NFL history demonstrates that nearly all starting quarterbacks prove who they really are by the conclusion of three full or mostly-full starting seasons, even before the beginning of their fourth starting season. A few exceptions exist. For example, Ben Roethlisberger took about four to prove himself as top-tier, after he had to begin his career in the middle of the season when Steelers incumbent QB Tommy Maddox went down. Another exception is Alex Smith, whose fourth mostly-full starting season didn't happen until 2011 due to injury, as well as various hampering circumstances set by 49ers management. That year, he finally had the opportunity to prove himself as consistently middle-tier.
QB's with these circumstances can be given another year, and maybe a fourth year can be given to anyone to be on the safe side. But there is no use holding out for false hope beyond that, for someone to be a top-tier QB. People would be kidding themselves otherwise, and four years is already a stretch considering three is the general rule. Cincy Jungle's Scott Bantel, who is one of the biggest good-faith Dalton defenders on the CJ staff, has already made the case that Dalton is not a top-tier QB and never will be. However, having a top-tier QB is not entirely necessary to win a Super Bowl, so it is totally fine to hold out hope for an eventual Super Bowl victory even with a non-top-tier QB (as Scott would certainly agree).
Proving oneself as a starter means the level of individual production, and also level of consistency (top-tier, bottom-tier, middle-tier, or a tier of perpetual inconsistency). For example, Tom Brady proved himself his first year. Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers proved themselves by year two. Drew Brees and Philip Rivers proved themselves by year three. By then, they each had achieved across-the-board top-tier individual production in a full season, relative to their fellow starting peers in each of the same NFL environments at the time. "Across-the-board" refers to the four standard categories of production: passer rating, completion percentage, TD to INT ratio, and yards per attempt. To be top-tier, one has to be at least top-10 in all four.
The clincher for that being the "proof" season for each of them, was that it set the tone for a fairly steady number of equally successful or even better seasons afterward. In each of the above mentioned first "proof" seasons, Brady won SB MVP and finished sixth in the NFL in passer rating, Peyton finished fourth, Rodgers fourth, Brees third, Big Ben second, and Rivers first. They all stayed top-tier after that, perhaps slightly improving within the tier, but they had already clearly proven themselves as top-tier by year three or earlier. Middle-tier would be 10-20, and bottom-tier would be 20-30. Regardless of tier, the "proof" year almost always comes by year 3.
Otto Graham, Roger Staubach, Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, and Kurt Warner by year one. Sammy Baugh, Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Steve Young, John Elway, and Dan Marino by year two. And Y.A. Tittle, Dan Fouts, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, and Brett Favre by year three. These are some of the many top-tier QB historical examples for this rule.
By the same rule yet in an opposite manner, Joey Harrington, Ryan Leaf, David Klingler, and Jack Thompson by year one, and Akili Smith and JaMarcus Russell by year two, are prominent examples of those who proved themselves with across-the-board dreadful production in a full season, which only continued and soon led to the end of their NFL career. They are all below even the bottom-tier of starting QB's.
This rule definitely applies to the NFL today. Nearly all QB's today prove themselves by year 3, including many by year one or two. At or before the end of their third full starting season, their yearly production either reaches the top-tier, or it essentially plateaus into another tier. In either case, their tier remains the same for the rest of their career. Going through the list, I found this applies to nearly every single current starting QB who has already started full-time for at least four seasons. The only exceptions are Big Ben, Smith, Palmer, and Stafford.
For the QB's not there yet, the rule also seems to inevitably apply. Cam Newton and Dalton are nearly done with their fourth seasons, and it's looking like they will not be exceptions to the rule. Players like Andrew Luck (fourth in passer rating in year three) are in line to qualify for the top-tier. Players like Geno Smith (last in passer rating in both years one and two) are well on their way to being even below the bottom-tier. These guys are all on track to follow the rule.
Beyond Big Ben and Alex Smith's unusual circumstances which deserve a fourth year, there are two other exceptions. Carson Palmer had a top-tier year two, but had a career-changing injury and then fell from the top-tier. He wasn't able to remain top-tier after what Kimo von Oelhoffen did. The final exception is Matthew Stafford, who had a fluky top-tier year two, and then also fell from the top-tier. Both were top-tier for a year but ended up proving themselves as about middle-tier. But among starters in the league today, there is no example of someone who was below the top-tier for three or more full starting seasons in the league, and then suddenly improved and then proved themselves as top-tier. It just doesn't realistically happen.
Andy Dalton is 12 games into his fourth full starting season. He is undoubtedly here to stay for a long time, through 2020. For those who want to include him in the small minority that doesn't prove themselves by the conclusion of three full starting seasons, here are the objective results so far. Counting stats aren't as meaningful as rate stats, especially in 2014 with Hill and Gio pounding the rock and reducing Dalton's number of pass attempts. So I'm using rate stats:
|Category (rate-only)||Dalton's ranking in the NFL in 2014|
|Interception rate||2nd-highest, behind only Blake Bortles|
|First down rate||26th-highest|
|Adjusted yards per attempt||26th-highest|
|Raw yards per attempt||21st-highest|
And from his offensive supporting cast:
|Category||Ranking in the NFL in 2014|
|Yards-after-catch rate||Bengals receivers are ranked 7th-highest|
|Number of sacks allowed||The Bengals offensive line has given up the 2nd-lowest, ahead of only Denver|
These are pure facts. I was generous to Dalton because I excluded all unqualifying quarterbacks, including those ranked ahead of Dalton. A handful of those players have already started for a while this season and could be considered by others as qualifying, yet I excluded them anyway for Dalton’s benefit. If I had included them, then for a few of the categories above, Dalton would fall into the 30’s.
