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Andy Dalton had 21 adjusted interceptions in 2014

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According to Football Outsiders, Andy Dalton should have had 21 interceptions in 2014 instead of just 17, further highlighting a key flaw of Dalton's that must be improved...but there's a reason for optimism.

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Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Football Outsiders released its annual Adjusted Interceptions study. They openly state there is subjectivity, so some skepticism is understandable. Football Outsiders employees are paid to watch game film thoroughly, so they do not have bad intentions. Their standard is applied equally to every single player in the study. Here is the criteria used:

We add in plays where the quarterback only escaped an interception because the defender couldn't hold onto the ball (dropped interceptions, which we've been tracking in game charting since 2007). Starting in 2012, we also included plays where the defender didn't straight-out drop the ball but instead had it knocked out of his hands by an offensive receiver (a "defensed interception"). These are listed as "Drop/Def INT" in the table at the end of this page.

We subtract plays where the interception (or a dropped interception) is tipped to the defender by a receiver who should have caught the pass. These are listed as "Tip INT" and "Tip AND Drop INT" in the table.

We subtract Hail Mary interceptions as well as interceptions thrown in desperation on fourth down in the final 2:00 of a game. These are listed as "HM/End Q4" in the table. We also bent the rules and included an interception thrown by Chicago's Jimmy Clausen against Detroit in Week 16 that came on fourth-and-10 with 2:02 to go in the game and the Bears trailing 20-14.

According to Football Outsiders, Bengals starting QB Andy Dalton should have had 21 interceptions in 2014. This would have given him the third-most INT's, behind Andrew Luck (23) and Jay Cutler (22). Football Outsiders also found he had the second-highest adjusted INT rate (minimum 300 attempts for starting QB's) of 4.4%, only behind Brian Hoyer with 4.5%. Looking at middle-tier QB's, most adjusted INT rates were lower than 3.0%. It's more common to have an increase in INT's after adjustment, as one commenter notes:

Fans love to point out all the tipped INTs that shouldn't count for 'their guy,' but they always forget about the dropped ones that already aren't being counted. The truth is, dropped INTs are a lot more common than tipped passes that become INTs.

So it's no surprise that under the official INT count, Dalton was still ranked third with 17; he had the fifth-highest official INT rate of 3.5%. Looking at middle-tier QB's, most official INT rates were about 2.0%. Dalton's rank was essentially the same, regardless of adjusted INT's or official INT's -- which makes sense, because it's all relative.

In terms of adjusted interceptions, the luckiest quarterbacks in the league included Andrew Luck, Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, Andy Dalton, Eli Manning, Peyton ManningBen RoethlisbergerRussell WilsonMatt Ryan, Derek Carr, Ryan TannehillRyan Fitzpatrick, and Drew Stanton. Stanton was the luckiest QB in the NFL in 2014. Each of these quarterbacks deserved at least four more interceptions. As you can see, there are a lot of QB's who got lucky like Dalton.

The least lucky quarterbacks in the league included Philip Rivers, Teddy Bridgewater, Josh McCown, Mark Sanchez, Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith, Robert Griffin, and Shaun Hill. These quarterbacks were rather unlucky, as their adjusted INT count was the same or lower than their official count. It's no surprise some of these teams (Vikings, Redskins, etc.) had receivers with terrible hands.

Looking back at 20112012, and 2013, this is the fourth straight season in which Dalton deserved more interceptions than what the official box score portrays. Dalton deserved 17 INT's in 2011, 19 in 2012, and 21 in 2013 -- even after subtracting others that were not his fault.

Football Outsiders correctly gave Dalton these two interceptions near the end of the season, which both saw A.J. Green jump in the air and extend to try and grab. It would be incorrect to blame Green for either of these:

Football Outsiders did not adjust for plays where the QB made a good throw but the receiver ran a wrong route. That's because it is highly subjective and hard to consistently judge -- was the route run well or not, did the QB make a sharp throw or not, was that a sharp throw but it was mistimed, was there simply miscommunication by one or both, etc.

There's no way to know with any sort of consistency. So to judge everyone by the same standards and without bias, Football Outsiders left this out of their criteria. A tough decision, but the correct one. Every QB was hurt by this, and those with the worst receiving corps most of all. But Dalton's INT rate has been trending high for four consecutive years regardless of the caliber of Bengals receivers, so there has to be improvement on his end.

