Transition into the NFL would be easier for Andy Dalton if this season were a wee bit shorter. (Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images)
Now that Andy Dalton is in the fold, the preeminent debate across Bengaldom has shifted from whether Carson Palmer will return (he isn’t), to whether Dalton should be the team’s starting quarterback next season or if a veteran free agent should be brought in as a bridge to Dalton in 2012. Some names have already been bandied about as possible interim mentors for Dalton, including Marc Bulger, Matt Hasselbeck, and Jim Sorgi, the guy that makes the most objective, though wholly uninspiring, sense. The subject was broached during the most recent Cincy Jungle podcast, where the boys agreed a veteran should be brought in, at least for competition's sake, who has a similar skill set to Dalton's, which would facilitate a future transition if needed. For his part, head coach Marvin Lewis, whose opinion I suppose counts a little more than any of ours here, recently reiterated his belief that Dalton could "possibly" be the starter next season, at least on opening day (with Marvin Lewis's rhetoric of ambiguity -- "kinda," "so forth," and "a little bit" -- I'm gonna take that as a confirmation).
Of course, all of our speculation right now about Dalton, and anything else related to the NFL, is qualified by our awareness that the NFL is in a lockout, free agency is suspended, collective bargaining negotiations remain at an impasse, and thus there may or may not even be a season this season. But assuming an agreement is reached and there is some kind of NFL football this year, I'd argue that the best case scenario for Dalton to be the starter would be if the lockout extends into the late summer/early fall before a deal gets done and the league pares down the schedule in response to that, a contingency plan that is rumored to be in the works.
Last week Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, via Dan Kaplan of SportsBusiness Journal, reported that the NFL is sketching out the possibility of an eight game season if the lockout isn't resolved this summer. According to Florio:
An eight-game season would begin in late November, with a whopping five weeks allowed for free agency, training camps, and maybe a single preseason game. This would require a deal to be reached in October.
This kind of truncated season would seem ludicrous, except that it’s happened before in the way back when of 1982, when we were all manicuring our Ch-Chi-Chi-Chia Pets and looking for someone, anyone to gag us with a spoon. After playing the first two contests of that season, players went on strike for 57 days. Once play resumed, the league simply decided to carry out the remaining portion of the schedule, which ultimately produced a nine game season. Rather than parse out division leaders, the league chose to expand the playoffs by including the top eight teams of each conference. Two of those teams (the Lions and Browns) had losing records of 4-5, while six teams made it in with 5-4 records, as well as the Packers at 5-3-1. At 7-2, the Bengals were the #3 seed in the AFC and went on to a shellacking by the Jets, 44-17, in the first round – but that’s neither here nor there. The point is that there’s a clear precedent for an abbreviated season and proof that it’s not quite as difficult or disruptive as one might expect.
So what does this mean for the current Bengals? Firstoff, we should understand that this plan would be a last-ditch effort by the NFL to save the 2011 season and likely won't ever be a real possibility. We should also acknowledge that an eight game season is an absurdity, a stat book nightmare (I can see asterisks everywhere), and a bit of an insult to fans. But having said that, I think there's an argument to be made that an eight game season could actually benefit a Bengals team in flux.
Now, ESPN's John Clayton has suggested that the Bengals, and Dalton, are one of the teams hurt most by the lockout.
The problem is trying to get rookie QB Andy Dalton on the same page with new offensive coordinator Jay Gruden without a true offseason. Converting a spread offense quarterback into a West Coast system is hard enough, but to do it with no offseason prep is nearly impossible.
There's nothing to disagree with in that assessment; lack of a traditional offseason program to prepare Dalton for life in the NFL, and acclimate him and the rest of the offense to Jay Gruden's new WCO system, will certainly handicap the team. But with the lockout already extending further than anyone anticipated (outside of the owners when they negotiated their TV contracts), I think we have to take a slapdash offseason as a given at this point. The players are doing well to organize their own team practices, but it's simply not the same as having a direct link with the coaching staff. So assuming the progression of Dalton and the installation of the new offensive system has already been retarded, I think it's worthwhile to consider the upside of a shortened season.
