Old habits can be hard to break. When it comes to the Cincinnati Bengals, and more specifically Andy Dalton, that means having difficulty believing in much of anything before January. The skepticism is understandable, but the Bengals’ 5-0 start, and Dalton’s play during it, have raised the antennae of doubters and cautious believers.
Through five games, Dalton is on pace for career bests in nearly every statistical category, most notably completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and adjusted net yards per attempt. Some could tack this up to a lackluster list of defensive opponents thus far – only Seattle is higher than 18th in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA – but that would deny Dalton of deserved credit for his improved play.
In his second year in Hue Jackson’s offense, Dalton is clearly more at ease. This has resulted in a quarterback more confident in both his pre-snap recognition and post-snap decision-making. Several times against Seattle on Sunday, Dalton picked out a one-on-one coverage on wideout Mohamed Sanu in the slot. Dalton moved running back Gio Bernard two steps to his left to pick up the blitz and, after the snap, slid left and hit Sanu wide open in the flat for a first down. Four plays later, noticing the Seahawks had emptied the middle of the field to account for a five-wide look, Dalton checked to a quarterback run, moved under center and sprinted five yards for the score. Individually, these are small plays, but the third-and-4 play was a crucial moment in the Bengals’ 17-point fourth-quarter comeback while the touchdown run is the kind of adjustment the best quarterbacks are deified for recognizing.
Dalton’s improved comfort level and confidence have made their biggest showing in the Bengals’ deep passing game. Through five games this season, Dalton is the most accurate quarterback on passes of 20-plus yards, according to Pro Football Focus. While Dalton’s average arm strength still causes him to under throw receivers, his willingness to trust his receivers to win over a defensive back have resulted in big plays downfield. Multiple times this season, Dalton has made the decision to throw a deep pass when the wideout was still within three yards of the line of scrimmage. The result has been a league-leading 25 pass plays of 20-plus yards after the Bengals totaled just 35 in 2014, good for 31st among the 32 NFL teams.
Is this real? Is Dalton turning the corner or is this just another stretch of “Good Andy” with a sour turn lurking just over the primetime horizon? The short answer is yes to the former and probably also to the latter, although to different extents.
Dalton is a flawed quarterback, and as explained last week, players tend to remain who they were aside from incremental improvements. The key to progression, specifically at quarterback, is a mixture of time, fit, scheme, and thus coaching, and surrounding talent. Since 2011, the Bengals drafted wide receivers A.J. Green, Marvin Jones and Sanu, running backs Gio Bernard and Jeremy Hill and tight end Tyler Eifert. Green quickly became one of the NFL’s best receivers, while Jones and Sanu are nice complimentary pieces. The difference this year is the development and health of Eifert. After missing all but a handful of snaps last season, Eifert provides Dalton with an easy safety valve over the middle while proving to be a bear for defenses in the red zone and up the seam. The diverse collection of skill position talent allows Jackson, the Bengals’ other most notable addition, to use Dalton within a controlled system without stressing his limited physical talent.
The problem with Dalton is those limitations will always be present. Dalton’s arm strength is unlikely to improve after five years in the league and there were multiple “Bad Andy” moments in Cincinnati’s first five games. Against Seattle, Dalton’s second-quarter interception was a classic “Bad Andy” moment. He locked onto A.J. Green in one-on-one coverage on the right side, but the cornerback passed him off to the safety, who happened to be Earl Thomas. Thomas read Dalton’s eyes the whole way, leaping in front of Green for a pick in the end zone. If Dalton had checked the ball down to his running back or tight end, the Bengals could’ve settled for a field goal. If he looked over the middle, a wide receiver running a post route found an empty spot in the zone for a potential touchdown. Then, in the third quarter, under constant pressure Dalton struggled with his decision-making, even when faced with just two routes from which to choose.
The difference this season has been Dalton’s ability to rebound from the mistakes instead of burying himself in a shame spiral. After the Baltimore Ravens returned a Dalton fumble for a touchdown in Week 3, he connected with Green for an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of the next drive. After a brutal third quarter against Seattle, Dalton led the Bengals to 20 points in five drives between the fourth quarter and overtime, including a perfect pass to a diving Eifert on the eventual game-tying drive late in the final moments of the fourth.
It’s moments like this that give Bengals fans hope that Dalton has finally turned some sort of corner, but the truth is, Andy Dalton is always going to be a flawed, physically limited quarterback. Yes, he’s playing better, but with a healthy group of receivers and tight ends, an offensive system more conducive to his success and a defense that can rush the passer and has kept the Bengals in position to win every game this season. Will that translate to January?
Only time will tell.