the postseason, he's no longer a young, inexperienced quarterback who tried and failed; he's an overpaid veteran quarterback with an abominable track record. The banners hanging from the overpass will multiply.
Dalton, though, never seems particularly perturbed, no matter how stinging the criticism. He doesn't pretend not to notice it—"I'm aware of what people say on Twitter and stuff," he says—but his equanimity may be the key to his ability to play well despite the barbs, at least from August through December. "Until we win in the playoffs, people can say what they want," he says. "We have to take care of business in the regular season first, but we all know that people want more from this team, more from me."
THERE'S A game you can play, comparing Dalton's statistics with those of other, perceivably better quarterbacks; it's like one of those blindfolded taste tests in which participants find that they can't tell the difference between expensive Italian cuisine and, say, Pizza Hut. Dalton is Pizza Hut.
Lining up the totals of two anonymous quarterbacks over their first three years in the NFL, QB number 1 has a 30--18 record; QB number 2 is 26--22. Number 1 has 80 TD passes; number 2 has 85. Number 1 has an 85.7 quarterback rating; number 2 is at 85.4. Quarterback number 1 is Dalton. Quarterback number 2? That'd be Peyton Manning. Stack up their totals over their first three years, side by side, and it's hard to tell Dalton from the greatest passer of this generation.
But as with everything involving Dalton's performance, there is a flip side. In many advanced metrics—his net-yards-per-attempt index of 100, which is precisely average; his passer-rating index of 100, also the exact average—he is the median, the very definition of adequate. "The most important statistic is wins and losses," says Bengals coach Marvin Lewis. "We won 11 games last year, 10 before that with Andy. There aren't many quarterbacks who can match his record since he's been in the league."
It's not the numerical comparison with other quarterbacks that damages Dalton's standing; it's how he stacks up against them in other ways. Even the NFL's most maligned QBs are regarded more highly. Like Tony Romo, Dalton has a reputation for failing in the clutch, but he lacks the Cowboy's charisma. Like Eli Manning, Dalton has exactly zero swagger, but he can't wave two Super Bowl rings at his detractors. Like Eli's older brother, Dalton lost his first three playoff games, but Peyton had a quick wit and a cannon arm.
Much of Dalton's problem, in other words, lies in public perception. He's more likely to be found in church than at the club, more likely to give a pat of encouragement than a motivational rant. At 6'2", 220 pounds, he's big enough to survive, but not Ben Roethlisberger big. He's mobile enough to elude a rush, but he's no Cam Newton. His touchdown passes have increased every year, from 20 to 27 to 33, but he doesn't have the dynamic appeal of Colin Kaepernick. It isn't just that Dalton falls in that middle level of NFL quarterbacks who are neither stars nor scrubs; it's also the feeling that he will never rise any higher.
Nor does he fit the stereotype of the fiery redhead. In fact, he doesn't love that nickname, the Red Rifle. "It's O.K.," he says. "People have always liked to come up with things related to my hair. But I'm good with just Andy." Although he insists he does get testy on the field when it's called for, it seems nearly impossible to get him to flash his temper. SI senior writer Dan Patrick tried his best to rile up Dalton during a radio interview shortly after the QB signed his extension, peppering him with questions—"When's the last time you got angry?" "How do you yell?" "Yell at me right now"—and sometimes interrupting his answers.
Dalton's response was ... not to get angry. "I don't need to yell at you," he said. "Being able to yell doesn't win you a Super Bowl." Did Patrick make him a little bit testy, at least? "Not really," Dalton says. "I have a temper, but it's not as outward as some people's. Poor execution on the field makes me angry. But I don't need to get in people's faces just to show I can get mad. What does that accomplish? Anyone who would use that to judge me as a quarterback doesn't have an opinion I care about."
The opinions he does care about belong to his teammates, who appear to be fully behind Dalton despite the playoff problems. Maybe that's because their QB hasn't tried to deflect the criticism elsewhere. "He takes responsibility even when something isn't all his fault," says Green. "If he throws an interception because a receiver runs the wrong route, he doesn't point fingers."
The news of that August contract extension seemed to set off a whole new round of Dalton bashing. There was the inevitable Twitter snark—"I haven't seen somebody overpay for a red head like that since Richard Gere in Pretty Woman," one fan tweeted—as well as the usual, anonymously sourced grumbling from league executives. But Dalton's deal, like most multiyear NFL contracts, isn't what it seems on the surface. The contract is filled with performance-based incentives, and Dalton won't receive the full $115 million unless the Bengals win the Super Bowl every year of the deal. Essentially, Cincinnati committed $25 million over the next two seasons, but the contract becomes a year-to-year deal after that.
