Jackson’s job No. 1: Make Dalton better, get Bengals over hump
CINCINNATI — The same questions that faced the Bengals last offseason and well into the regular season and postseason will surround them in 2014. Those questions all surround quarterback Andy Dalton.
Hue Jackson is now in charge of figuring out how to get better answers.
Jackson was introduced as the Bengals new offensive coordinator Friday morning, one day after former coordinator Jay Gruden was named Washington’s head coach. Jackson is no stranger to the Bengals; he was the wide receivers coach from 2004-06 and has been on the staff the last two seasons, including coaching the running backs this past season.
There is talent and potential galore on the Bengals’ offensive roster. Dalton is part of that mix but it’s no secret that the Bengals need better play from their quarterback.
"My job is to try to help him through the process and have it speed up faster for him. And I think I can," said Jackson. "That’s my charge. Andy has all the characteristics that you want: his work ethic, his ability to throw the ball (and) play the game. All those things. Now what I need to do is make sure I get him to do it consistently over the course of the season when it’s a tough time."
One of those tough times was last Sunday in the second half of a 27-10 loss to San Diego in an AFC wild card game. The first half went well for Dalton. He threw for a touchdown and the Bengals were leading 10-7. Anything that could’ve gone wrong in the second half did go wrong. Dalton turned the ball over three straight times with one fumble and two interceptions, and the Bengals were shut out after halftime.
"My goal is to get him over that hump and to get this offense over that hump where we’re playing good and still humming when we’re playing in that particular game," said Jackson.
Dalton’s three seasons have shown steady growth and improvement but when the final result of the season is a loss in the playoffs, and a disappointing performances in those games, that’s the moment that stands out to people. In Dalton’s three career postseason games, he’s thrown six interceptions and just one touchdown. He’s completed just 56.9 percent of his passes for 718 yards.
His pass attempts, completions, yards, touchdowns and passer rating all have improved each season. He’s also thrown more interceptions each season, going from 13 as a rookie to 16 in 2012 to 20 this past season. Against AFC North teams Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Dalton has completed just 56.7 percent of his passes for 4,006 yards, 24 touchdowns, 23 interceptions and a 73.2 passer rating in 18 games. Against the rest of the NFL (not including playoffs), Dalton has a passer rating of 96.1, having completed 63.5 percent of his attempts for 7,357 yards, 56 touchdowns and just 26 interceptions.
"Andy has improved by leaps and bounds," said quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. "There are a lot of things that have gotten a lot better, it’s just unfortunate that the same situation has come up three different times with the same result but I think if you look at the whole body of work from the time we picked him to where he’s at there have been huge strides. Yet, there is also a long way to go.
My job is to try to help him through the process and have it speed up faster for him. And I think I can
"That’s the encouraging part because you know it’s there. It’s the challenge placed in front of us to drag it out. That’s the fun part."
One way to help Dalton and the offense get over the hump is to be more committed to the running game. The Bengals were 18th in the league running the ball, averaging 109.7 yards per game. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Giovani Bernard were an effective duo in the backfield, combining for nearly 2,000 yards and 16 touchdowns in total offense. While the Bengals had nine games in which they rushed for more than 100 yards — including five games of at least 155 yards — and 10 games in which they had at least 30 carries in the game, the rushing attack would disappear at times.
It got lost in the shuffle of a deficit, a lack of sustained drives and turnovers in the second half against San Diego. They ran the ball 15 times for 62 yards (4.1 yards-per-carry) in the first half. Green-Ellis gained 15 yards on the first two plays of the second half but didn’t touch the ball the rest of the game.
Jackson was Oakland’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and the Raiders’ head coach in 2011. Oakland was No. 2 in the NFL in rushing in 2010, averaging 155.9 yards per game, and No. 7 in 2011 (131.9).
"You have to have something that you can lean on," said Jackson. "You have to be able to run the football, in my mind, to win football games. You can’t become one-dimensional in pro football anymore. These defenses are too good. You get exposed really quickly. You have to be able to do both. You have to be able to run it but you also have to be able to throw it.
"Sometimes you have to be able to dictate when you want to run it. That’s the kind of football team we want to be. We don’t want anybody to stop us from doing anything. There will be times when people do slow us down but at the end of the day we want to be a physical unit."
No one was indicting Gruden for the job he did the past three seasons. He took over as offensive coordinator when the NFL was on the verge of locking out its players in a labor dispute. Carson Palmer had asked to be traded, so the Bengals drafted Dalton with the mindset that he would be starting from Day 1, only because of the lockout Gruden couldn’t speak with his new quarterback or anyone of his players. Progress was made but with Jackson there will be a slightly different direction. Much of the offense will remain the same. How games are called and areas of emphasis could be noticeably different.
"What Jay and the offensive coaches did in that situation was tremendous. But that’s the point where we are. We’re not quite where we want to be yet," said head coach Marvin Lewis. "That’s what his job is. He’s got a high standard to uphold and move forward on because no one sits here today satisfied. As we said, we’ve got to be on a mission and that mission is to go back and fight and battle and get back to where we were and move forward."