When people talk about those who are considered elite NFL quarterbacks, you will rightly hear names such as Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees thrown around. You could argue that Ben Roethlisberger deserves a seat with two Super Bowl wins, and Eli Manning can stake a similar claim with a pair of Lombardi Trophies to his name.
Others mentioned are the new breed of young signal-callers who have captured our imagination in various ways – Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Andrew Luck – but one player who doesn’t get much air time in such discussions is Andy Dalton. Based upon his growth and influence at the game’s most important position, it might be time to put the sixth-year passer into that mix.
For the first four years of his NFL career, Dalton was a good quarterback who was also the punchline to any joke made about the Bengals and the fact that they were continually one-and-done in the playoffs. From 2011-2014, Dalton was an 80s-rated passer – good enough to win with, but not good enough to win it all. But, in 2015, he looked genuinely elite and in the form of his NFL life, spreading the ball to an array of weapons in the Cincinnati attack – before a broken thumb prematurely ended his season.
Now, as the 2016 season continues to play out, Dalton is as vital to his team’s cause as any player in the league – and there are some who feel he is on the verge of becoming something quite special. “Andy Dalton is way better than advertised,” says wide receiver Brandon LaFell, who joined the Bengals this season after a stint in New England that brought a Super Bowl ring. “If we continue to take the steps we’re taking, he could be a similar player to Tom Brady. Everybody respects him just like everybody respects Brady. Brady demanded the best out of everybody and Andy is doing the same thing here.”
Dalton is impressive from a physical skills point of view, which is probably why Houston Texans head coach Bill O’Brien labelled him ‘one of the top quarterbacks in the league’. At 6ft 2ins and 216lbs, he does not possess prototypical size but, when you watch the ball fizz out of his hand during practice, it quickly becomes clear he has an arm that can make all the throws.
Dalton can also rip off a decent-sized run on the occasional read-option plays called in Cincinnati so, in a league of haves and have-nots at quarterback, do the Bengals feel their franchise passer is in the building? “We do,” insists head coach Marvin Lewis. “We’ve committed ourselves to Andy that way and he’s been the starting quarterback since the day he walked into this building. That’s really an incredible thing for a young guy to be mature enough to do. He was the guy we basically hand-picked to succeed Carson Palmer because of his maturity and the things that he did.”
Dalton echoes his coach’s sentiments when asked to describe his ascent from storied TCU quarterback taken 35th overall to Day 1 starter. “Leadership at the quarterback position is huge,” he explains. “As soon as you get into the position where you’re going to play quarterback, you’re automatically thrown into the leadership role and everything runs through you.
“You’re the guy telling everybody what to do, you’re giving the play, you’re making sure guys are lined up and you have the ball in your hands every single play. I think the biggest thing is to find different ways to get the most out of your guys and to find different ways to push them to be the best that they can be.”
That was Dalton’s approach in 2015 as he threw for 3,250 yards, 25 touchdowns and seven interceptions for a career-high quarterback rating of 106.2. Those on the receiving end of his increasingly laser-like strikes included receivers A.J. Green, Mohammed Sanu and Marvin Jones, as well as tight end Tyler Eifert.
But Dalton’s season ended in Week 14 after he tried to tackle Steelers defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt following a costly interception. The red-hot quarterback turned spectator for the remainder of what turned out to be a frustrating campaign for the Bengals. “That was tough,” Dalton recalls. “It was really my first time ever missing a game, my first time being hurt. You certainly get a different perspective from the sideline. It’s hard because you know you can’t help your team win. That was the toughest part.”
Dalton will be keen to erase the bitter memories of last season as the 2016 campaign rolls towards its business end. And, in order to have the kind of success that will end Cincinnati’s 26 years of playoff hurt, Dalton is going to need to be in sync with the third offensive coordinator of his six-year career.
But this is no Alex Smith in San Francisco or Sam Bradford in St. Louis scenario. Dalton has continued to grow while working with Jay Gruden from 2011-2013, Hue Jackson from 2014-2015 and now former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese in 2016. So how has he coped with so many changes when the relationship between a quarterback and his offensive coordinator is so vital? “It’s been really good,” Dalton explains. “Marvin has done a good job of promoting guys from within to be a coordinator so I’ve had a good relationship with my coordinators from the very start. That’s a big thing.
“With the transition from Jay to Hue, Hue was the running backs coach so I got to know him and I knew his style and what he was doing. With Hue leaving and Zampese now taking over, he has been my quarterbacks coach ever since I’ve been here so there is good camaraderie there. We’ve got a good understanding of how each other works. It’s been a smooth transition.”