But I still believe that the Bengals can win a Super Bowl with him at the helm, even while being aware of the above production.
Some believe that Dalton is a bottom-tier QB (though still starting-caliber). Their opinion is summarized by the above chart, which empirically places him as a bottom-tier starting QB among his peers, with across-the-board production in the 20-30 range. I get where this is coming from, but it's based only on 2014 production without looking at larger trends.
Some believe that Dalton is a top-tier QB. He has quarterbacked a team to the playoffs 3/3 seasons and is on the way to 4/4. Dalton deserves plenty of credit for this, a worthy feat relative to the rest of the league. But beyond that, there's nothing else. Comparisons have been made to backups Jason Campbell and A.J. McCarron, and to busts from the past like Akili, Klinger, and Thompson. Yes, Dalton is great in context of the depth chart or the Bengals QB history. But I view this as a useless strawman comparison, propping up those backups/busts next to Dalton even though they are far worse, and then predictably knocking them down. It's more meaningful to compare the individual production of Dalton to his fellow starting QB's around the league, such as in the above chart, but over multiple seasons. And it is a fact that in his career, Dalton has not put up top-tier production over a full season in any of the four standard categories. Overall, this argument is based only on his three straight playoff berths.
In his first three full starting seasons, Dalton had moderately better overall production in each than in 2014. For example, in 2013, his TD/INT ratio of 34 to 22 was ranked 18th. His yards/attempt of 7.26 was 13th. His passer rating of 87.0 was 17th. His completion percentage of 61.5 was 16th. Overall, he was closer to 16th if you value his 2013 more; and closer to 20th if you value his 2011 and 2012 more. But he was objectively somewhere in that 16-20 range, which I have mentioned before.
That's seemingly better than 2014, in which he is in the 20's overall. So has he regressed? Well, a four-year trend has still obviously continued this year with Dalton: that he is either Dr. Andy Jekyll or Mr. Andy Hyde.
We saw Jekyll from Opening Day 2014 until mid-October, when Andy was very accurate and efficient and mostly free of turnovers. I'd even suggest that two of his three INT's during that period were not really his fault (vs. the Titans, and then the first one vs. the Panthers). Like Dr. Jekyll in at least one adaptation, Andy was a brilliant, skillful surgeon of a quarterback during that stretch. Since then, Hyde has been the main presence, with Jekyll making a short-lived appearance in New Orleans. Soon, Hyde will go away and Jekyll will return, perhaps in early December just like last year.
I think this strong 4-year trend overrules the fact that his overall production is down this year compared to past years. In year four he's still the same Jekyll-and-Hyde guy like in year three and also years one and two, which makes complete sense because NFL history shows that nearly all QB's prove who they really are by year three. Therefore, I believe he is the same QB and has not regressed. I suppose he has "statistically regressed" in 2014 production, but based on the Jekyll-and-Hyde career trend and on the historical proof, he's still the same guy in the tier of perpetual inconsistency.
Alex Smith is mostly average and actually plays like it in most games. Meanwhile, even though Dalton's overall four-year production is mostly about average relative to the league, he has hardly played like it game-by-game. He has either hot streaks or cold streaks, some of which are short-lived and some which last for a while.
What Dalton has to do for the Bengals to have a realistic chance at a Super Bowl win is get on one of his patented hot streaks during this January, if not December as well. There are four extended periods during his career that Dalton has been red-hot: September 2012, November 2012, October 2013, and September to mid-October 2014. Other hot streaks have come in shorter periods. The playoffs last a month, so he would need to have one of his extended streaks.
At some point between now and 2020, the cards might fall into the right place for a Super Bowl run. The supporting cast includes an improved run game and a defense that can easily improve on poor results from past playoffs, but it will still come down to Dalton and whether or not he can get hot. It's not something I'd personally bet on, but I think a real possibility exists. And regardless, I think it's likely that eventually, Dalton will end the Bengals' current 23-season-long, and counting, playoff victory drought.
Two quarterbacks who provide evidence of this are Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. As with nearly everyone else in history, they followed the rule. By the end of their third full starting season, they had proven who they really are: QB's with a perpetual up-and-down, streaky level of play resulting in overall mid-level production in context to the rest of the league in 2007 and 2010, respectively. It's eerily similar to Dalton relative to the league in 2013. Objectively, none of them are top-tier QB's and it's not close. To qualify, one is required to put up top-10 production in all four standard categories in the same season, and then do so over multiple seasons. None of them have ever come close to doing so in their careers, so they are all only in the tier of perpetual inconsistency.
But in two seasons for Eli and one season for Flacco, the cards fell into the right place. They each got on one of their extended hot streaks during the playoffs in January, and their teams ended up with Super Bowl victories. They are still not top-tier QB's, but at that point, who cares? Eli and Flacco are evidence that teams don't need a top-tier QB to win the Super Bowl, just a QB who has a history of catching lightning in a bottle and can do so at the opportune time.
(Author's note: I don't intend to regularly write a comprehensive Dalton article, but after his Tampa performance I wanted to write this to show why I think the Bengals have a realistic chance to eventually win it all with him, while being realistic about him individually as a quarterback.)