Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton came into the 2017 season ranked in certain categories among the better quarterbacks ever to play the game.
Dalton boasted a career completion percentage of 62.7, which put him 17th on the list of all-time NFL greats, ahead of such Hall of Famers as Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly, Ken Stabler and Dan Marino, and his career passing yards per game of 238.9 put him 18th of that list. Dalton had a career passer rating of 89.1, good for 15th best in league history.
But nine weeks into the 2017 NFL season, it would be hard to find someone speaking positively about Dalton... other than Bengals fans who support their quarterback.
In five of his first eight games this season, Dalton has posted a completion percentage below 60 percent. Four of those games resulted in losses. The only time the Bengals were able to pull out a win in one of those games came last week against the Indianapolis Colts, and it took a near-miraculous interception and subsequent return for a touchdown by Carlos Dunlap to secure a victory.
While Dalton’s overall completion percentage through the first eight games of the season is close to 63.3 percent, thanks to a monster game against the hapless Browns, his average passing yards-per-game is down to just over 200. His average passer rating is down to 78.
The slide began in the season opener, when Dalton turned in one of the worst games of his professional career. In a 20-0 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Dalton completed only 16 of 31 passes (51.7 percent) for 170 yards and four interceptions. His passer rating of 28.4 was second only to the debacle against Cleveland when he completed just 10 of 33 passes (30%) for 86 yards with three interceptions and a passer rating of 2.0.
“We’re going to look at it and see what we can do,” Dalton said after the Ravens’ loss. “We’ll see what started the spiral downward. We have a short week this week, and we have to get ready for Houston. So that will be our focus now. We don’t have time to think about this game. We’ll take from it what we need and move on to the short week.”
Things did not go much better the following Thursday against Houston, when Dalton completed 20 of 35 passes (57.1 percent) for 224 yards and a passer rating of 76.4. Through the first two games of the season, Dalton had completed 54.4 percent of his passes, with an average passer rating of 52.4, and had thrown for exactly zero touchdowns.
“We haven’t won, so the quarterback gets the blame,” Dalton said after the Houston loss dropped the Bengals to 0-2 on the season. “Obviously, last week it wasn’t my best game. I will look at the tape today and see how much more I can do. Like I said, all I am trying to do is play the best I can and we are going to look at what we can do to get there.”
Dalton appeared to be turning things around over the next three games when he posted completion percentages of 77.8 in a loss to the Packers and 83.3 and 61.1 in victories over the Browns and Bills, respectively. Through five games, the Bengals stood at 2-3 with a visit to the hated Pittsburgh Steelers and a chance to get to .500 looming. And Cincinnati had a whole two weeks to figure things out.
“That’s part of what we did when we came in here,” Dalton said of preparation for Steelers week. “We looked at what we’ve done, the positives and the negatives and where we can do better, things we’re doing well. A lot of times during the bye week, it’s a self-scout week and see what you’re doing.”
Whatever positives he may have seen must have stayed on the film room floor. After a hot start in the first half, Dalton came out and laid a stinker in the second half. He finished by completing 17 of 30 passes (56.7 percent) for 140 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, good for a passer rating of 63.2.
“I think we just did not make enough plays,” Dalton said after that loss dropped the Bengals to 2-4 and two full games behind the Steelers. “I have to do a better job of giving them opportunities. I feel like as an offense we just need to make better plays.”
And making better plays is something the offense did not do much of the following week against the Colts. Dalton completed just 25 of 39 passes (58.6 percent) for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but could not do anything when it mattered.
With Cincinnati trailing 23-17 early in the fourth quarter and needing a touchdown to win, the Bengals managed a single first down before two sacks and an incompletion forced a punt. Dunlap’s interception return put the Bengals ahead by a point, and all Cincinnati needed to do was run out the clock.
The Bengals did manage a first down, but three more plays resulted in a loss of four yards and Cincinnati was forced to punt, once again. Fortunately, its defense was up to the challenge. After going 8 for 18 with 150 yards and a touchdown in the first half, Dalton completed 17 of 21 passes in the second half for only 93 yards and a score. On his final two drives, Dalton was 1 for 2 for 10 yards, and was sacked twice.
“They did some things that were a little different than what we had prepared for,” Dalton said of his lack of success against the Colts in the second half. “At that point, you’ve got to adjust. With that, it’s kind of how the game goes. Obviously at the end of the game the defense stepped up and made a big play to help seal it and get the win. Carlos, with the big interception for a touchdown, was huge. It’s not always going to be pretty, but a win’s a win.”
The win against Indianapolis did leave the Bengals and the team’s fans with a glimmer of hope. But with three road games coming up, beginning with Sunday’s trip to the AFC South Division-leading Jaguars, everyone know they would have to be better all the way around to pull out a victory.
“We just need to execute,” Dalton said before the game. “With the different stuff they’re going to do, we need to know what we’re doing and what they’re doing, and then react. We just need to execute and make sure we get our job done.”
With the exception of a 59-yard pass play to Tyler Kroft, it really did not seem like the Bengals had any idea what they were doing Sunday, and the result was a 23-7 thumping that left a sour taste in even the most avid of Bengals fans.
Dalton once again finished with a completion percentage below 60, hitting on 10 of 18 passes (55.6 percent) for 136 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions. After a first half that saw him complete just 5 of 7 passes for 93 yards and a passer rating of 113.7, Dalton completed just 5 of 11 passes in the second half for 43 yards.
“I mean we wanted to come out at halftime and put a drive together, and get points,” Dalton said after this latest defeat. “We weren’t able to keep moving the ball, and at the end of the day we ended up playing their game. They kept drives alive. They were in a lot of third and short situations, they kept converting. I mean, you look at the play totals, and they had way more than we did.
“Obviously we’re not executing at the level that we want to. We need to play better, and it starts with the mentality of knowing that you’re going to play better, and telling yourself, and trusting the guy next to you. That’s all we can say right now, is we’ve got to put our head down and work. We’ve got the Titans this week, and so we’ve got to get a win then.”
If it sounds like a broken record, it is. With the exception of the Browns’ game, none of the victories have been impressive. And, with the exception of the Packers’ game, most of the losses haven’t even been close. And I am including the Houston loss in that scenario, because the only reason that game was close was because of a solid effort by the Bengals’ defense.
Somewhere along the line, Dalton seems to have lost that confidence that made him one of the best at his position during the first six years of his NFL career. He no longer seems to be able to hit the deep ball, which had been one of his strengths, and he missed on two more attempts on Sunday.
And the man who has posted 15 fourth-quarter comebacks, has not truly had one since the first game of the 2016 season, unless you count the Bills game, where Joe Mixon scored the go-ahead touchdown five seconds into the fourth quarter.
On the bright side, Dalton still seems optimistic that he can help the Bengals turn this season around. And we can all use some optimism right now, can’t we?
“I think that you need to play with confidence. If you’re not playing with confidence, and you don’t trust yourself, the nobody’s going to trust you,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to prove to everybody that you’re playing with confidence, and playing hard out there. So if everybody takes a look in the mirror, and sees what they’re doing, and they feel like they have to do more, then we have to do that.”