Year three of an NFL quarterback. It's the point in a career that often defines a player's ceiling and trajectory for their duration in the league. It's not that a Super Bowl title is necessarily required of a third-year quarterback, but we look for strides and signs of obvious improvement. Wouldn't you know it? Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton is entering that critical third year.
We're not ready to say that 2013 is a make-or-break year for Dalton, especially with his contract having two more years on it, but this is one of the most well-rounded rosters in recent memory (on paper) and the team is poised to enter dynasty territory. What's stopping them from entry to that territory? Playoff victories and more wins against quality opponents would catapult them there.
We've had this discussion before. We know that Dalton has had his moments of greatness with comeback victories and back-to-back playoff appearances. Not an easy task for a young NFL quarterback. And, even with many talking regression in his sophomore campaign, Dalton set career-highs in passing yards, passing and rushing touchdowns and wins in a season. Conversely, he also set career-highs in turnovers and had another deplorable performance for the second consecutive year in the postseason.
By now, you know some of the disappointing numbers that have come in the postseason in the Dalton era. An 0-2 record, zero passing touchdowns against four interceptions and six sacks in the two games. It doesn't exactly scream "confidence" moving forward.
In a recent article by Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports, he broke down some of the statistics of Dalton and Christian Ponder and how they could "suffer the same fate" as current New York Jets quarterback, Mark Sanchez. An interesting debate, especially considering that Sanchez was one of the most successful young quarterbacks just two years ago. Now, Sanchez is fighting for his job and is a big scapegoat on a Jets team that has missed the postseason the past two years.
To take a personal tangent, I find the scorn on Sanchez to be a bit misplaced. The former USC Trojan may have been the beneficiary of a strong running game and defense from 2009-2010, but he has also been the victim of an aging roster, filled with injuries and attrition of the talent that remained. Then again, I may be a bit partial to Sanchez, as I used to coach him in baseball when he was in high school along with my brother. He has remained an acquaintance and has continued to be cordial when he is back home with his family out here in Southern California--particularly with my brother who was also his Spanish teacher in his sophomore year.
But, I digress.
There are a couple of differences that I see here with the Dalton-Sanchez comparison. The first is how each team is and was built when the quarterbacks were brought on board to their respective teams. When Sanchez was initially brought to New York, the team relied on a pair of rookies in Sanchez and Shonn Greene. In the subsequent seasons, the Jets relied on being the winners in free agency and preferred to put themselves in the limelight with big-name signings.
After things didn't work out with Plaxico Burress and Braylon Edwards, and Santonio Holmes at wide receiver, the offense became one dimensional. It also didn't help that LaDanian Tomlinson retired and injuries occurred along the offensive line--it led to Sanchez having happy feet and feeling pressure that wasn't always there.
Conversely, the Bengals relied on sound drafting, building a quality roster with young talent that they intend on keeping around. Cincinnati's free agency strategy differed from New York's in that they focused inward on their own talent and adding a few pieces for depth and potential starters. It wasn't the most popular strategy, given their exorbitant amount of salary cap space, but it turned into one of the deeper-looking rosters in the AFC.
Aside from philosophical differences, Dalton doesn't seem to share Sanchez's stigma of having a long-term memory when it comes to mistakes. An eroding roster aside, Sanchez seems to allow things to snowball on him after making a critical mistake. It also didn't help that he had the fear of Tim Tebow lurking over his shoulder, after every mistake that he made.
There have been some ugly performances in Dalton's short career, but he still has a tendency to rise up and bring the team a victory. The 2011 matchup against the Buffalo Bills, the 2012 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers and last December's thriller against the San Diego Chargers. All of these had moments of ugliness, but in the end, Dalton made plays to put the team ahead. Sure, the defense helped keep the game in reach and that is/was key, but Dalton still shook off some poor plays early on and rose to the occasion.
Still, Kirwan's warning should be heeded. If it happened to a quarterback like Sanchez, who appeared to be headed for stardom, it can happen to any other quarterback. As I said before, it's that critical third year for Dalton and we will really be getting a glimpse of what he's made of in 2013. As he goes, so go the Bengals--at least in the postseason.