In the NFL, you rarely ever see a franchise fortunate enough to go from one franchise quarterback to another without major setbacks in between.
Fortunately for the Bengals, everything aligned perfectly for this to happen in 2011. After nearly a decade of Carson Palmer breaking many franchise passing records, the embattled quarterback suddenly retired, leaving the Bengals in a major state of uncertainty.
But that debacle turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it led to the Bengals selecting TCU quarterback Andy Dalton in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
While it’s not always been pretty with a lot of hiccups in the process, Dalton has slowly grown from merely a game manager to now being a franchise quarterback.
ESPN’s Mike Sando came to the conclusion that Dalton is good, but not elite in his poll of coaches and evaluators around the NFL regarding 33 NFL quarterbacks. Sando asked them to place each player into one of five tiers, with Tier 1 reserved for the very best and Tier 5 reserved for the very worst:
While Dalton came in as Sando’s 15th-best quarterback, he still cracked the Tier 2 of quarterbacks, which is classified as a player who “Can carry team sometimes but not as consistently.”
The way Dalton played gave some hope that he was becoming more than the prototypical third-tier QB.
"You can argue the fact that he had a plethora of talent around him and he did," a pro personnel director said. "But you see the way the team played with him at the helm, and then you see how it fell off dramatically when they put another guy in there to manage it. He has grown, he knows his limitations and he plays within those and doesn't hurt your team. That is the maturation of a quarterback who knows what he needs to do to make his team successful."
The Bengals lost two of their better wide receivers in free agency. They have a new offensive coordinator in Ken Zampese after Hue Jackson left for Cleveland. Can Dalton continue his ascent?
"He played better than I thought he was capable of playing," an offensive coordinator said. "I am still not convinced that he is a solid 2, but it would be kind of hard to argue that."
While Dalton lacks the kind of arm strength that many elite passers posses, his accuracy and quick-strike passes make him a very hard player to stop.
Accuracy was the subject of a piece done by ESPN’s Scott Kacsmar, which ranks the NFL’s 10 most accurate passers. Coming in at No. 6 was none other than Dalton.
C%+: 5.5 percent
It's a shame Dalton injured his thumb against Pittsburgh in Week 14, because the Bengals were competing for a No. 1 seed and Dalton was having by far his best season yet, finishing second in passing DVOA (31.7 percent). Dalton's C%+ was always positive in 2012-14, but he more than doubled his typical season last year at 5.5 percent. His average pass also traveled a career-high 9.0 yards. Dalton still has the tendency to make his receivers catch a high pass, but last year should be viewed as a big step forward.
Kacsmar’s accuracy formula is part of Football Outsiders’ DVOA system. His passing plus-minus estimates how many passes a quarterback completed compared to what an average quarterback would have completed, given the location of those passes.
That’s why Dalton at +5.5 percent is much better than such a small number indicates. Most quarterbacks in Dalton’s shoes last year would have completed around 60-percent of their passes, whereas Dalton completed 66.1 percent.
And while that margin may not be enough to be considered elite, it sure was the difference between the Bengals being 10-2 and possibly as low as 8-6. That 5.5 percent is the difference in about 20 passes over Dalton’s 386 passing attempts from last year.
Considering one pass made the difference in four games Dalton played in (at Steelers, at Ravens, vs Seahawks, vs Chargers), that small margin of improvement was critical in those close wins last season.
A game of inches as they say.
Despite not playing in the final month of the 2015 season, Dalton still threw for 25 touchdowns and 3,250 yards vs just seven interceptions, good for a career-high 106.3 passer rating. He also rushed for three scores and helped lead the Bengals to a 10-2 start, atop the AFC standings before going down with a thumb injury.
Dalton set career highs in QB Rating (106.3), yards per attempt (8.42), completion percent (66.1%), and a TD to INT ratio of 3.57:1, more than twice his previous best (1.69:1 in 2012). He had the NFL's eighth-best completion percentage, second-best yards-per-attempt average, second-highest passer rating and fifth-best QBR.
Even though a thumb injury would end his season in Week 14, Dalton still ended 2015 with more respect and national praise than he’s received in his career. That’s continued into the offseason and continues as we approach the 2016 regular season.