The phrase "not going anywhere" has a double meaning in sports. The first is that one is not advancing anywhere meaningful in terms of ability level, degree of play on the field, number of games won in the playoffs, etc. The second meaning is that no matter how one is performing, one has a secure position for a long time. There's a real chance that both of these meanings apply to Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis.
Through Dalton's first four seasons, the recurring theme has been "Good Andy, Bad Andy." It seems that generally, Good Andy shows up on Sunday afternoon against non-AFC North opponents, and Bad Andy shows up during "big" games, i.e. SNF, MNF, TNF, the NFL Playoffs, and all AFCN matchups. The legitimacy of this theory has been debated, but at least in terms of his production, there's a clear distinction:
|Dalton||Passing||Comp%||Yards||YPA||Passing TD||INT||Passer rating|
|Career in "big" games (27)||545/958||56.9||6046||6.31||29||37||69.8|
|Career in other games (33)||658/1076||61.1||7995||7.43||60||28||91.7|
(Includes first three seasons, plus first nine games of fourth season)
In other games Dalton has a stat line eerily similar to Alex Smith's usual production, and in big games he has a stat line similar to Geno Smith's. Dalton's supporting cast showed up in most of the other games. In the big games, about half the time they showed up (to bail out Dalton, or at least nearly do so) and the other half of the time they didn't show up either.
Under Marvin Lewis, this has been a Dalton-only theme. Carson Palmer did fairly well in "big" games in his first three playing seasons:
|Palmer||Passing||Comp%||Yards||YPA||Passing TD||INT||Passer rating|
|First three playing years in big games (23)||442/721||61.3||5128||7.11||38||25||85.9|
|First three playing years in other games (23)||490/740||66.2||5640||7.62||40||18||96.9|
(Excludes rookie season, in which he did not play)
There was no "Good Carson, Bad Carson" recurring theme. Maybe on occasion, but hardly with any frequency. Palmer was consistently solid regardless of setting and opponent.
Some have still left the door open for Dalton to become a "franchise" (referring to a true franchise-caliber QB, not a "Bengals franchise QB") or even "elite" QB. Others have listed him along with the likes of Geno Smith, Jake Locker, and Christian Ponder, i.e. non-starting-caliber.
Before the season, personally, I was on the fence. I didn't feel he deserved a final set judgment, but he did already have three full seasons under his belt. Up to that point, I thought of him as a beta version of Alex Smith, or perhaps a Ryan Fitzpatrick Deluxe. I thought he was somewhere in between those two decent, serviceable starting QB's, below Smith but above Fitzpatrick. I like both of them, so this wasn't a backhanded comparison. The only question for me was whether he could progress toward anything beyond this level, or if he would remain at this level of "QB purgatory."
I strongly disagreed with those who said Dalton was equal to or better than Russell Wilson, who has led his team to a Super Bowl victory, rarely turns the ball over, and has arguably the best pocket presence in the league. "Wilson runs circles around Dalton," I wrote. At the same time, I disagreed with those who said he was not starting-caliber.
To compromise between the part of me that wanted to judge him and the one that wanted to wait, I said to myself that I'd give him one final year, and I am still somewhat doing that. But nine games in, the returns aren't promising at all, with the "Good Andy, Bad Andy" theme rearing its ugly head again. After four full years for any quarterback, one knows what one has. No more excuses can be made. After this season, we will know for sure whether he can be a true franchise-caliber QB, or will he remain stuck in QB purgatory (though still starting-caliber).
On Thursday night, the circumstances around him were not ideal, but Dalton himself was completely horrendous on a scale of historical proportions. I would bet that Jason Campbell, a healthy A.J. McCarron, or even the best non-pro QB in the city, Gunner Kiel, could have played better in that game. As someone who had been slowly changing from being a Dalton skeptic to a semi-believer, I realize now that I have been somewhat duped. There is no significant progress so far; it's the same Jekyll-and-Hyde theme. What we saw earlier this season was simply a temporary flash from Good Andy, which has now gone away the past few weeks in favor of Bad Andy. It's just that simple.
I've looked back at previous seasons and seen the tumultuous rise and fall of Dalton as the seasons went on, and I realize the same thing is occurring this season. The next time Good Andy returns, however, I will not be fooled. Don't get me wrong; of course I'm happy that Good Andy will be beating up on scrub defenses on future Sunday afternoons, but I will temper any hopes for anything further (i.e. Good Andy, not Bad Andy, in big games) until I actually see it with consistency.
Again, I am still holding out for a final judgment until the end of this season, but I admit the writing is probably already on the wall for Dalton never becoming a franchise-caliber QB. Right now, there is probably more than a two-thirds chance that Dalton will never become one. If you may remember, I mentioned repeatedly before the season that Dalton's performance in the big regular-season games would foreshadow how he would do in a playoff game. Not even the strongest Dalton apologists would be surprised if the type of performance that he put up on Thursday night shows up again in the playoffs, assuming the Bengals make it there. After all, it has surely seemed that way in each of his first three playoff games.
The way Dalton can break out of this purgatory is to perform well in big games down the stretch of this season, and then make it to the playoffs and do well in the playoffs. However, if he has one more game like he had Thursday night, I will lose - for good - all faith in him ever becoming a franchise-caliber QB (again, that means exactly what it says, not "Bengals franchise QB in Mike Brown's imagination"). No one who performs that way can be called a franchise-caliber QB.
