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Emulating McVay: Getting Andy Dalton back on track like Jared Goff

Andy Dalton’s development is pretty much done, but are his best days behind him? Let’s look at more Rams film to see what Zac Taylor can do for him.

David Kohl, Robert Hanashiro

It wasn’t enough that the Rams were moving to Los Angeles in 2016. No NFL franchise had relocated since 1997 when the Houston Oilers became the Tennessee Oilers for two seasons before becoming the Tennessee Titans in 1999. The Rams also made headlines three months after settling in southern California by trading up 15 spots to the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.

With that pick, Jared Goff became the face of franchise in dire need of a revival. Through one season, it seemed like the Rams made a colossal mistake.

Goff was utterly terrible in his rookie year. He started the final seven games of the season after Case Keenum was benched and Los Angeles went 0-7 behind his five touchdowns, seven interceptions and 2.82 Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Goff was known as an accurate downfield passer with a keen sense of pocket presence in college, but looked like a rattled and inaccurate mess in the Rams’ dysfunctional offense.

Of course we now know that we shouldn’t judge quarterbacks based on how they perform in their first season, and the staleness of Jeff Fisher’s regime as head coach represent the main problem in the organization. The Rams knew this and sought to bring in a young and offensive mind to get the most out of Goff. Sean McVay was hired and the Rams are 26-16 in the his first two seasons, which includes two playoff victories and a Super Bowl appearance.

The Rams are good now primarily because Goff is good. His improvement from his disastrous rookie campaign cannot go overstated and should not be viewed as anything but the catalyst to the franchise’s turnaround. Does it happen without McVay? Highly unlikely. But in a quarterback-driven league, the Rams now have one of the more effective ones. There are still questions surrounding Goff, but the last two years present a pretty solid case.

Goff’s evolution was possible because of when it happened in his career. He was still just 22-years old when McVay took over and, being an unfinished player, his issues were still correctable.

Can we say the same thing about Andy Dalton right now?

Entering his ninth season — and ninth as a starer — Dalton will turn 32 this October. His biggest advocates will point to his fifth season in 2015 as the turning point in his career when he finished second in the entire league in ANY/A and the Bengals’ passing offense was fifth in expected points. Even though the season ended abruptly for Dalton and Cincinnati, that was the peak of his ability, and the hope was that it was sustainable.

It wasn’t. Not with the way the Bengals operate. Dalton hasn’t been able to return to that level of production for a number of reasons that have been explained ad nauseam. In fact, the whole Dalton debate can be described in that sense.

In spite of that, Dalton remains the immediate future of the position in Cincinnati, and the Bengals finally rid themselves of their own Jeff Fisher in Marvin Lewis and replaced him with what they hope is their own Sean McVay in Zac Taylor. If Taylor accomplishes nothing else but manufacturing near-elite production for Dalton, he’ll be viewed as an instant success. So what are the first steps to accomplishing that from a play-calling standpoint?

For part three of our Emulating McVay series, we’re going to look at how Taylor can improve the Bengals’ play action usage and establish it as the base of his offense. If you missed parts one and two, they can be found here:

Last season, the Bengals and Rams each played the Kansas City Chiefs and the New Orleans Saints. All four games happened within five weeks of one another. Neither the Chiefs nor the Saints’ defenses were necessarily good last year, but you wouldn’t be so sure after watching the Bengals and the Rams’ offense against them on separate occasions.

The Bengals lost both games as most of you well know and the Rams went 1-1 with a loss to the Saints. The Rams would later get revenge against the Saints in the NFC Championship, but Goff played much better in the loss than in that game. Dalton, on the other hand, underwhelmed in both performances.

Because play action is such a crucial component of McVay’s offense, I went and looked at Goff’s production in both games and split it between play action and no play action, using Pro Football Focus as a reference.

Goff vs. Dalton Play Action (vs. Chiefs and Saints)

GOFF 20 30 66.67 351 11.7 3 0 13.7
DALTON 9 13 69.23 83 6.38 1 1 4.46

Goff vs. Dalton No Play Action (vs. Chiefs and Saints)

GOFF 39 59 66.1 451 7.64 4 1 8.24
DALTON 18 36 50 218 6.06 1 2 4.61

Without play action, Goff’s production was still amongst the best in the league during those two weeks, but play action still noticeably enhanced his numbers and was arguably the best play action passer when you combine both weeks.

While his completion percentage was considerably higher, play action didn’t exactly have the same effect on Dalton’s production against the same foes. His Adjusted Yards per Attempt actually decreased ever so slightly. What were the differences between the Rams and Bengals’ play action offense? The film can show us:

Yeah, I’d say that backs up the numbers.

The little nuances in the Rams’ pre-snap alignments with their receivers and how well Goff actually sells the play fake makes their play action attack all the more potent. These elements were absent in the tape for the Bengals, but there were signs of hope as well.

Throughout his career, Dalton hasn’t really been asked to make multi-level reads off of play action. If the primary target breaks free down the field, it’s a win. If he doesn’t, it’s either a forced throw into a tight window or it’s the Dalton dance in the pocket that leads to a scramble. Neither are pretty and were far too common when they shouldn’t have been.

This was a specific angle for us to analyze, but I do believe it matters. Goff’s mechanics and feel for the position took a sizable jump under McVay, but the friendliness of the scheme coupled with those improvements took him to a whole new level. It’d be shortsighted of us to assume that Dalton is capable of becoming significantly better than who he is right now, but we’ve seen him thrive under a system that allows him to play to his strengths. Better and functional play action usage will likely play a key part in that.

For all the good that Sean McVay brought to Los Angeles, the NFL seemed to limit his offense towards the later portion of last season, especially after Cooper Kupp got injured. After scoring just three points in the Super Bowl, the Rams are more concerned about the evolution of McVay’s system, while everyone else still wants to imitate the original.

This is important for the Bengals and Zac Taylor. While the base of the offense is inherently unpredictable, defense’s will be more prepared to counter this scheme at its core. How Taylor manages to build his own unique flair into it all will ultimately determine how effective it is in Cincinnati.

This concludes the Emulating McVay series. Happy summer.