CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton has accomplished a lot in his three seasons as the Bengals quarterback. The team has won 30 games, its win total increasing each season. He’s thrown for more yards and more touchdowns in a single season than any other quarterback in franchise history. And, there have been three straight playoff berths.
Yeah, that’s where Dalton’s progression has hit a snag.
Sunday’s 27-10 loss at home to San Diego in an AFC Wild Card game was the third consecutive one-and-done postseason for the Bengals. Dalton has been at the forefront of the loss in all three games. He hasn’t been the lone reason the Bengals have lost twice at Houston and then to San Diego but neither was he a reason for them advancing.
Dalton has completed 70 of 128 passes for 718 yards, six interceptions and just one touchdown. He also lost a fumble against the Chargers, part of a sequence of three straight possessions in the second half in which he turned the ball over. Turning the ball over is something that Dalton and the Bengals did too much of this season; they gave it away 30 times in the regular season and four more times against San Diego. Only seven teams had more turnovers this regular season than the Bengals.
Left tackle Anthony Collins wasn’t talking specifically about Dalton on Monday when he called the NFL "dog eat dog" but the scenario certainly applies to the quarterback.
The NFL is a quarterback-driven league and if the Bengals are ever going to put aside their postseason streak of losing (now 23 years since the last playoff victory) they need Dalton to live up to the moment. They’re banking that he will live up to the moment at some point. Head coach Marvin Lewis publicly stated his belief in Dalton Sunday and again on Monday.
Lewis told Dalton during a meeting on Monday the organization and coaching staff is behind him.
"He said I am the guy he believes in and he believes that I can get us over the next hump," said Dalton. "It’s great to hear that from your coach and that’s what I wanted to hear."
Said Lewis: "It’s been a consistent message."
Next season is a big one for Dalton and the franchise. He has one year remaining under the original 4-year contract he signed after being drafted in the second round in 2011. Under the NFL’s new CBA, teams cannot begin negotiating with players until after the third year after they are drafted. Wide receiver A.J. Green falls under the same category. The Bengals have to decide when and if they will try to extend their two top offensive players.
Do they sign Dalton to an extension before next season? After the season? Or do they ultimately go in a different direction? Quarterbacks don’t come cheap, even those without big postseason resumes. Forget Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Joe Flacco, those who won Super Bowl rings and then signed big contracts. Chicago just signed Jay Cutler to a seven-year deal that averages $18 million a year. Tony Romo of Dallas is at the same average annual salary, while Detroit’s Matthew Stafford is just below that number.
"He’s going to get better," said offensive coordinator Jay Gruden. "He’s gotten better. I don’t know if you guys think he has but I think he’s gotten better each year from his rookie year to his third year. I think there has been significant progress that’s he’s made and there will be more progress made next year."
Yet Gruden acknowledged Dalton hasn’t stepped up at these key moments, particularly on Sunday.
"If there is one negative, I think that Andy probably pressed a little too much and tried to do too many things out of pocket which is not what his strength is," said Gruden. "Experience is usually something you gain when you don’t get something you want. This is another experience lesson for Andy and hopefully he’ll learn from it again, as everyone will. As I will, as our coaching staff will, but we’re going to have to learn fast because in the NFL the time is ticking. You don’t have a lot of room for error. Otherwise they’ll have new quarterbacks and new coaches in here. We’ve got to do something fast."
Following Sunday’s game, Dalton used the words "we" and "us" a lot but not much of the pronoun "I". He took a beating in the national and local media for that choice of verbiage. It’s good to be a team player when you’re winning but when you’re the quarterback and your team has lost three straight times in the first round of the postseason, people want accountability.
To Dalton’s credit, he has taken that responsibility in the past. Speaking with reporters on Monday he added to his thoughts from Sunday.
"The atmosphere of the playoffs, the little things seem a lot bigger than they really are," said Dalton. "It’s being able to manage the emotion of the game."
So, Andy, did you manage your emotions well in that situation?
"I think going back and looking at it there’s little things we wish we would have done better, especially in some of those situations. I could have put ourselves in better situations. I could have helped the team out. The end of the day we didn’t get it done and I didn’t get it done."
If the Bengals are to get past the first-round defeats in the future, Dalton is going to have to get it done.