Dalton's extension, like the four-year, $68 million deal that Smith signed with the Chiefs near the end of the preseason, speaks volumes about the state of their position. "You look around at the quarterbacks that half the league is rolling out there as starters—rookies, journeymen," one GM says, "and you realize that if your guy is pretty decent, you better do what it takes to hold on to him, because it might be years before you find anybody better." It's not that Dalton doesn't deserve his new contract, then. In the current market he does. It's just that everyone hates this realization, and Dalton embodies it.
THERE ARE two kinds of pressure that Dalton has faced in the playoffs: the win-or-go-home kind, and the kind that comes from the exotic blitz packages concocted by the Texans and the Chargers, who threw not just the kitchen sink at him, but every plumbing fixture in the house. It may be that the reason Dalton seems to wilt under the first kind of pressure is because in the postseason he has had to deal with more of the second.
By almost any metric, Dalton goes from a league-average passer to a well-below-average one when he faces a serious pass rush. It's not surprising when a quarterback is less effective under duress, but few of them suffer drop-offs like Dalton. In 2013, his yards per play dipped from 7.9 to a microscopic 1.2 under pressure, according to Football Outsiders. The saving grace for the Bengals has been that Dalton rarely faces that kind of heat during the regular season, thanks largely to a sturdy offensive line. Football Outsiders gauges that he was pressured on 16.4% of his passes last season; only Peyton Manning (14.8%) was harassed less often.
But it has been Dalton's misfortune in the playoffs to face two teams that were particularly well-equipped to accentuate this weakness. The Texans had the league's No. 2 defense, including dominant defensive end J.J. Watt, when they beat the Bengals 31--10 in Dalton's rookie year. They sacked him four times, pressured him 13 others and clearly rattled him when Watt leaped to intercept a pass that he returned for a second-quarter touchdown.
Dalton rebounded from that performance and put together a solid second season, throwing for 3,669 yards with 27 TDs and 16 interceptions—but that only led to another first-round matchup with Houston, which confounded him even more thoroughly the second time around. Dalton was 4 of 10 for three yards in the first half and finished with only 127 passing yards. Even when Watt and friends weren't pressuring him, he was uncharacteristically inaccurate, overthrowing Green several times, once on a deep ball that could have given the Bengals the lead.
The benefit of the doubt Dalton received after his rookie playoff performance began to disappear after the second. The familiar phrases started to pop up in stories about him. His playoff flops "raised concerns," and it was "fair to wonder" whether he would ever be a Super Bowl quarterback. "You're never going to get rid of those questions and the doubters until you win a playoff game, and hopefully more than one," Dalton says. "There hasn't been anything said about me that has been more critical than I've been of myself. Until you win, people can say what they want."
Last year was in many ways more of the same. Another fine statistical regular season, another one-win improvement, another playoff disappointment. This time it was underdog San Diego dominating the Bengals in Cincinnati. In the second half defensive coordinator John Pagano unleashed the whole blitz playbook on Dalton, which led to three turnovers, including the two that have become Exhibits A and B for the anti-Dalton crowd. On third-and-14 in the third quarter Dalton scrambled from pressure, but on his dive for the first down he fumbled without being touched, and San Diego recovered. On the Bengals' next possession he backpedaled away from pressure up the middle; hurriedly and awkwardly, he threw a floater off his back foot, resulting in an easy interception for cornerback Shareece Wright, who returned it to the Cincy three, close enough for a damaging field goal four plays later.
Despite all this, Lewis insists, "it isn't just on him. We've had breakdowns in different areas. Dropped passes. Missed blocks. But people want to put all of the blame on the quarterback. He'd be the first to tell you he needs to play better, but the truth is, we haven't performed well as a team the last three playoff games. It's on all of us."
That may be true, but Cincinnati's new offensive coordinator has tried to get Dalton to embrace the idea of being a target. "I think his mind-set needed to change a little bit," says Hue Jackson, who replaces Jay Gruden, now the Redskins' coach. "Andy needed to understand that, yes, it takes a team effort, but every defensive coordinator is coming after the quarterback. That's the number one priority, to get the quarterback off his rhythm. That's what he has seen in the playoffs. That's the game now, and he has to understand that challenge and welcome it." (It's worth noting here that in offing the Ravens on Sunday, Dalton was sacked zero times.)