“That continuity is really important,” adds Lewis. “I’ve tried to have continuity within the coaching staff and the ability to hire from within, to elevate from within. We have coaches in positions where we feel they can move forward in the future, that they can assume more responsibility. We’ve tried to have that kind of situation with our coaching staff and we’ve been fortunate to do that on offense and defense.”
While progressing through coordinators has been relatively pain-free for Dalton, there are, of course, minor differences with each guy and new things that must be learned in each playbook. “There are some new things and guys are prone to liking different things,” Dalton admits. “So there are some tweaks in different areas but, for the most part, I have a good understanding and a good feel for what we’re doing.”
With comfort in Cincinnati’s system comes a high level of performance for Dalton. “I have a lot of confidence in myself and confidence in this team and what we can do,” insists. “I was having a good year in 2015 and we were doing some really good things. I felt like I was helping us achieve those things, so it’s just a case of carrying that over into this year and building on that. It’s about trusting the guys we have here. We have a good team – we’ve just got to go and put it out there.”
For all the supporters Dalton boasts – and there are many – he is followed by an undercurrent of doubters. And some of the latter are even in his city. Prior to last season, the Bengals’ star quarterback partook in a charity softball game in Cincinnati – only to be roundly booed by his own fans. It is an indication of how he has become the era’s Tony Romo, an excellent quarterback who attracts praise and criticism in equal measure.
In Dalton’s world, even when the going’s good there are embarrassing moments. None more so than when he was humiliated on national television by Houston star J.J. Watt after the Texans shut down his offense on Thursday Night Football last season. The Bengals were 8-0 when Watt et al rolled into town, but laid an egg in a 10-6 defeat that is remembered for Watt’s infamous claim that Dalton was more like the Red Runner BB Gun than the Red Rifle.
“Every quarterback gets criticism,” Zampese stresses. “Andy gets more because there have been things that haven’t happened to the extent that we’ve wanted them to, so it has been easy to pile on. And every quarterback who comes in brand new and starts, it’s geared up to break them down: ‘You can’t do this, you’re not good enough, you’re not this guy and you’re not as good as that guy’.
“Everything is coming to tear you down. There isn’t anyone coming to build you up other than the people in the building. So keep your mind with the people who matter to you, those who are in the building and in your own head. Listen to those guys and try to keep all the other stuff where it is supposed to be – outside the building.”
The reality for Dalton is silencing the doubters once and for all requires just one achievement: winning a playoff game.
When sitting with the calm, assured and friendly quarterback, it’s the elephant in the room. Under Dalton, the Bengals have been painfully frustrating and unsuccessful in the post-season. They lost 31-10 to Houston in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, 19-13 to the Texans again in 2012, 27-10 to San Diego at the end of 2013 and 26-10 to Indianapolis at the conclusion of the 2014 campaign. With Dalton sidelined through injury last year, it was yet another one-and-done for the Bengals as they self-destructed late while losing 18-16 to Pittsburgh. Their last playoff victory came at the end of the 1990 season and it is a painful run that Dalton is keen to end – and soon!
“We hear it a lot,” Dalton says when discussing Cincinnati’s playoff failings. “But it’s one of those things where we haven’t gotten it done so that’s why we keep hearing the question. So, until we win a playoff game, I’m sure people will keep talking about it. But it’s only talked about outside of this building – it’s not talked about inside this building. When we win our first playoff game, yes, that will be a relief because people can’t say that anymore. But that’s not the goal. The goal is to win the Super Bowl.”
Dalton refuses to be downtrodden by the naysayers. He speaks with the quiet confidence of a man who might finally be on the cusp of reaching the status he craves. And as he chases that first playoff win and, ultimately, a Super Bowl ring, Dalton is remembering to enjoy the journey along the way and relish being a quarterback in the bright lights of the National Football League.
“It’s a lot of fun to be in the position that I am in,” Dalton concludes. “Any time you still get to play a game that you got to play when you were a child, it’s obviously great that you get to do that for a living.
“Also, playing quarterback in the NFL gives you a platform. People are looking at you and seeing what you do and so we’ve been able to do a lot of good with that. My wife and I have a foundation and so we have been able to help a lot of sick children and kids with special needs.
“We provide medical grants for families where they cannot cover full payments, so it could be for a wheelchair, medication or a bunch of other things. We wouldn’t be able to do that if I wasn’t playing quarterback in the NFL.”
That kind of unselfish response is not surprising when you consider how Dalton plays as a string-puller intent on putting others on his offense in a position to succeed. But it is also the kind of answer that makes you want to root for The Red Rifle to finally get that playoff monkey off his back during the 2016 season. Perhaps then, Dalton can be considered for a seat at the top table of NFL quarterbacks.
This article originally appeared in Issue XXV of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE