Five years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals were in turmoil and amidst major changes. Their long-tenured head coach, Marvin Lewis, was no longer under contract, while their "franchise quarterback", Carson Palmer, proclaimed his displeasure with the (lack of) direction of the team. It seemed likely that both longtime figures in the franchise would no longer be on the ledger.
Lewis met with owner Mike Brown in January of 2011 and they discussed the future. It's unclear exactly what topics were mentioned, but both agreed that a new focus was needed after a disappointing 4-12 finish to the 2010 season. If Brown wanted Lewis back, which seemed to be the rumor, the modus operandi would have to have a significant shift. It's this plea that would lead Lewis to sign an extension to remain the club's head coach.
Now, as for Palmer, his trade-me-or-I'll-retire stance really took a stronghold, at least publicly, after Lewis signed the extension. While Brown caved in on some of Lewis' requests in his extension, he wasn't going to adhere to his former Pro Bowl quarterback's demands. Essentially, either Palmer was going to lead the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals, or Brown was content to let him sit at home and pay him for not even suiting up.
Along with the head coach and quarterback quandaries, the Bengals had vacancies at both starting wide receiver spots. Terrell Owens was on a one-year deal, and while productive, the team wanted to get younger. Chad Johnson, the franchise leader in almost every major statistical category, was shipped off to New England in a trade to further change the complexion of the 2011 squad.
Then came the 2011 NFL Draft. Sitting with the No. 4 overall pick, the Bengals had choices, at least initially. It came down to three players: Cam Newton, Von Miller and A.J. Green. With Newton and Miller off of the board, the Bengals went with Green, though he may have been the top player on their board all along. Either way, they had a Pro Bowl player on their roster and a possible Hall of Fame candidate.
It was the No. 35 pick at the top of the second round that provided major debates within the confines of Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals needed a quarterback, be it as a capable backup/insurance policy if Palmer didn't stick to his word, or a guy who could come in and win games immediately if Palmer was out of the lineup.
According to various sources, the choice came down to three prospects: the enigmatic Colin Kaepernick, the rocket-armed, but troubled Ryan Mallett, or the pro-ready, seemingly low-ceiling Andy Dalton. In fairness, at the time, it seemed like a no-lose situation, but they still had to be cautious to not fall back into the dismal era that was the 1990s Cincinnati Bengals.
Speaking of that time period, Brown wanted a big-armed player in the mold of Palmer to re-create some of the success the team experienced in the mid 2000s with the Heisman winner under center. Mallet seemed to fit that mold to a "T", while Kaepernick had the arm and extreme athleticism, but no experience in a pro-like offensive system. Rumors that surfaced after the draft had Brown digging his feet in the sand for Mallett, a guy who had all the physical tools, but questionable work ethic and off-field reputation.
One of the changes Lewis pleaded for with his new extension was a change at offensive coordinator. Brown, ever loyal to people he trusted within the organization, appeared reluctant to part ways with Bob Bratkowski, but he had more trust in Lewis than "Brat", as he was released from his duties shortly after Lewis inked the extension. The unproven, but exciting Jay Gruden took over the reigns.
It was Lewis and Gruden who pounded the table for Dalton, a pro-ready guy with a high floor, but potentially low ceiling as a pro prospect. Perhaps part of it had to do with both coaches wanting someone to win games immediately in a ploy for job security, but they saw something in Dalton over both Mallett and Kaepernick.
Ultimately, the 2010 Rose Bowl MVP and TCU alum was the choice for the Bengals at pick No.35. Many lauded the decision, but others wanted them to take a more physically-gifted signal-caller to lead the squad. Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers would trade up to No. 36 to take Kaepernick and Mallett would go with the 74th pick to the Patriots in the third round.
The plan for the Bengals was to build a solid roster around Dalton, create a system he could thrive in, and give him the highest chance possible to be successful. Taking Green the round earlier to throw to would help, as would a Mike Zimmer defense and a Gruden-created offense that would become the recipe to get the Bengals back on track. The media pundits wouldn't buy it though, as they predicted the Bengals to be the worst team in the league that year, with some even proclaiming they wouldn't win a single game in 2011. Boy were they wrong when the Bengals made it to the playoffs.
Fast forward to 2015. While Dalton has had a large amount of critics during his time in Cincinnati, It's Kaepernick and Mallett who are under major scrutiny--don't tell FOX Sports' Colin Cowherd though. Both are under fire for a variety of reasons--some similar, and some not.
The 49ers' quarterback experienced some very early success, including a Super Bowl appearance in his second season, but has taken a major fall from grace over the past year. His partying and other antics in offseasons haven't helped, but his regression to his college days on the field has San Francisco faithful worried about his future. The 49ers are currently 2-5.
Meanwhile, Mallett's NFL future is cloudy after some of the knocks from his college days are rearing their ugly head once again and now, he's unemployed. After Bill O'Brien brought the big quarterback down to Houston to compete for the Texans' starting gig, his career began to hit the skids--and it was from his own doing.
On HBO's "Hard Knocks", it was well-chronicled that Mallett missed a practice because he slept in due to a faulty alarm clock. The gaffe was especially disheartening to the Houston brain trust because it occurred so shortly after he was deemed the backup to Brian Hoyer--another O'Brien disciple from his days with the Patriots. This season, the Texans flip-flopped between both quarterbacks, eventually settling on Hoyer after Mallett had a sideline meltdown after being benched due to an injury.
The Texans were completely manhandled by the Miami Dolphins last Sunday. It was brought to light prior to the game that Mallett missed the team's flight from Texas to Miami earlier that weekend. What ensued was Mallett's release from the Texans.
It's easy to look at Dalton's outstanding start to the 2015 season, along with his 46 career regular season wins as evidence to the why the Bengals made the correct choice five offseasons ago. However, it's the level-headedness and maturity of Dalton, as well as a well-laid out plan for the future of the team that is to be credited.
Aside from a productive quarterback, the Bengals got a great character to lead their team and a mature enough person to brush off the myriad of critics that have come his way. Dalton is a figure who has led a number of community endeavors in the city of Cincinnati and has continuously used his personal belief system to better efforts in the city of Cincinnati.
It was a plan conceived a half-decade ago and it has brought a lot of success to a franchise continuously starved for it. While Dalton, Lewis and Co. haven't produced a playoff win, the team is a model of regular season consistency. Would Mallett and Kaepernick have had the same success with the Bengals? Kaepernick has had his flashes, but he has also had the supporting cast to prop him up, as many of Dalton's critics have often pointed out. Mallett has five touchdown passes at this point in his career and is currently unemployed because of his own issues, while Dalton has 113 touchdown passes and is leading the Bengals with a 6-0 record this season.
It was a usurping of the Bengals' owner who has spawned 46 wins over the past 70 regular season games that made the Bengals who they are today. Despite the hoards of Dalton critics, it still appears that the right choice was made at a critical point in the Bengals' history.