Bengals fans will welcome whatever tweaks get the team past the postseason's first weekend for the first time since January 1991. "We want that to be the starting point," Dalton says. "We intend to go a lot further than that."
And if they do? Then what's not to love?
2011 WILD CARD: 31--10 LOSS AT HOUSTON
Zero TDs, 3 INTs, 4 sacks, 51.4 passer rating
2012 WILD CARD: 19--13 LOSS AT HOUSTON
Zero TDs, 1 INT, 44 .7 passer rating, 1 fumble
2013 WILD CARD, 27--10 HOME LOSS TO SAN DIEGO
One TD, 2 INTs, 3 sacks, 2 fumbles
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On Again, Off Again
Andy Benoit takes a Deep Dive into a remarkable Week 1
THE D IN DENVER
You could say Week 1 went exactly how Broncos GM John Elway had envisioned when he committed a combined $59.5 million in guarantees to free-agent defensive pickups DeMarcus Ware (end), Aqib Talib (corner) and T.J. Ward (safety). Yes, the Broncos gave up 370 passing yards to Andrew Luck's Colts while protecting a big lead most of Sunday night, but they also held Indy to 24 points, which, opposite a Peyton Manning--led offense, will earn a victory almost any week. The big three pickups led the way. Ware (near right) had 1½ sacks against one-on-one blocking on the weak side, while Von Miller got doubled on the strong side. Miller didn't stand out in his first game back from right-ACL surgery last January, but with Ware on board, coordinator Jack Del Rio was still comfortable eschewing the blitz—including in passing situations. That provided extra bodies in coverage, a big reason Talib could aggressively jump so many passing lanes. The lanky corner showed a sensational understanding of receivers' route mechanics, most notably on his pass deflection, which led to a pick, and on his pair of late red zone stops. And then there was Ward, who showed the positive traits that propelled him to near-stardom in Cleveland. Playing strong safety and, at times, dime linebacker, he was effective in coverage, dynamic against the run and at the forefront of just about any disguise concept Del Rio dialed up.
THREE BY ONE EQUALS FUN
Few prognosticators expected the Bills to leave Soldier Field 1--0. A key to their 23--20 overtime upset of the Bears was their rushing out of 3 √ó 1 closed sets, formations with three receivers to the wide side of the field and a tight end next to the tackle on the short side. Lining up like this forces a defense to commit at least three—often four—players to that wide side, leaving a lighter box and a softer edge for the running back to attack on the short side. With a mobile QB like EJ Manuel, Buffalo can also use read-option looks here to freeze linebackers or ends—which it did regularly on Sunday. Bills fans might be excited about Manuel's showing (one rushing and one passing TD, one pick, and a handful of zone-beating third-down conversions), but pump the brakes. If the coaches were truly high on their QB, they wouldn't have asked him to kneel for overtime at their own 20-yard line with two timeouts and 30 seconds remaining in regulation.
Ouch. Not only did the Chiefs lose 26--10 at home to a Titans club that many expect to finish firmly below .500, but they also lost two of their most important defenders for the season to Achilles injuries. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson, a three-time Pro Bowler, was a critical piece in nickel and dime sub packages. Kansas City could use those faster, more athletic schemes regularly (as opposed to just in passing situations) because Johnson's instincts, speed and physicality provided an interior run-stopping presence. With that gone, the Chiefs' D risks becoming predictable, relying more often on its base 3--4. And that package was significantly weakened by the loss of end Mike DeVito, a high-energy two-gap run defender.
FLACCO GOES BACK, BACK, BACK ...
In his debut as the Ravens' offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak asked Joe Flacco to drop back on 67 of 88 snaps in a 23--16 loss to the Bengals. Sixty-seven! Aside from an 80-yard TD pass to wideout Steve Smith, those drop-backs created little to get excited about. The lowlight: Flacco's running out the first-half clock with a mindless sack, costing Baltimore a short field goal attempt. Entering 2014, optimists believed Kubiak's play-action, screen-heavy system would rejuvenate an O that foundered last season. But that can only be the case if the ground game comes back to life—and that could be tough. Ray Rice was cut after the release of a video showing him striking his then-fiancée—and his replacement, Bernard Pierce, was benched after fumbling in Week 1.