Overall, here are some takeaways (pun intended) from this study:

1) Dalton got lucky, and so did many other QB's. As mentioned above, there are plenty of quarterbacks in the league, including big-name ones, who were at least as lucky as Dalton when it came to avoiding interceptions that they deserved.

2) There were plenty of middle-tier quarterbacks whose INT rates, even after an adjusted increase, were still significantly better than his. Among starting QB's with a minimum of 300 attempts, everyone but Brian Hoyer ended up with adjusted rates better than Dalton's anyway. Joe Flacco, Cam NewtonColin Kaepernick, Matt Ryan, Ryan Tannehill, Matt Stafford, Alex Smith (unlucky), Teddy Bridgewater (unlucky), and Derek Carr are all middle-tier quarterbacks whose adjusted rates ranged from 1.3% to 3.1% in 2014, compared to Dalton's 4.4%.

That 1.3% to 3.1% INT difference, between those nine middle-tier QB's and Dalton, constitutes an increase of about 6 to 14 more interceptions during the span of 450 passing attempts in a season. If Dalton improves on INT's to where other middle-tier QB's already are, he'll have somewhere between 6 to 14 fewer interceptions per year.

3) Andrew Luck is not an elite QB yet. Luck lived up to his name in 2014. He should have had 23 interceptions, the most in the NFL. He is the Colts' franchise QB, but not yet an elite one. His adjusted INT rate of 3.7% was lower than Dalton's, but he simply didn't come close to the adjusted INT rates of other quarterbacks who are surely elite, such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Ben Roethlisberger (whose adjusted INT rates, even after an increase, are still remarkably low). Drew Brees, Tony Romo, and Russell Wilson also had good INT rates even when increased.

4) Dalton has been one of the worst QBs in the NFL when it comes to interceptions. Any way you see it, he has been poor: #3 in official count, #3 in adjusted count, #5 in official rate, #2 in adjusted rate. Andrew Luck (3.7%) and Jay Cutler (3.9%) need to improve, but Dalton (4.4%) was even worse than them. He throws too many and too often, giving the ball away to the other team. That not only denies the Bengals a score but also gives the opponent a chance to score. These potential 10-point and 14-point swings make turnovers perhaps the worst type of play in football.

5) Dalton having a bad interception rate doesn't mean he's a poor QB overall. Rather, he's a roughly average QB who must improve on a flaw that is proven as costly. Otherwise, he is durable and has a solid completion percentage, both important traits to have. Thanks to the pay-as-you-go contract, owner Mike Brown would save $5.9 million for 2016 and a total of about $72 million through 2020, by releasing Dalton after the 2015 season. So he needs to improve on INT's, among other things, if he wants to be the Bengals' QB of the future.

6) There is a reason for optimism. Dalton appears to be gifted with a truly loaded offensive supporting cast for 2015. And no matter what happens at QB, this offensive core will remain in place. The best way to reduce Dalton's interceptions is to reduce his passing attempts by focusing on the run.

How does this affect the 2015 season?

Based on their offseason, the Bengals will likely lean on the run in 2015, to try to get the yards and touchdowns without as many interceptions. They drafted two high-round offensive tackles, one of whom will be an intriguing TE, Jake Fisher. They drafted two big blocking TE's, Tyler Kroft and C.J. Uzomah. They repeatedly passed over WR, drafting only one in the 7th round who is small and can be used on Hue Jackson's gadget runs. Their draft strategy was clearly geared more toward the running game.

The Bengals have arguably a top-5 overall running back in Jeremy Hill, and a second top-20 RB in Giovani Bernard, both of whom are entering their prime. The team has arguably a top-2 overall fullback in Ryan Hewitt. They have arguably a top-5 overall offensive line, including perhaps the league's best LT in Andrew Whitworth, one of the best RT in Andre Smith, a top-5 guard tandem in Clint Boling and Kevin Zeitler, and luxurious tackle depth. And there aren't many more talented three-receiver sets than a top-5 overall WR in A.J. Green along with Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert, preventing the defense from stacking the box. Though the pass will be reduced, this balance could help Dalton make safer short throws as well as occasionally take a deep shot.

If healthy, this is a top-5 offensive supporting cast. I challenge anyone to name five better RB duos, five better fullbacks, five better offensive lines, and five better receiving trios. This can hopefully help Dalton finally reduce his INT rate and become efficient.