You've probably heard, once or twice, that Andy Dalton's numbers through his first few years in the NFL are comparable with the likes of Peyton Manning and Dan Marino. Specifically, he's thrown nearly as many touchdowns as both Manning and Marino and less interceptions than Manning through his first three years. Dalton is now approaching his fifth year in the NFL, and his touchdown stats are still comparable to those of Manning and Marino.
At the end of the 2014 NFL season, Dalton's touchdown total was at 99. That's only 12 less than Manning through his first four years, and also puts Dalton in prime positioning to finish his fifth year with the third most TD passes through his first five years (128).
Don't expect Dalton to catch up with Marino's 168 touchdown passes through the first five years. And, it would be highly unlikely, although not unthinkable, for Dalton to catch up with Manning's 138 touchdown passes through the first five years. Regardless, throwing the third most touchdowns through a player's first five seasons in NFL history, behind only Marino and Manning, would be an incredible accomplishment for Dalton to stick in his cap.
There's been plenty of talk lately about what the Bengals' plans are if Dalton cannot prove himself as the best man to lead the Bengals to the promised land. But, throwing the third most touchdown passes through his first five years would be an excellent way to show that he is not primarily responsible for the Bengals' exciting yet frustrating run since he took over under center. No one wants to see their team consistently fail on the biggest stage, but maybe someone should ask Dolphins and Colts fans how they felt about their respective Hall of Fame quarterbacks during their first few seasons in the league.
However, the biggest question still remains: can he do it? Does Dalton truly have what it takes to throw 29 touchdown passes over the course of the 2015 season and put himself in such prestigious company? He's done it before. During the 2013 season, he threw 33 touchdowns over the course of the season, although that number dropped significantly to 19 in 2014. Let's also not forget he threw 27 touchdown passes in 2012. That's not quite the threshold he needs to reach this season, but it's close enough that him finishing in that range once again is conceivable.
Hue Jackson's Offense
It would be great for Dalton, the rest of the team, and Bengals fans at large if Dalton managed to keep himself within spitting distance of Marino and Manning's touchdown prowess. Some might argue it would be a cop-out for the Bengals to avoid finding a more consistent quarterback than Dalton to lead the team, but no one could legitimately make the argument that Dalton simply doesn't have the talent to get the job done.
Unfortunately for Dalton and anyone else hoping to see him reach this milestone, Dalton's biggest obstacle to reach 29 touchdown passes is a pair of running backs who could easily dominate the offensive scheme this season. After drafting Jeremy Hill in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft and hiring Jackson to take run the offense for the departed Jay Gruden, Dalton's attempts over the season dropped to less than 500 for the first time in his NFL career. As a result, his touchdowns also dropped from 33 in 2013 to 19 in 2014.
Hill and Giovani Bernard worked as such an excellent RB tandem last season that it would be hard to see the Bengals giving Dalton the opportunities he needs to throw 29 or more touchdown passes during the 2015 season.
However, it is also worth noting that the injury bug bit Dalton's receiving targets hard last season. With A.J. Green, Marvin Jones, and Tyler Eifert missing significant portions of the 2014 season, there were simply less viable targets for Dalton to throw the ball to. Mohamed Sanu provided a fine security blanket during parts of the season, but it wasn't enough to make up for the losses.
Every team has to deal with injuries over the course of a season, but the Bengals appear to have loaded up Dalton's arsenal in the 2015 offseason. Jones's health has been questionable throughout the offseason, but all signs point to him starting day 1 as well as Green and Eifert being healthy for the start of the season, too. Furthermore, the Bengals signed Tyler Kroft, CJ Uzomah, Mario Alford, and Denarius Moore to try to give Dalton some extra help. Dalton should not be hurting for options to throw the ball to in 2015. Although, the offense is still unlikely to be optimized to Dalton throwing a large number of TDs.
Can Dalton throw 29 touchdown passes by the end of the season? Absolutely. Will he? Probably not. It would be great for the stability of the team going forward if he could reach this impressive milestone, but the focus of the offense probably won't allow it to happen. Hopefully, he will improve on the 19 touchdowns and 17 interceptions he threw last season, but 29+ touchdowns this season simply seem to be asking too much of the offense.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, either. From where we're standing, it looks like Hill is the Bengals' meal ticket. One would hope Jackson recognizes this and bases the offense around the running game, yet again. The offensive line should be much improved this season, and the passing game should be effective enough to compliment the running game well.
If the Bengals are truly focused on finally breaking their 24-year long playoff drought, they shouldn't worry about records and quarterback milestones. Instead, they should focus on riding a running game that is showing some serious potential.