That '82 Lions playoff team was quarterbacked by the remarkably unmemorable tandem of Gary Danielson and EricHipple, who combined for 1,754 yards passing, 12 TDs, 18 INTs, and a completion percentage of 47.7. Their passing offense was 22nd(of 28) in the league, while their total offense, organized around three-time Pro Bowl running back Billy Sims, was 15th. The ’82 New England Patriots, led by QBs Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh, were dead last in passing offense and 21st in total offense. Fortunately they were second in rushing, which enabled them to make the playoffs, losing to Miami in the first round. But even that 7-2 Dolphins team only had aggregate passing numbers of 1,401 yards/8 TDs/13 INTs, which was good for second worst in the league. Miami went on to lose the Super Bowl to Washington. The point here is that some interesting things can happen in a shortened season, like average-to-weak offenses and less-than-stellar quarterbacks finding their way into the playoffs.
Even in a full season that can happen. We know from recent experience (i.e., the 2000 Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens) that you don’t necessarily need a great quarterback and clockwork passing game to have success in the NFL, as long as you offset that poor passing attack with some good work on the ground and a stellar defense (that Baltimore offense was 15th overall, 22nd in passing, 5th in rushing). Our own Jason Garrison has already suggested that with Dalton at the helm this season, without the benefit of traditional offseason prep, the organization would have to alleviate the pressure on the QB position by increased focus on the running game. As he put it, "[t]he 2011 blue print for the Bengals won't win them a Super Bowl; teams will elite quarterbacks and vertical passing attacks win Super Bowls." While that's overwhelmingly the norm, it's not an absolute. Of course, the Bengals aren't the 2000 Ravens, but in an eight game season they might be able to pull off an impression of them, even if Dalton is more like Matt Stafford than Matt Ryan. This defense can be solid at times, and with a renewed emphasis on running the ball (after resigning Cedric Benson) to lighten the load for Dalton, the team could win a handful of games, which would be all you might need in half of a real season.
It’s not clear yet exactly how the league would sort out an eight game schedule, but we'd have to assume it would look something like the second half of the proposed 2011 schedule, which is a shame because the first half of the Bengals schedule looks like this:
@ Cleveland Browns
@ Denver Broncos
San Francisco 49ers
Here’s another way to put that:
Beyond Indianapolis, which at this point should just be a forfeit win for the Colts, none of those other teams are exceedingly intimidating. Other than Jacksonville at 8-8, the rest of those teams each had losing records last year.The other thing you might notice here is no Steelers, no Ravens. In this eight game season I could see the Bengals walking away with three or four wins, which might be enough to secure a playoff spot, and in the playoffs anything can happen, right? And imagine the confidence boost to Dalton and the team to have a playoff birth in their rebuilding year, albeit a gimmicky one.
Unfortunately, we're living in cloud-cuckoo land there. More realistically, the league would play out the second half of the season, or some version of it with alterations for sufficient intra-division games. That eight game season ain't so promising for the Bengals, as their current schedule evidences:
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
@ Baltimore Ravens (12-4)
Cleveland Browns (5-11)
Houston Texans (6-10)
@ St. Louis Rams (7-9)
Arizona Cardinals (5-11)
Arizona was bad last year and they are now in rebuild mode with a big question mark at QB, though if they trade for Kevin Kolb or even Donovan McNabb they could get better in a hurry. Cleveland is a winnable game, but the rest on that list would be very challenging. Besides the always daunting games with the Steelers and Ravens, they’d have tilts with an improving St. Louis team, who play the Bengals well at home, and the Texans, who have lined up pretty evenly in the past (though in my selective memory I feel like Matt Schaub always throws for like a zillion yards against the Bengals). That could easily be 5-6 loses, and some punishing ones at that. But even if the shortened season is made up of the second half of the schedule and Dalton gets beaten around by NFL defenses for eight games, it’s still better than the physical and psychological trauma of getting beaten around for sixteen games.
At best in an eight game season, the team sneaks into the playoffs with three or four wins, gains some confidence, and even if they get jettisoned from the playoffs immediately can claim a successful go around to build on. At worst, a shortened season could serve as a trial run for Dalton and the team’s new offensive system -- Dalton gets some experience without getting broken down by a sixteen game gauntlet, Gruden gets a some insight into what works and what doesn't in his offense, and if all goes poorly you write it off as a bogus season and start anew in 2012.
Essentially, I'm making a case here for the value of small sample sizes, which I think could be highly beneficial to the Bengals in a season that appears FUBARed already. So, rather than praying for Andy Dalton as Bobbie Williams suggests, against all our fan inclination we might want to start praying that the lockout extends a bit further and forces a shortened season, then reap the benefits in 2012.
Thanks for reading.