Competitive, but not victorious. That’s the story of the Bengals—who are now 0-7 in one-score games—under first-year head coach Zac Taylor.
A month ago, Taylor thought it best to insert Ryan Finley at quarterback to turn some close losses into some wins for a change. Eight weeks of bad football from Andy Dalton made the decision seem logical at the time, but Finley’s putrid performances forced Taylor to pull the plug on that experiment after just three weeks.
Taylor, the braintrust of the organization, or a combination of both, were quickly rewarded for switching back to Dalton. The return of the ninth-year veteran under center provided a spark against the seemingly-lifeless Jets in a 22-6 victory, the first of the season and of Taylor’s head coaching career.
But when isolating how Dalton played comparatively to his peers from that week, his individual performance was rightfully deemed as replacements-level for an average quarterback. He played well enough to win, and that was that.
He did not play well enough to win on Sunday, continuing an obvious season-long theme.
The perceived obstacles that Dalton—and Finley for that matter—have been forced to overcome have been the running game, the offensive line, and the defense not being up to snuff. How did those three units play?
- Joe Mixon spearheaded a rushing attack that ran for 179 yards, 168 of them came from non-Andy Dalton ball-carriers.
- In Cordy Glenn’s second game of the season, the offensive line allowed a pressure rate of 36.5% on Dalton’s 41 drop backs. The average pressure rate for starting quarterbacks this year is 35.1%.
- Lou Anarumo’s ascending defense forced two turnovers (and it could’ve easily been four!), allowed just 20 points, and limited the Browns’ offense to a success rate of just 40%, which is 3% lower than Cleveland’s seasonal average and 9% lower than their own defensive average.
If Dalton’s play was deemed good enough last week, then everything around Dalton this week can be classified similarly. Yet when looking at the per-play metrics, Dalton underperformed and played worse than a struggling Baker Mayfield.
In the weeks before Dalton was benched, red zone inefficiency seemed to be the most annoying issue the offense was dealing with. The offense would struggle to even sniff that part of the field for long portions of games, and when they finally got there, it usually ended in a field goal.
Sunday was no different. In five trips inside the Browns’ 20-yard line, a Joe Mixon rushing touchdown and three Randy Bullock field goals were all the offense could muster under Dalton’s command. The two controversial failures involved a dropped interception at the goal-line and a foiled quarterback draw that resulted in a turnover on downs.
Both play calls were questionable at best, but the latter was apparently all on Dalton, who opted for the draw play at the line of scrimmage.
Zac Taylor said Andy Dalton checked into a QB draw on the fourth-and-2 that was stopped. Said it was the look they wanted against a 5-man box. "Should have walked in."— Santa Baby (@Ben_Baby) December 8, 2019
Inside and outside the red zone, third down was also a persistent problem. On their first nine third-down attempts, they converted just one. On their second attempt, Dalton threw an errant ball over and behind Auden Tate’s outstretched hands and watched Denzel Ward pick it off and run it back 61-yards for the game’s first touchdown. While the Bengals finished 3-for-12 on third down, the Browns finished 7-for-12.
The referees got more involved against the Cincinnati’s fortune than they had all season. Their 99 penalty yards were the most Taylor’s squad had been docked all season and the confirmed defensive pass interference that was called and unconfirmed offensive pass interference that wasn’t called ultimately sealed the game in Cleveland’s favor. But a better game from Dalton and the passing game would’ve made those calls forgettable.
That’s the formality that goes over the heads of most fans and observers. If the team with the worse quarterback suffers bad luck in areas that don’t involve the quarterback, it doesn’t excuse the quarterback for his bad play. Teams who get consistently good quarterback play put themselves in positions to overcome uncontrollable variables such as flags and reviews. That’s the difference between being 0-7 in close games and, say, 4-3.
The Browns certainly didn’t win this game comfortably and the loss they handed the Bengals should be a reminder of how imperative it is for Cincinnati to not half-ass the quarterback position this offseason.
No logical scenario exists with Dalton as the starter next season. An argument existed a while back that Dalton could take the beatings behind a bad offensive line and with a limited receiving corps while the rookie was preserved on the bench. But this team is starting to look good enough to actually come out on top of these close games; and Dalton, like he’s done for most of his career, is holding them back. Even as the best quarterback on this roster, he’s undeniably holding them back.
Maybe it was Joe Burrow’s SEC Championship win that has made these sentiments feel stronger. What Burrow has done at LSU over his last 17 games with the program is nothing short of extraordinary and, quite honestly, the timing of everything just feels right.
|22||2018||2018-11-24||Louisiana State||@||Texas A&M||L||25||38||65.8||270||3||0||151.5||29||100||3.4||3|
|23||2018||2019-01-01||Louisiana State||N||Central Florida*||W||21||34||61.8||394||4||1||192.0||9||24||2.7||0|
|24||2019||2019-08-31||Louisiana State||Georgia Southern||W||23||27||85.2||278||5||0||232.8||1||2||2.0||0|
|26||2019||2019-09-14||Louisiana State||Northwestern State||W||21||24||87.5||373||2||1||237.2||7||30||4.3||1|
|28||2019||2019-10-05||Louisiana State||Utah State||W||27||38||71.1||344||5||1||185.3||10||42||4.2||1|
|30||2019||2019-10-19||Louisiana State||@||Mississippi State||W||25||32||78.1||327||4||0||205.2||4||-11||-2.8||0|
|35||2019||2019-11-30||Louisiana State||Texas A&M||W||23||32||71.9||352||3||0||195.2||6||9||1.5||0|
This loss does keep the Bengals at the top of the NFL Draft order. Coincidentally, as long as Burrow doesn’t completely fall apart in the College Football Playoff, he’ll be the favorite to go first-overall, regardless of the team that’s drafting there. If there’s ever been a perfect marriage of fates in the draft, this would surely qualify as one, right?
Dalton’s uninspiring performance against the Browns was nothing the Bengals haven’t seen before, and it only makes the argument to go in an entirely new direction this spring all the more valid. Luckily, they won’t have to do anything creative in order to do so. They just have to say yes to the future standing right in front of them.