The Bengals have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. Recently, they were mentioned as the NFL's seventh most talented team, among other talented rosters like the Kansas City Chiefs, Arizona Cardinals, and Minnesota Vikings. It's a fact that quarterback Andy Dalton knows very well, having the good fortune to work with so many talented offensive weapons. As a quarterback, there's a lot to appreciate about that setup.
However, it seems as though Dalton's individual success almost exactly mirrors the Bengals' success as a team. Yes, it is important to remember the contributions of the defense, special teams, and all of the other individual performances on offense. But, a quick look at Dalton's quarterback rating on this graph from sportingcharts.com, compared to the team's success in those years, shows just how integral his individual performances have been to the overall team's success. (Head over to sportingcharts.com to interact with the graph and see how Dalton compares to other QBs.)
In 2011, Dalton finished with a quarterback rating of 80.4 and the team posted a record of 9-7. After the fact, they snuck into the playoffs with the AFC's No. 6 seed. In 2012, he somewhat improved to a quarterback rating of 87.4 as the team improved to a final record of 10-6. Once again, they grabbed the AFC's No. 6 seed. In 2013, Dalton had the second best quarterback rating of his career (88.8), while the team posted their second best record of his career (11-5) and won the AFC North.
Dalton took a bit of a step back in 2014 with a quarterback rating of 83.5 which was mirrored by the team taking a bit of a step back with a 10-5-1 record and securing the AFC's No. 5 seed. Most recently, Dalton absolutely exploded in 2015, posting a quarterback rating of 106.2 and leading the team to a record of 10-2 before injuring his thumb, ending his season. AJ McCarron played well in his absence, but the team finished 2-2 for a 12-4 record. Still, it was enough for the Bengals to finish with the second division title of the Dalton era, just barely missing out on the all-important first round playoff bye.
It's probably a stretch to say that Dalton is primarily responsible for the team's success, but the numbers seem to suggest, at the very least, that the team's overall success mirrors Dalton's individual success. That is probably why he was ranked as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 player in the NFL who will be looking to replicate his career-best season from 2015, in 2016.
1. Andy Dalton, QB, Bengals
Prior to 2015, Andy Dalton's best NFL season was 2013, which was decidedly average. He threw 34 touchdowns with 22 interceptions, ranked 23rd in accuracy percentage under pressure, and 13th in QB rating when having less than 2.5 seconds time to throw. Overall he received our 16th-highest QB grade.
Keeping in mind that 2013 was by far the best year of his career before last season (he ranked 25th overall in 2011, 24th in 2012, and 21st in 2014), it should come as no surprise that his contract extension signed in August of 2014 was largely team-friendly. With criticism mounting on the eve of the 2015 season, Dalton finally took his game to the next level.
While he was knocked out of action nine plays into Cincinnati's Week-14 matchup with Pittsburgh due to a right thumb injury that ended his season, Dalton's improvement in virtually every major category was staggering. He threw 25 touchdowns to just seven interceptions, ranked sixth in the league in accuracy percentage (up almost 12 percentage points from his 2013 total of 56.7, to 68.5), and owned the highest QB rating in the NFL when faced with less than 2.5 seconds to throw in the pocket.
How will that translate this year? Losing receivers Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu to free agency in exchange for Brandon LaFell is likely a downgrade, and TE Tyler Eifert's injury situation is certainly a concern, but with last year's offensive line essentially back (with the exception of 64th-ranked tackle Andre Smith), as well as one of the top receivers in the league in A.J. Green, Dalton will have a shot at duplicating last year's success. Obviously the Bengals need to start translating regular season success into postseason wins, but Dalton at the very least quieted his doubters with his 2015 campaign.
Repeating the success of his 2015 campaign would allow Dalton to gain even more respect as the great quarterback that he's proven can be. Had it not been for his injury, he likely would have received accolades that he missed out on such as his third Pro Bowl appearance or inclusion on lists like Pro Football Focus' top 101 players of 2015. Dalton was among the players who "just missed" the top 101 players of 2015 list. Had he finished the season without an injury, who knows what would have happened, but hopefully, in 2016 Dalton will continue to improve and push himself to new heights that require inclusion in such a list next year.
Furthermore, if he had stayed healthy all year, the quarterback rating pattern seems to suggest that the Bengals could have finished even better than they did. Based on the aforementioned quarterback rating pattern, it would follow that the Bengals could have ended up winning the AFC Championship if Dalton continued playing all season.
If Dalton can continue the level of influence and improvement we saw in 2015, imagine what that means for this season and going forward after that. Provided Dalton can keep up with the standard he set last year, it could not only help to finally secure that elusive playoff win, but potentially lead to the Bengals going on a deep playoff run.