Andy Dalton's 2015 season came out of nowhere. When the former TCU quarterback made his way to Cincinnati in the second round of the 2011 Draft, the common consensus was that he was a high floor, low ceiling prospect. And in 2013, after Dalton passed for 4,293 yards, 33 touchdowns and 20 interceptions with 7.3 yards per attempt, most people thought that would be as good as it gets. Dalton had his his perceived ceiling.
The notion was backed up in 2014, when the Bengals quarterback took a step back in terms of passing numbers. Though he posted a career high 64.2 completion percentage, Dalton had a career high interception rate of 3.5. His 19-17 touchdown-to-interception ratio was pretty awful, even considering his offensive line and pass catchers struggled to stay healthy throughout the season.
To me, whether Dalton's 2015 season was an outlier or a continuing progression for the quarterback comes down to its relation to 2014. If Dalton's 2014 season wasn't a major step back from his career year in 2013, his 2015 season is a stepping stone toward his ceiling. If Dalton's 2014 season was a step back, his 2015 year may be an outlier or his ceiling.
So what happened in 2014? First of all, the Bengals lost Marvin Jones and Tyler Eifert to season-ending injuries by the end of Week 1. Jones was Dalton's number two receiver, and Eifert was the number two tight end at the time. Immediately, Dalton was down his second and fifth options in the passing game. Eifert's absence made way for Kevin Brock, a career backup, to play in 14 games. Brock even started two games when Jermaine Gresham got hurt later on in the season.
Here's a table, mapping Dalton's top targets and how many games each player played in 2014. Dalton's top five targets missed a combined 37 games in 2014, when considering A.J. Green was forced to leave two games by the end of the first drive.
Talking about how many games Dalton's pass-catchers missed in 2014 may sound like excuse-making, but it's warranted. Even the great quarterbacks struggle when their top pass-catchers miss time; Aaron Rodgers had his worst statistical season of his past seven years with Jordy Nelson curbed after an ACL injury.
Perhaps even more important that the absence of pass-catchers were injuries to Kevin Zeitler and Andre Smith. The two offensive linemen missed 11 combined games, causing Mike Pollak and Marshall Newhouse to start late in the year. Newhouse was so bad that the Bengals eventually replaced him with Eric Winston, and Pollak wasn't much better. Dalton was under duress, as the right side of his line was barren. It's also worth noting that Dalton was playing behind a rookie center in his first year in Hue Jackson's offense. The lack of continuity, absence of weapons and offensive line struggles all contributed for a subpar season for Dalton.
But even with those three factors aside, I still believe Dalton showed signs of progression in 2014. He posted a career high 64.2 completion percentage before besting that number in 2015. He was evasive in the pocket, posting a career best sack percentage of 4.2 percent despite playing behind a rookie center and an offensive line that took a beating down the stretch. He managed to lead four-fourth quarter comebacks and put together three game-winning drives, bailing out a defense that gave up 21.5 points per game, the worst Bengals scoring defense in Dalton's career. The Bengals defense gave up 32.6 points per game in its five 2014 losses.
To me, Dalton's 2014 season showed signs of progress. Despite a couple of meltdown games, he responded to adversity throughout the season and made the most of limited resources. Four of Dalton's five or six best games in 2014 came in weeks following a loss, and he finally helped his team overcome prime time demons by defeating the Broncos in a classic under the lights of Paul Brown Stadium.
We all know how the story goes; Dalton followed up his 2014 season with a career year in 2015. So to me, the quarterback has shown signs of progress in each of his five seasons to date, and I fully expect him to improve on his progress in 2016 and beyond. Contrary to popular belief, Dalton has not hit his ceiling; he has a ways to go before doing so. Though he may be playing under a new offensive coordinator and developing chemistry with new offensive weapons in 2016, I don't expect Dalton to take a step back. His per-game stats may or may not touch what they were in 2015, but Dalton's increased arm strength and and improved decision-making won't just go away now that a new offensive coordinator is in control. For that reason alone, I find it hard to believe Dalton will regress to who he once was prior to 2015. To me, Dalton's 2015 season wasn't an outlier; it was another step up the ladder on the way to his ceiling--which is higher than people think.