Marvin Lewis has been the Bengals coach since the 2003 season. His record is 95-93-2 over 12 seasons. He's a proven mediocre .500-level coach. Like Dalton, Lewis has done worst in the biggest games, with a 6-19 record during primetime and playoff games (excluding divisional games, which would surely drag that record down further). For Lewis, those games have been characterized by an absence of urgency (by him and thus his players too), not making in-game adjustments, and a postgame presser indicating a mild lack of concern. Take it away, Stephen A. Smith:
So let's say that the seemingly inevitable happens. The Bengals make it to the playoffs, but Dalton and Lewis (and maybe the rest of the team, too, but that doesn't excuse Dalton and Lewis one bit) flub yet again and the Bengals get knocked out yet again. Or, they don't even make it to the playoffs at all. People will be screaming for the canning of Dalton and Lewis, and justifiably so. As Stephen A. explains, it should have already happened last year, at least for Lewis. But as long as Mike Brown is the owner, GM, and president of the Cincinnati Bengals, it will not happen.
Brown was willing to hand Dalton a 6-year, $96 million extension after his first three seasons. Brown publicly said that "we believe in him." He views Marvin Lewis as "we," essentially part of the Brown family and an integral part of the organization. Brown is strongly loyal to many people in the organization. Lewis has been head coach for 12 years now and has had significantly worse seasons than 2014. After 2010, it would have made total sense if Lewis were fired, and he wasn't. Lewis will never be on the hot seat, barring an epic collapse over multiple seasons, which he is not bad enough of a coach to let happen. Dave Shula was fired, but only after multiple seasons over which he was absolutely abysmal, arguably the worst coach in NFL history. Brown gave him chance after chance over 5 seasons. Marvin isn't absolutely abysmal, merely mediocre. Bruce Coslet was terrible over 5 seasons, but he voluntarily resigned - Brown didn't fire him.
This loyalty by Brown translates to the players, too, and relates to his trust in Lewis. Domata Peko and Robert Geathers have been regressing for years, but Brown still pays them handsomely, and at Lewis' beckoning. Mike Nugent has been below-average for a while now, and terrible this season, but Brown still pays him handsomely, also at Lewis' beckoning. Think back to 2009 and how Brown and Lewis kept hanging on to Brad St. Louis, who played the most replaceable position in football. Like Dalton, these players are all "good guys," regardless of their performance.
Lewis, year-after-year, has often shown the same lackadaisical attitude and clear lack of preparation. Yet, he is still giggling as much as ever. He knows his job is secure, because Brown is strongly loyal to him and trusts him. As long as Mike Brown is running the show, Marvin Lewis will be the head coach.
Back to the Dalton extension. The main issue for Bengals fans isn't the $96 million; the issue is the six years. Now wait, you might say. Dalton's contract has an opt-out clause after two years. The Bengals can release him after two years and about $25 million paid, without any adverse cap consequences. Here's what Jerry has to say to that:
You really think Mike Brown is going to release Andy Dalton after two seasons? Not likely to happen. With the increasing cap, an average of $16 million per year isn't all that bad for an inconsistent but still serviceable starting QB. Not a great deal, but not too bad either. For Mike Brown, the main issue is the appeal of a relatively team-friendly contract for a serviceable QB. For Bengals fans, it's that their team is potentially stuck in purgatory at QB for six more seasons after 2014. For 12 years, the Bengals have been stuck in purgatory at head coach. Mike Brown has proven with Lewis that being stuck in purgatory in terms of playoff wins and on-field performance is fine, as long as the team is doing "well enough" such that the seats are being filled sufficiently, such that the family business is doing satisfactory financially.
Besides, Brown would have to actually make the effort to even attempt to find an upgrade. Brown won't be trading Dalton - no way will Brown get a satisfactory return from a trade partner given the wild inconsistency Dalton has shown. Think about it from the other team's perspective - who would want to give up a lot for a Jekyll-and-Hyde QB being offered up as if he were damaged goods? Furthermore, Brown will not likely be willing to spend one or more high-round picks on a new QB. Nor will he be likely to pay for anything better than a cheap backup-caliber QB on the free agent market, when he already has Dalton, perhaps the "Marvin Lewis of quarterbacks" (that's a good thing from Brown's view, and not a good thing from Bengals fans' view) on his team, and locked up on a long-term, relatively team-friendly deal. The status quo will be maintained. Brown has total faith in Lewis and trusts him, and Lewis has total faith in Dalton.
Therefore, Dalton will almost certainly be the Bengals starting QB for the next six seasons, with Marvin Lewis by his side. This does not change the fact that Dalton has only until the end of this season to prove, at the very least, that he can exorcise the Bad Andy who showed up on Thursday night. History has demonstrated that most QB's prove what they are after 3 full years of play. The remaining minority then proves what they are after 4 full years of play. I'm being generous by giving Dalton the benefit of the doubt, because many believe that Dalton had already proven who he is since last year.
If he is not able to get rid of Bad Andy by the end of this year, then Bad Andy is part of who he is as a QB. If so, then for the next six years we should still continue to root for him and just accept who he is: an inconsistent but still overall serviceable, decent QB who is relatively affordable and is roughly in the 16-25 range among NFL starters.