The Cincinnati Bengals were once again bounced out of the playoffs in the opening round of the playoffs, cementing a familiar sour feeling among the fanbase. Meanwhile, one of the newer franchises in the NFL, the Carolina Panthers, is making its second Super Bowl appearance in 13 years as they're set to face off against the Denver Broncos.
As is often said, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and the Panthers are currently embracing a stud signal-caller in Cam Newton, who has led his team to the precipice of the promised land with what seems like an MVP performance this year. Newton has his critics, mostly for his after-the-whistler celebrations, but there is little doubt as to how far he has carried his team this season.
Another quarterback who flirted with the MVP nod this season was Bengals quarterback, Andy Dalton. Had he finished the year healthy, Dalton likely would have finished within the top three or four MVP candidates after a great campaign in which he drastically cut back on turnovers and improved in nearly every aspect of the game. There are plenty of "what ifs" being thrown around by Bengals fans after Dalton sat out the Wild Card game against the Steelers, but his stats speak for themself as Cincinnati tied a franchise record with 12 regular season wins.
There is little doubt that Newton is the next rising star in the NFL, especially with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady heading toward the end of their respective careers, but the former No. 1 overall pick hasn't been immune to criticism either. Whether it was due to hiding his face under a towel on the sidelines, a slew of turnovers or his on-field touchdown celebrations, Newton has been a hot topic of late. (Some of that has to do with two weeks of TV airtime and newspaper pages to fill between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl.)
Not unrelated, Dalton has been a lightning rod for criticism himself. Going into this season, between his 0-4 playoff record, penchant for head-scratching plays in primetime and the overall ability (or lack thereof) to carry the Bengals on his shoulders, Dalton seems to have been labeled as a pretty good quarterback propped up by a great roster.
Some of these criticisms changed in 2015 for both Dalton and Newton due to their performances this season. Both had breakout seasons five years after they were drafted and, interestingly enough, have had similar career arcs. For those wondering if Dalton's 2015 campaign was a flash-in-the-pan type of deal, look at his performances compared to Newton's.
Side note: what an incredible draft class the 2011 crop is turning out to be. In the first 11 picks, there have been nine perennial Pro Bowlers, including Newton and Cincinnati wideout, A.J. Green. Von Miller, Marcell Dareus, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt are in those early picks as well. Mel Kiper even did a 2011 re-draft today and both Green and Dalton ranked in the top 10 of his draft do-over.
Regardless, we're going to look at the recent performances of Newton and Dalton to show that both appear to be on the uptick in their respective careers (stats via ESPN.com).
Now, one of the main arguments against Dalton has always been the talent of the offensive cast around him. Sure, Dalton has had Green, Tyler Eifert, Marvin Jones and a slew of others to distribute the ball to, but Newton has had help as well. Both have good defenses to lean on, with Carolina's likely more reliable than Cincinnati's, but with Dalton, the common conception is that he has more explosive offensive weapons than Newton.
One argument to refute the sentiment is that Newton's receiving options, while seemingly limited, work well with his ad lib style. Perhaps the perceived limitations of Ted Ginn Jr., Corey Brown, Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess aren't as big as they seem because they can get open while Newton navigates the pocket. Whatever the case, there are decent rises and falls in significant categories for Newton, as we saw from Dalton this year.
Ironically, the major areas in which Dalton needed to improve upon for the Bengals to take that next step were noted. A dramatic decrease in turnovers, uptick in average yards per pass, rating and completion percentage are all noticeable in Dalton's 2015 campaign. Though Dalton has a change in offensive coordinators coming, the pendulum swinging upward seems to point to perceived optimism going forward. The big thing to note is the statistical passing outputs by both quarterbacks in both 2014 and 2015.
Impatience in today's NFL runs rampant. Whether it's a new head coach or a quarterback, three years usually sets the threshold as to when to move on from a significant franchise figure. Obviously, Dalton and Newton have shown their respective franchises enough in their first five years to quell fears.
There is no doubt Newton is a more as a multi-dimensional player with his legs, but Dalton is no schlub there either. Still, the passing numbers can't be denied--especially five years in, which is an eternity, by NFL standards. Newton and Dalton aren't similar players, but they might have the same progression arc, in terms of professional development.
We're not proclaiming Dalton will be "dabbing" the Bengals to Super Bowl 51 next year, but with the right coaching staff, complementary talent and continued improvement, things look bright for Cincinnati in the foreseeable future.